Episode 52: Build Trusting Relationships With Core Donors To Get The Job Done Right With Greg Hodgin from Peacebuilding Solutions

RTNP 52 | Donor Relationships


Are you cultivating trust with your core stakeholders?

On this week’s episode we talk to Greg Hodgin, Founder and Executive Director of Peacebuilding Solutions.

Peacebuilding Solutions builds success from a platform rooted in solid research. Their teams embed in areas affected by war and crisis, and spend time learning and understanding—not assuming—their stakeholders’ needs.

Their proactive model has led to them helping to build more sustainable solutions to the real-world problems their beneficiaries face. Their research-focused approach has helped their organization learn how to really hone their story and build a strong sense of trust with their donors and volunteers.

Here’s one of the biggest takeaways from this episode: instead of focusing on casting a wide net to build a large donor base, focus on building strong relationships with people who are intrinsically aligned with your organization and trust you to complete your mission.

Greg and I also discussed how nonprofits should focus on cash donations. We talked about how to focus the donation narrative around trusting that the organization can use money effectively to get the job done.

This was a great episode and a great way to learn how to build that donor base.





Donate CASH to the charities you care about. Find one you trust and invest cash in their mission. Let them figure out the best way to use that donation to its fullest effect. Build trust, develop relationships, and do your research.

Listen to the podcast here:

Build Trusting Relationships With Core Donors To Get The Job Done Right With Greg Hodgin From Peacebuilding Solutions

My guest in this episode is Greg Hodgin. He is the Founder and Executive Director of Peacebuilding Solutions. That is a great organization that starts with research, and what they do is they go into these areas and find out what the people need as opposed to going in with assumptions about what they need, so they develop solutions based upon real-world research.

One of the things that we talked about was how important it is, as a nonprofit, to hone your story, understand it, and build relationships with the core people who wants to help. As opposed to trying to spread a huge wide net, try and come back in and focus on those people that are really aligned with what you are doing.

He also mentioned that nonprofits should go after cash as much as possible and donors should wrap their arms around the idea that they invest in nonprofits, trust and give them the cash, and need to get their mission accomplished. This is a fun episode. I hope you have a great time with it. I always enjoy talking with Greg. Here we go.

Greg, how are you?  

I am doing very well. Thank you. I appreciate coming on with you.

I’m excited to have you on the show. We last spoke back in November of 2020, so it is going to be really fun to catch up and hear what is going on with you and your team at Peacebuilding Solutions.  

I’m excited to tell you what is going on, so ask what you want. Fire away. Let’s rock and roll.

Tell our audience a little bit about what you do over there at Peacebuilding Solutions and how you guys are changing the way people engage with nonprofits and nonprofits engage with their stakeholders.  

That is a big part of what we do, but we are doing it with the international humanitarian aid system. One of the big issues that we have when we go into the field is that we see a lot of people who go out with the best of intentions. Your heart is in the right place, but you are not doing the best thing for the people that you are trying to help. We are probably going to dive into that later on, but what we do in Peacebuilding Solutions is that we reverse this paradigm and we go in first and ask people what their needs are, specifically forcibly displaced people. We are only working with people who have been forcibly displaced by either war, natural disasters, or things like that, and we ask them what they want.

People go, “People do that all the time.” Yes and no. They might say, “We are going to hand out X, Y, and Z. How many do you want?” That is not asking people what they want. That is more of saying, “This is what we have. Here is what we are going to give you.” What we do instead is we send a research team out into the field for several weeks to discuss with them what their needs are, and we are not just sending random people out there either. We are sending anthropologists, economists, political scientists, and public health people so that each of them can get a different perspective on their needs.

You should have the best intentions. Your heart should be in place and you should be doing the best thing for the people that you’re trying to help.

You might send them out there on the first day they tell you they need X, Y, and Z. After a week, they go, “We did not know that we could trust you, so now we are going to tell you what is needed and what is really going on.” People question that and go, “Why wouldn’t they tell you what they needed?” The answer is you do not know what these people have been through, what they have gone through, what they have seen or not seen, or whatever else of that nature.

