12 October 2020

Working with Community-based Organisations

Author/Compiled by
Sally Almannaie (BORDA)
Mohammad Talafha (BORDA)

Executive Summary

According to the UNHCR Innovation Service (2020), community-based organizations (CBO) typically operate within (and thus with direct access to) the local community and are led by persons who are themselves members of the community. Working with CBOs can generate the following added values and advantages for your project:

  • Working with smaller, community-based organizations allows you to develop larger outreach efforts with fewer resources. By funding smaller organizations and thereby decreasing instances of effort duplication between CBOs and larger international organizations, the latter can reduce management costs and allow local organizations to take charge in the solution-creating process. Since smaller organizations are typically located within the physical space of the community they are serving, they can reach a wider audience with less effort.
  • CBO members often live within the respective community, which affords advantages that international organizations lack. Thus, CBO members speak the language(s) of the community and are intimately aware of its issues, idiosyncrasies, norms, and practices. They understand local structures and power dynamics and can accurately assess the existing capacities of the community.
  • Because of their familiarity with the community, CBOs are better equipped to communicate appropriately via already existing networks. These networks are extremely valuable and can either be enhanced or act as doorways for additional networks to be put in place.
  • Because of the lived experiences of its members and their familiarity with the demands of the local environment, CBOs are often made up of innovators who are willing to try out new, effective ideas. They are also more inclined to adopt the experimenting mentality of trial and error.

According to Contra Costa Health Services (2002) and the Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center (OVC TTAC), the major steps of working with CBOs are as follows:

Step 1: Identify potential partners.

Step 2: Build trust by considering the CBO’s perceptions of the project.

Step 3: Understand the incentives for the CBO to participate in the project.

Step 4: Define the role of the CBO.

Step 5: Jointly identify concerns set priorities and plan for action.

Step 6: Create and carry out your action plan.

Step 7: Evaluate the impact.


See our practical experiences, lessons learned and recommendations below.

Why you should care

Factsheet Block Body

Establishing value-based partnerships with CBOs can benefit overall project performance and link the project closely to the local community.

What really matters: Lessons learned & recommendations

Factsheet Block Body

Choose CBOs wisely and determine the scope of their engagement based on project work packages

The choice of which CBO you want to cooperate with strongly depends on the kind of work you want to get done. For example, if you want to work on microfinance projects and revolving loans, it makes sense to work with cooperative CBOs that are interested in reaching targeted groups of beneficiaries to generate revenue. However, if you want to work on awareness raising and outreach, it would be advisable to work with charity CBOs, as they have a wider reach within the community.

It is very important to clarify the CBO’s mandate in an agreement before you actually start working with them. Otherwise they might go beyond their mandate and misrepresent the project, which could backfire on you.

The social aspects associated with wastewater management are an essential component of the ISSRAR project and strongly affect overall project success. Therefore, throughout the entire project term, engaging with community actors such as CBOs is critical to ensure equal outreach to all members of the local community. In the beginning, the ISSRAR team needed to understand the interests and strengths of all CBOs to be able to match their future roles and responsibilities with project work packages and activities.

Mitigate the risk of choosing unqualified CBOs

Selecting unsuitable or unqualified CBOs can have drastic consequences for the efficiency and overall sustainability of the project. To properly assess the capacities of applicant CBOs, the ISSRAR team developed a standardized application form that covered the following areas:

  • General information (e.g. focal point of contact, vision, mission and objectives, legal registration, committee, members, etc.)
  • Communication with local community (e.g. community profile, targeted groups, services, needs, partners, challenges, etc.)
  • Capacity (e.g. previous trainings and workshops, training needs, procurement procedures, financial system, Standard Operating Procedure – SOPs – in place, etc.)
  • Financial capacity (e.g. budgets, assets, building, revenues, funding, expenses, etc.)
  • Previous projects (e.g. field, amount of fund, duration, revolving loans, etc.)
  • Commitment (e.g. all information and data in this application are correct)
  • Attachments (previous years budgets, external auditing reports, members record, bank record, projects award letters)

By checking this information we were able to select the right CBOs to cooperate with.

