Unlocking the Power of Local Peer-to-Peer Networking: Lessons from El Salvador

Nov 2, 2023
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El Salvador
Women stand beside a table sorting beans.

In the heart of El Salvador, a remarkable force of local organizations is working to enact positive change and drive progress within their communities. USAID/El Salvador (USAID/ES) and the Partnerships Incubator worked with 12 organizations in El Salvador to co-create technical service (TA) packages for each of them. These organizations, representing a spectrum of focus areas, years of operation, funding levels, and technical expertise, are a testament to the robust landscape of community-driven initiatives that exist across the country. 

In a dynamic landscape of local organizations, a prevalent challenge hinders the potential for progress and innovation. Too often, organizations may either see themselves as competitors or too dissimilar to glean insights from each other. When faced with obstacles, these organizations embark on the arduous task of constructing solutions from the ground up rather than tapping into collective experiences. The consequences of this approach are inefficiency and the perspective that one organization’s gain inevitably translates to another’s loss. The mentality that donor support is a fixed resource fuels this problem further. 

By embracing the power of collaboration at the local level, however, organizations can start to unravel the tightly woven threads of competition and scarcity, fostering collective growth, resource optimization, and innovative solutions. In El Salvador, amidst a mosaic of dedicated efforts, a common truth emerges: the journey toward localized development is not a solo endeavor. 

“There is a very large civil society force here, built on decades of experience,” says Claudia Blanco, Executive Director of FUNDASAL. “We should all unite better, in a better symphony. We need to know how to make a better song together, where everyone can play an instrument in a spectacular way, but perhaps we have never been faced with the challenge of playing a single song together.”

But what does it mean for local organizations to create music together, and how can it be possible to play a single song? A glimpse into the relationships forged between partners in El Salvador sheds light on how local peer-to-peer networking lays the bedrock for sustainable progress.

Transforming Competition into Collaboration

Local organizations are not competing notes in discord. They are harmonious chords producing a stronger civil society. During Incubator-led interviews with these local organizations, they emphasized how prioritizing collaboration over competition in their relationships with one another can create avenues for growth and shared success. 

For Lilia Ivett Padilla de Menjivar, FUSALMO’s Management and Development Manager, it was crucial to see the organization move from acting as “yo único”—an isolated entity—to acting as partners and “creating an ecosystem that allows us to collaborate with our strengths.” 

FUSALMO and FUNDASAL have shared longstanding partnerships with Fundación Rafael Meza Ayau (FRMA), another local organization receiving TA. In embracing this philosophy of partnership, the organizations create an ecosystem where different strengths combine, generating solutions that transcend the boundaries of any single organization.

It is important to “ask for help within other organizations and understand that we are not competing,” says Andrea Schildknecht de Méndez, Deputy Chief of Party for Fundación Gloria Kriete (FGK). “We can all learn from each other so that we don’t have to make the same mistakes.” 

Fostering Organizational Longevity

Peer-to-peer networking isn't just an exchange of ideas. It's a catalyst for change, enabling organizations to harmonize their efforts and drive sustainable, meaningful impact. The value of an outsider perspective provides a crucial counterbalance to the internal dynamics and emotions within an organization. 

“There's always something to be learned from somebody outside the organization. I think that the objective point of view is always important because you can get overwhelmed within the day to day,” says Schildknecht de Méndez. “Being able to step back and just analyze with somebody who's not part of the organization is important.”

Collaborating with someone external to the organization can provide an opportunity for analysis from a fresh perspective, ensuring the organization remains agile, innovative, and capable of making informed choices. For Asociación Azul Originario (AZO), a nonprofit organization implementing programs in the areas of governance and democracy, education, and livelihood, the recognition that they don't need to possess all the answers is liberating. 

“In the long term, we would like our projects to be sustainable,” says Wendy Morales, Executive Director and Co-Founder of AZO. “We are allied with organizations that already work in other regions of El Salvador and we don't necessarily want to just create more spaces, but rather we want to build and solidify the spaces that already exist.” 

Strategic local partnerships reduce the burden of facing obstacles alone. Through these relationships, they find solace in the collective wisdom and resilience, which in turn prevents frustration and burnout. AZO envisions a future where their projects stand the test of time, not by embarking on isolated endeavors, but by tapping into the potential of collaborations. This approach serves as a gateway to accessing new avenues of cooperation and diverse streams of financing.

Aligning Social Causes for Increased Visibility

Creating alliances with other local organizations stands as a vehicle through which shared goals are amplified, strengths leveraged, and positive change is propelled within communities. 

“It is about joining efforts and pushing the sun to the same side. We are expanding the theme of inclusion in the work of other local institutions,” says Wendy Casihpal, Executive Director of Fundación Red de Sobrevivientes y Personas con Discapacidad. “We are supporting each other and adding strengths to other institutions, and the other institutions are adding their expertise to ours.” 

Together, Fundación Red de Sobrevivientes y Personas con Discapacidad and AZO have collaborated to ensure AZO’s documents, and other aspects of their work, are inclusive for everyone. AZO and FUNDASAL, though previously working separately, have both been engaged in addressing issues within Indigenous communities of El Salvador. Their paths converged at the Incubator’s two-day Leadership Summit in San Salvador, revealing their shared focus and potential for mutual assistance. 

The issue of access to land emerged as a paramount concern for El Salvador’s Indigenous communities. FUNDASAL's longstanding engagement in housing projects since 1968 has required them to untangle numerous challenges related to land access. This shared hurdle aligns with the larger struggle faced by Indigenous communities in their quest for secure land tenure, whether for housing, cultivation, or communal spaces — also a facet of AZO’s work.

This potential collaboration underscores the organizations’ abilities to find innovative and sustainable solutions that can help garner visibility to USAID or other donors. Local organizations hold a unique position that enables them to forge strong connections with on-the-ground needs. 

“I think local organizations have the opportunity to connect a lot with the needs in the field. And because of that, we are also responsible to translate what's going on in our countries for different audiences, but particularly for donors,” says Karla Segovia, Executive Director of FUSAL.

To further tap into the experiences of other organizations, Segovia advises local partners to “create a community of practice with organizations that are going through different experiences in the country.” 

By advocating for the establishment of a community of practice among local partners, she emphasizes the power of peer-to-peer networking as a dynamic strategy through which these organizations in El Salvador can navigate diverse challenges and collectively drive positive change within their communities.

Peer-to-peer networking, a dynamic and reciprocal exchange of insights, expertise, and support, can ​​transform the pursuit of localized development into a collective endeavor, even beyond El Salvador’s borders.

Access WorkWithUSAID.org’s Partner Directory to unlock collaborations and expand your impact alongside other local organizations in your region.

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