For all you know, you are the fifth nonprofit or charity to walk up to them saying, “We are going to do something,” and then they do not do anything or, “We want to help you with X, Y, and Z,” and they build a well instead of a school or a school instead of a clinic, or they bring nurses instead of dentists. There is a massive mismatch.

We go out in the field, ask them what they want, and then we go back and raise money. We usually come back with cash. We try our best not to bring anything from the United States. We try not to bring any materials. We try to buy everything locally if we can. Part of going out in the field is figuring out what they want and finding local vendors who we can buy from and talking to the local government about what permits we need if we want to open a school and how we buy land.

We then hand all of it over to them. We have them do what they want to do. We will hire them and pay them fair wages that they negotiate themselves. The only thing we ask is that we build one shelter for us that we can stay there full-time. That way, the research is always continuing. That is the basic part of it. We are working on publishing research papers and we are turning in another research paper in the next two months or so in a peer-review journal.

The idea is to show, “This works,” then we go to the United Nations. I sent a team to the Commission on the Status of Women. We are sending people to UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and we are going to pound them and say, “This works better than what you are doing right now. Not only does it work better, but it is also cheaper than what you are doing.”

People go, “Why don’t people do it this way?” You and I had this conversation. People get locked into something for so long they can’t break themselves out of it. You need to do large, shocking allied data to show that this is the way to go. We know it is going to take a long time, but that is what we are doing. Now, we have got 53 people. Most of them are not even Americans. There is a part in our bylaws that flat out says that we try to prioritize hiring people who have been refugees or internally displaced persons. When they do come in, they better tell us what we are doing right and wrong than people who have been in the system themselves.

We work with the UN as well. We have volunteers pulling from all over the world. The only country we are missing now is Australia. We have got some everywhere else. The only unfortunate thing is that because we have a virtual office, which is fine, but that means everyone at least has to have a decent working knowledge of English, and that does lock people out, but I can’t do much more than that right now.

As we get bigger, we hope to begin having language hubs where we can have a Spanish, French, Arabic section, or things of that nature. I rambled for a bit. I apologize, but that is what we are doing and that is where we are going. We are waiting on a large donation to come in so we can head down to Haiti, finish up our first project, and expand to other places.

It is interesting to me how people with the best intentions leap to making assumptions and leaping to conclusions about what is needed instead of having conversations with those in need. This is something you talked about in your TED Talk, the idea of bringing cash to the table as opposed to goods.

A couple of things that I think are great there is cash is infinitely malleable in terms of how it gets used, but it also creates the opportunity to put money back into that economy and get the economy running as opposed to bringing goods into the country. This is one of the examples that you used in your TED Talk. You have a shoe store that you can go buy shoes from, so let’s go put some money into the economy and buy the shoes as opposed to bringing shoes in.  

RTNP 52 | Donor Relationships
Donor Relationships: We go out in the field, we ask them what they want. And then we go back, we raise money. We usually come back with cash.


That is the scary thing about it. There are so many times that people are like, “Let’s do a shoe drive,” and I’m like, “Why? 1) No one wants your old shoes. 2) Let’s think about how much time and energy it is going to take to collect all that stuff, dump it into a shipping container, then I have to ship it. That is going to cost fuel and everything else. When I then get there, I got to pay the customs fees or the excise fees. Then, I got to transport that to wherever it was going. That is ridiculous, but it is amazing how we think, “We will send this somewhere else.”

It usually ends up in a bin on fire. A US dollar in Haiti or in other places is going to stretch a lot more than it does here in the United States. A lot of stuff that we’re buying here will have some added cost as well. Even better, and this is the thing a lot of nonprofits think about as well, labor costs are far cheaper. There’s the added incentive of like, “I’m paying someone to go over there,” but then I got to pay for the security, their food, and everything else.

I’m going to pay this guy a livable daily wage in their country, which, again, some people are like, “$15 an hour.” I’m like, “$15 an hour is not going to work in that country because then you have doctors and lawyers quitting their jobs to take that job.” That is part of why you bring on academics as well. You combine their academic knowledge with their field experience because then, you get to have people say, “If you do X, think about the unintended consequences of Y, and this is what is going on.”