Create CBOs’ project ownership

The ISSRAR project used local CBOs as a communication channel to the community. However, despite facilitating outreach activities for awareness raising sessions, the CBOs didn’t have a sense of project ownership, and their motivation for defending or representing the project in front of their community suffered as a result. This was due to project’s technical complexity and political sensitivity. In retrospect, it would have made sense to employ a member of the local community as a project representative. This would have helped to endorse the project in the CBO’s daily activities and create more consistent communication with the community.

Formal communication under governmental entities mitigates the risk of choosing unqualified CBOs

In vulnerable communities that are widely targeted by international donors and organizations, many CBOs with different capacities and mandates may be available. Using the governmental entities (i.e. Social Development Unit) to map and select CBOs is a recommended practice to ensure secure and transparent cooperation. These entities are familiar with the CBO’s history and profile in the targeted areas and can evaluate their financial and administrative status. The ISSRAR team successfully mitigated the risk of choosing unqualified CBOs by engaging governmental entities in the screening process to verify the applications we received.

Check and validate information to effectively select qualified CBOs

Although legal verification of CBO applications by governmental entities provides you with reliable information, the project team must also conduct a field verification of applicant CBOs. During the validation process for ISSRAR, some applicant CBOs were found not to have offices, while others were only family-based. These unqualified CBOs were consequently excluded from the selection process.

Inform all CBOs about your selection

Working with selected CBOs means you are necessarily sidelining other local CBOs. Be aware that this may create conflicts.

Based on the community engagement activities planned for ISSRAR, two CBOs were selected out of nine total applicants. Regrettably, we failed to inform all CBOs about our selection, which created unexpected opposition at later stages. Ideally, we should have organized a meeting with all applicant CBOs and explained the selection process as well as the objectives and roles of the selected CBOs. Cooperation strategies with other CBOs outside ongoing project activities could have also been developed and explored at such a meeting.

Manage the selected CBO’s expectations

Many CBO members see NGOs as donors who can provide funds. Therefore, they may ask for irrelevant or personal services outside the scope of the project, especially if they know that you need them to perform important tasks. Therefore, it is vital to formulate clear objectives and communicate transparently with CBOs in order to manage their expectations. We strongly recommend not to promise any services outside of the project’s action plan and activities. The ISSRAR team managed the CBO’s expectations by defining their roles and responsibilities in signed agreements, thereby maintaining transparent communication on a professional level.

When relying on CBOs for community engagement, be aware of potential dependencies of information

Keep in mind that some CBOs are biased and do not represent all interest groups and stakeholders of the local community. Key decision-makers in the community may not be connected to CBOs because they view them only as charities for disadvantaged people. In the course of the ISSRAR project, invitations for awareness sessions were distributed exclusively through CBOs, which were not taken seriously by some important members of the community. To ensure the engagement of a broad range of stakeholders and community members, it is extremely important to identify and use a range of different communication strategies and channels. In the ISSRAR project, we used door-to-door meetings and targeted focus group discussions (among other approaches) to involve persons who fell outside of the purview of the CBOs.


Factsheet Block Body
  • Did you properly define the desired scope of service that a CBO should contribute to your project?
  • To mitigate the risk of choosing unsuitable or unqualified CBOs, have you developed criteria to assess the capacities of applicant organisations?
  • Do the terms of your partnership with the CBOs create a sense of project ownership for the organisations and motivate them to go the extra mile in promoting your project?
  • Did you consider formal communication under governmental entities to mitigate the risk of choosing unqualified CBOs?
  • Did you perform a field check and validate information provided by applicant CBOs to ensure it is accurate and effectively select the most qualified CBOs?
  • Did you inform all applicant CBOs about your final selection and the rationale behind it?
  • Are you managing CBOs expectations right from the beginning?
  • When relying on CBOs for community engagement, are you aware of potential dependencies of information?
Library References

Community-Based Partnerships

This webpage provides tips for task forces on how to establish partnerships with community-based organizations.

The Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center Community-Based Partnerships. URL [Accessed: 28.05.2020]

At the heart of the community

This article makes available UNHCR’s experiences from the point of view of large humanitarian organisation concerning inherent advantages to, challenges faced in and how to practically approach working with CBOs in general.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Innovation Service (2020): At the heart of the community. How to work with community-based organizations. URL [Accessed: 28.05.2020]

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