The Customer is Always Right

Applying Business Lessons to Humanitarianism

Nat Willis, ParticipAid Founder

In business we are always told that our true investors are our customers, right? 

I’m here to pose the question, why do we not look to those in need of rebuilding following a natural disaster the same way?  Why don’t we ask the survivors themselves what they require to rebuild their lives and communities?  The event, the flood, the earthquake, the famine, the hurricane: this affects not one person nor one family, but entire populations.  The task of rebuilding a post-disaster region is complex to say the least.  The continuing struggle of Haiti and New Orleans to rebuild challenges us to approach disaster recovery from a different angle.  At ParticipAid, we challenge ourselves to respectfully engage survivors as true partners in our work, and this has profound implications for our organization, our beneficiaries, and our donors.


What this means for ParticipAid:

What does it look like for ParticipAid to live the values of participatory development organization-wide, and not confine them to the programs we implement in the field?  We’ve shaped our organizational structure to be fully accountable to the survivors we serve.  This accountability echoes through the way we engage affected communities, conduct and evaluate our programs, and source our organizational funding.

For a number of reasons, this is a daunting proposition.  By shifting organizational accountability to survivors of various natural disasters around the globe, we are accepting that ParticipAid must remain adaptive.  We must embrace and address  inefficiencies or inadequacies that come to light, and we cannot be afraid to engage all of our stakeholders with this simple but very powerful concept at the forefront.  If we are to facilitate meaningful change in affected communities focused on self-determined, long-term, equitable and sustainable development, we must be bold and remain true to our belief that our partner communities have the right to self-determination. By working with them to claim this right,  we can all achieve vastly improved outcomes.


What this means for survivors:

By engaging survivors in a true and meaningful way in the assessment, prioritization and execution of their development goals, we send the message that they are respected, trusted, and that their vision for their future is the objective.  ParticipAid partners with disaster-affected community-based organizations.  As partners, our combined values and insights are better suited to the task than either would be alone. 

The organizational skills and management tools we teach remain with the community.  These building blocks help to create autonomous and independent communities, an asset far greater than any single project. Our programs instill values of local initiative, community cohesion, resilience and resourcefulness that can alter the life course of surviving communities.

What this means for donors:

We are building highly motivated, confident, skilled partners in communities that desperately need them. While no one argues the importance of this, the outcomes evolve over time and are less tangible.  For example, we cannot measure empowerment and leadership in the same concrete way we can measure access to clean water and sanitation.  By focusing on a rights-based framework, we are transforming the mindset of stakeholders to respect communities’ self-determination.  This respect fundamentally changes the relationship between donors and survivors from “helping” them based on external criteria to one of learning from engaged partners in development.  This represents a much more powerful connection, and one that is mutually beneficial. 

As ParticipAid continues its work and we identify and grow new programs, we remain committed to building and nurturing our partnerships because that is the future.  As programs are implemented and become ingrained in affected communities, these local partners become an incredibly valuable resource to the objectives of ParticipAid.  These partners will be at the forefront of expanding programs, awareness and leadership training to neighboring communities, and as such it is our responsibility to never lose sight of our true customer.