A great example that I love bringing up is the fact that one of the things that my team did when we first went down there was to talk to women alone without men around. As a guy, of course, I don’t think like that. A woman was talking to a female translator, and of course, lo and behold, there was different data and knowledge there.

They were all in the same boat. The men were saying, “We need X, Y, and Z,” and the women were saying this and that. They were not trying to oppose each other. It was complimentary, but the men did not think about shoes for the kids or school care. That is women’s work, but it was still necessary and still something that we could do.

Without talking to them, we would have only gotten part of the data. I always love to tell people that just because someone walks up to you and says that they are a leader does not mean that they are the leader. If someone walks up to you and speaks English and says that they are a leader, it does not mean they are. The one formally in charge is not the leader of the village. They are not the one who has the title.

Everyone who is reading this has probably been in an organization at some point. There is a CEO and someone who runs things, and they are not the same person. If you do not know the culture and if you do not know how that works, you can’t say which one is which, and that is where the research comes in because you might be there for a week, and then you realize, “It is old granny weather wax-up top there who is doing this,” and it is not the person I’m talking to instead. This is the one who adjudicates disputes. This is the one who knows who is married to who and whose kids are what.

You are right. I have seen so many occasions where these unintended consequences happen and are like, “We are going to come in and do X, Y, and Z,” but they screw things up worse. I then come or my team comes in and they will look at me going, “Are you like these guys?” The burden of proof is on us, and a lot of charities do this kind of work and think that because they have the money and the resources.

They do not have to earn anything and they should be grateful. They can’t be choosers. They are still people and they have been through stuff that you and I could not even possibly imagine, and yet, we walk in and going, “We know what you need.” No, we don’t. Why would you possibly say something like that? Why would you think that you know better than anybody else?

I’m hoping that this paradigm can catch on because I know that it happens more locally, but internationally, they are still stuck in the ‘70s and ‘80s of live aid where they are like, “We are going to go and raise money, data, and all that stuff.” That paradigm has got to go. It is starting to shift, but we need to push it faster.

You are not the first person I have spoken with on the show here who has had this idea that the people in place and experiencing some of these challenges and probably have experienced some of these challenges before might have a pretty good idea of what might work best. I was speaking with a couple of gentlemen from an organization called Students Shoulder-to-Shoulder.

When people get locked into something for so long, they can’t break themselves out of it.

They play students in and among these communities to work with these people side-by-side. They are teaching each other how to navigate a lot of different experiences and they are getting some great results. Instead of going in with this we know how to fix everything mentality, they are going in with, “We want to help you fix it and we want to help you take this to the direction that it needs to go.” It is cool to hear this trend starting to catch hold.

The biggest issue is a lot of nonprofits want to do this stuff. There are a lot more people like us who are saying, “Let’s do this.” There are a lot of nonprofits still doing the bad stuff or the not optimal stuff. Don’t get me wrong. The issue is not the nonprofits. It is the donors. In fact, in a lot of my dissertation that I did some time ago, I discuss why donors do what they do. The answer is because donors want a quick, easy solution. They want to give their money and feel good they did something.

For example, the charity is called Blankets for Poor Children. What do you think they do? I’m pretty sure they get blankets for poor children. That is why they got the title there. If I give my money to Blankets For Poor Children, I know they are going to give blankets to children. Do the poor children need blankets? I do not care, but what I did was I knew that these poor children were going to get blankets. The problem is if these poor children are in Equatorial Guinea, they do not need a blanket. They need a lot of other stuff, but if I give X, the charity will do Y paradigm. A lot of single-concept charities are designed this way.

If I give a water charity money, they are going to go and get people water. It is pretty simple. The problem is, what if they do not need water? The charity is not designed to do anything else, and even worse, the charity has no incentive to do research. Why would I if I was only building water wells? Whether I’m building one or not, it does not matter where I’m doing it.

If I got enough money to build 1,000 wells and I told my donors I’m building 1,000 wells, does that incentivize me to build them in the right place? Does it incentivize me to drop them where I can? You already know the answer to that. Part of what we are trying to do is to re-educate donors, and I’m not just talking about the people who give you $5 a month, but also the larger donors like governments and international organizations.

