Questions worth asking: Muna Wehbe, CEO Stars Foundation

Last week Muna Wehbe, CEO of Stars Foundation took part in Philanthropy University’s  “Questions worth Asking” video chat series. The interview was watched by Philanthropy University learners from across the globe, many of whom had submitted questions in advance. In this blog we will revisit some of Muna’s answers to the questions raised.

Does Stars often see local NGOs facing the challenge of implementing projects based on funders’ timelines and requirements?

“Yes we do. Let me start by giving you a very quick introduction to Stars. We are awards based, so we don’t do what might be termed as normal grant giving. Our flagship programme is the Impact Awards which is centred on children and young people; we also run the With and For Girls Award which is focused on finding and funding great girl-led and girl-centred organizations. Our funding is unrestricted because we believe that we should be locally-led. Our interest is in finding effective local organizations delivering impact. When we find them, we assess them and the work they are doing. We believe it is our job to facilitate the good work they do in the best way possible. So to do that we provide flexible funding and support them with capacity building.

We want to convince as many donors as possible to give directly to grassroots NGOs and to do so in a way that is as flexible as possible. Whilst we might have opinions on what is good and what works, we have found that the expertise lies on the ground with the people doing the work. Once we’ve found them we need to step out of the way and allow them to determine their priorities and to decide what should be funded. How they do their work should be decided by them, not us.”

Why do you not fund through intermediaries?

“What we see generally is that channeling funding through intermediaries, or ‘fundermedaries’ as they are sometimes known, becomes a transactional relationship. What tends to happen is organizations are funded for programs, not for sustainability. Organizations are not funded based on their mission and so they are not given investment for their infrastructure and the sustainability of their organization. So we perpetuate the cycle.  Donors say “they are too small, we can’t get money to them” or  “they are not big enough, they can’t absorb large amounts of funding.” But if we don’t invest in them in the first instance, and allow them to grow sustainably, we will never get to the point where that changes.

I’m not suggesting there isn’t a role for INGOs, there certainly is – but a pitiful percentage of international aid goes directly to local NGOs and CBOs and that’s what Stars is interested in shifting.”

How does Stars Foundation ensure grants are used effectively?  

“It’s a bit back to front for us. Our assessment is upfront – we asses organizations before we fund them. For the Impact Awards we run a rigorous assessment process. We look at a number of key criteria –  a process designed with PriceWaterhouseCoopers when we launched in 2007. We look at the impact of the organization on the lives of children. We look at their internal systems, management structure, finances, governance, inclusion, policies etc. We do a background check, review their accounts, and collect references. We get a sense of the organization as a whole. We also go out and visit them before we select them as an awardee.

We then feel confident that we can be hands-off and flexible with the organization. I’m not keen on the ‘monitoring’ concept of M&E; it isn’t about monitoring but about keeping lines open and evaluating how things are going. So we have a process whereby the organization presents a plan and budget to us and we approve it. But they can change it at any time, which we have seen happen often if things change on the ground; for example, if an organization has to respond to a natural disaster.

We have a close working relationship with our awardees, typically over a two year period. During this time we continue to connect with them, visit and support them however we can and they report back to us annually. Because we do our assessment upfront, we can avoid the painstaking process of checking on every penny spent, safe in the knowledge that they are a well-run organization with a track record in delivering impact.”

What are your motivations as a woman in a leadership position?

“What gets me up in the morning and gets me to come into work? I think I have the best job in the world. I feel incredibly lucky to do the work I do, to be in contact with so many great organizations that are doing truly unbelievable work on the ground, and meeting leaders that inspire me every time I come into contact with them.

The fact that we fund in the way that we do and that we have a founder who is so enlightened in his approach, who understands that it is not his motivation that should be driving the work but the needs on the ground that should be pushing the agenda. It is a huge privilege to work in this space and do it in a way that makes the biggest difference to these incredible organizations. We get told repeatedly that flexible funding is like gold dust.

I work with a wonderful team of people who are motivated, smart and I learn from them every day. On a more personal note I have two young girls, a 2 year old and a 5 year old, and I want them to see a mother who makes the world a better place, who is contributing to something that makes a difference. These are my motivations.”

What are the ways you’ve seen empowered girl affect their local communities?

“You should visit our website because there are inspiring stories from each of our awardees, many of whom have gone on to win other awards which is very inspiring. Do join our Facebook page too as we update on their news often!

Malala Yousafzai is your number one example of what a young woman can do. Closer to Stars Foundation, if I were to pick one, there is a young woman from Mali who had to go to the capital to continue her secondary studies. When she couldn’t make ends meet, she turned to babysitting and petty trade to make some money. Girls as young as twelve years old are migrating to the capital to become domestic workers as a means of making money and meeting the needs of a growing middle class in Mali. Unfortunately many of them are subject to violence and sexual exploitation. The young woman in question – Sitan – set up an NGO that is fighting for the rights of domestic workers. She and her colleagues are making big waves in Mali. The NGO is advocating for the rights of domestic workers, offering legal training and education so domestic workers can negotiate their rights and improve their employment conditions. It has achieved so much.

There are examples like this all over the world which is what the With and For Girls Award is all about – shining a spotlight on great local organizations and their inspiring leaders across the globe. Showing that they can be funded directly and in a way that doesn’t put your money at risk.”

To watch to the full interview please click here.