Helping NGOs to Collaborate, Share, and Innovate in Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago is a Caribbean nation of contrasts. A thriving oil industry and recent investments in natural gas production ensure that the twin island nation doesn’t depend on sun, sand, and sea tourism to maintain its status as a developed nation. Yet, despite great wealth, significant poverty exists, with recent reports revealing that more than 20 percent of the population is living below the poverty line.

As a result, a dynamic NGO sector has developed to help meet the needs of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens. Organizations are typically staffed by volunteers, with limited training opportunities for staff. Also, NGOs in this relatively small country often work on the same issues unaware of each other’s existence. Finally, rather than active collaboration, there is age-old competition within the nonprofit sector in Trinidad and Tobago, as NGOs often pursue the same funding opportunities.

Enter the JB Fernandes Memorial Trust, a local philanthropic organization administered by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. In 2010, the Trust partnered with IIE to conduct a feasibility study on Trinidad & Tobago’s NGO sector and explore how the Trust could support the sector. Research findings concluded that, while many local nonprofit organizations are well-developed and thriving, the sector lacks appropriate national visibility and needs more training, professional development, and networking opportunities for NGOs.

IIE’s Research and Evaluations department suggested the Trust fund two projects to address these issues in the sector: a local NGO conference and an annual award to recognize outstanding nonprofit organizations in Trinidad and Tobago.

Leveraging the results from the feasibility study, IIE designed an educational conference that would achieve four goals:

  • Bring together the NGO sector to share best practices and discuss challenges;
  • Provide a large-scale professional development opportunity for practitioners; 
  • Engage key sector stakeholders in collaboration; and
  • Raise the national visibility of the sector.

The two-day T&T NGO Professionals Conference is held biennially with a one-day seminar hosted in the off years. Conference and seminar sessions are organized into smaller tracks to allow for more interactive in-depth learning, while local trainers and facilitators are heavily utilized with many drawn from successful local NGOs. These speakers are able to share their organizational experiences and best practices in capacity building, fundraising, communications, transparency, and accountability and other areas of nonprofit management.

In 2012, IIE’s Global Learning Programs division organized the first T&T NGO Professionals Conference and administered the annual JB Fernandes Award for NGO Excellence in Trinidad & Tobago. Over 100 NGO representatives attended the 2012 and 2014 conferences, while the2013 one-day seminar hosted 35 NGO professionals providing more personal hands-on learning and networking opportunities.

Four years after the original feasibility study, T&T NGO Professionals events are bearing fruit. Evaluations from the May 2014 conference revealed that NGO attendees want additional networking opportunities and more advanced learning opportunities. Many organizations also are reporting that they would like to be mentored by other local NGOs.

So how was this spirit of collaboration developed, and how did the sector begin to see themselves as a group with one voice?

Over the coming weeks I will write about the work IIE did to foster collaboration between organizations in Trinidad and Tobago’s nonprofit sector, including the role of social media, unique networking activities, and ongoing learning opportunities.