I have seen it in the field. I spent three months in Haiti researching water wells and water systems built after the earthquake in Leogane, which is where the epicenter was. It was all water charities. Seventy-five percent of the water wells that were built by charities broke six months after they left. My question was, why does it go to donors? The donors were like, “We want you to build 1,000 wells.” When I went to go talk to the people in question, I did not talk to the charities. I talked to people for whom they built the wells, which most people don’t.

I was like, “You built the wells. Everyone is happy.” They are not. They are pissed. I was like, “Why are you angry? What is wrong?” They are like, “When they came in, they said they are going to build a well. They did not ask us if we wanted a well. They would bring in foreign workers to dig the well. They did not teach us how to fix it and they did not give us any spare parts. They just built it, took a picture, and left.”

The ones who did they did talk to then said, “We want to build you a well,” and the village or the people would say, “We do not need a well. We need a clinic, a school, vaccination, and X, Y, or Z.” Then they are like, “We only do water. That is all we do, so we can’t do anything else.” The people would be like, “Can you give the money for the well to somebody else?” The charities would be like, “That is illegal,” which is for them to do that, they are going to build this well.

Of course, by that point, you are going to have broken wells because most of the wells that were built, no one cared about them and there was no need for them. It became a massive amount of waste because no one puts in the time and the energy to do this. Even worse, so much of that money was spent in the United States to bring in the Western experts, the equipment, and everything else.

They did not hire local people to dig a well. With all these things together, the donor gets what they want. The donor gets to say, “I gave money, and now poor people in Haiti have water.” The problem is, people in Haiti were like, “I do not need water, so I do not care.” The wells broke. Did they ever come back? No. They did their job, and that is the issue.

RTNP 52 | Donor Relationships
Donor Relationships: If you don’t know the culture, and if you don’t know how that works, you can’t really say which one’s which right, then you cannot be a great leader.


These one-offs and donors especially want to go, “I’m doing something good.” Is that the best long-term impact of your money? Is that the best way to spend your cash? You can get them water all day. There is a saying that if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man how to fish, he lives for a lifetime. He doesn’t if he doesn’t have a fishing pole or lives inland and there is no ocean. Let’s match up skillsets, expertise, knowledge, and most importantly, the resources with what the community has and what they want.

If you can fish and you are next to the ocean, that is cool. We will give you that. Do you want to do that or do you want to move into something else? There are plenty of ways to go around doing this, but a lot of nonprofits have to get that easy money of, “If they write me a check, I will build 1,000 wells. I don’t care if they need the wells or not.” The system is designed to screw over the very people you are trying to help. That is what I have always found so frustrating, and that is why I do what I do now.

It sounds like it almost needs to come from the donor mentality shift. This is not the first time this has come up on the show, either. I spoke with a woman who runs a charity that collects or gets gifts for kids during the holidays who normally are not able to do that. One of the things that she talked about was how much farther a $10 donation goes than a $10 gift, but donors really love to go to their local store and pick out a gift, whether that is a ball or a toy, and bring it to a collection center and give that gift.

There is this tangible, tactile thing that goes on in our brains. She had agreements and partnerships with those same stores that she could go in and buy things at wholesale, so she could stretch a $10 donation to buy two $10 gifts or whatever the ratio was. Certainly, she could get more bang out of that monetary donation than the physical item donation, but the shift needs to happen. Have you done any research on how to get people to frame that for their donors?  

Yes, but they are not going to like what I have to say. Part of the research I have done from a political science standpoint is how do you change international norms and donors, especially this is an international norm. Why do people give? Why do people do these things? They want the feel-good fuzzy.

To go back to your example with toys, one of the things that your friend could do would be, “Here is a list of stuff that they want. Buy that and give that to me, and we will update that.” You can do that, but let’s be honest. If there is one thing every charity wants more than anything else is always going to be cash.

The problem is that a lot of people go, “If I give them cash, they might spend it on salaries, food for themselves, or other selfish things.” Not all charities are here to steal from you. I understand that a lot of charities have done some bad things. I know that a lot of charities are milking people out of money, but so do businesses. We do need to spend money on overhead.

I want to fix the international humanitarian aid system and save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. They are like, “Why do not you get a job while you are doing your job? I do not want to pay for you. I want my money to go to those people.” I can’t do my job unless I have overhead. They are like, “Why would you want to get paid $90,000? What have you done?” I have been doing this for years and I got a PhD. They are like, “Can you do it on 30%?” How ridiculous is that? When you go to the Apple store and you buy an iPad or an iPhone, you don’t say, “I only want you to spend 2% on overhead.” They will laugh you out of the store.

The Issue is trust. You have to find donors who trust you. It is much easier to build a small set of stable donors who trust you to do the job right than to find a bunch of donors who do not. People do not want to hear that. They want to hear, “I want people to give me a ton of money.” You are not going to do that. Each one of them is going to be a personal relationship. Honestly, one of the things I’m looking at is what I call the Sugar Daddy approach, which is to find someone who has got a lot of money, earn their trust, show them what you are doing works correctly, and work with that.

Let’s be honest. There are a lot of foundations out there who would want to give you money, but they make you jump through so many hoops because they want to make sure the money has been spent effectively. We need to talk to them and say, “Going through all this crap is a mess. That is one of the reasons why we are doing the research papers, why we are trying to present research publications, and why we keep going to the UN,” because when you talk to the United Nations, it gets published.

You have to be grateful. Beggars can’t be choosers.

It goes on webcasts. They can pressure not only the member states like Germany, the EU, and the US. Those governments are starting to change their donor guidelines. Private donors and foundations look at this too and go, “The UN is doing X, Y, and Z. Why are we doing this?” There is a concept in political science called Constructivism. It is an international nation’s concept which is norms matter.

Our world is based on specific norms. A good example is slavery. Now, slavery is completely horrible. What changed? The norm or the idea that has been embedded in our international system has changed. Many years ago, colonialism and imperialism were great. In 1915 or the 1920s, we were still doing colonialism and imperialism was everywhere. Now it is like, “That’s bad. We need to decolonize our minds and the marketplace.” What changed? The answer is this norm, over time, evolved and it changes something else.

People ask, “How do you change it?” Think about seismology. From a political science standpoint, we know that this country X is going to go through crap soon. We know what is going to happen and where the fault lines are. We do not know exactly when it will happen, but we can give you odds, and once it does happen, we will tell you what the reverberations of that are.

When we talk about the Arab Spring, no one knew that some random guy setting himself on fire in the streets of Tunisia was going to light up everything, but once that thing happened, it was clear to see how the dominoes were going to fall and we could see where it was going. It is the same concept with these norms.

The problem is, you do not know when the norm becomes internalized and this is where it becomes a huge pain in the butt for everybody. You’ve got to keep pushing. You are pushing up a hill over and over again. It is very much like Sisyphus. The boulder keeps falling down, but then you get a donor who believes in what you are doing. You are like, “Okay,” and then other ones believe in it.

You then do the thing and then more people see what you’re doing and they buy into it as well. That’s how you get the critical masses you need to get the norm to go over the hill. We don’t know when it is going to be, and that is why I’m doing this right now. I talk to as many people as I can and present this as often as possible because this is not a 30-second concept.

A lot of people are like, “Give me a 30-second elevator speech.” If you want the 30-second elevator speech, I do not want your money because I can’t do this in 30 seconds. I’m trying to fix a much larger problem than just refugees. I’m trying to fix a huge system. That is why I do stuff like this, because the more you talk about it, the more that you have the conversation, and the more you show the data that says, “Doesn’t this make more sense?”

Let’s be honest. How many random people that you know, rich or otherwise, you talk to them and they go, “I didn’t know that charities ran like that. I didn’t know that’s what happened with donors. I did not know X, Y, and Z.” They don’t know this stuff, so we have to have these conversations. We have to keep breaking this stuff down over and over again.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have given this speech. In case you have not noticed, it sounds polished. I swear to God, ladies and gentlemen, and everybody reading this, there are no notes in front of me. This is all from my head because I have done this several hundred times, and that’s okay. The thing is, if you look at the norm being generated and trying to be internalized, it is not there yet, which means I have got to have this conversation over and over again. The more I can get people read this and the less I have to do it, that is great, but they still have to think about it because you want them to internalize it. You don’t change minds by yelling at people saying you are wrong but say, “Here is the da