Case Studies/Mercy Corps
Mercy Corps is a disaster relief and global aid organization that helps communities overcome crises such as natural and economic disasters and war. In addition to quickly getting aid to those in need, Mercy Corps works with local governments, businesses, and the community to develop sustainable programs that will help the area recover and rebuild its economy.
Mercy Corps offers several resources on the web, including its Office in a Box, a comprehensive package of office management materials for the start-up of new field offices in disaster-stricken areas and/or for the improvement of ongoing operations in existing offices. Mercy Corps' Office in a Box is available in the public domain for anyone to use without restriction, as is to the extent applicable via the CC0 public domain dedication in any country.
Mercy Corps released its complete package of office start-up and management materials, known as Office in a Box, into the public domain using the CC0 public domain dedication tool.
According to its website, Mercy Corps "hopes to spread the benefits of the Office in a Box to partner organizations and humanitarian professionals by sharing free of cost, under Creative Commons CC0."
In an interview with Greg Shortreed from Mercy Corps, he tells us that Mercy Corps initially distributed its office tools and documents via a digital library for its different countries' programs. After releasing Office in Box, Mercy Corps received many different requests from agencies all over world, asking if they could share the resource with its partner organizations and subgrantees (local NGOs). Most of these organizations were not very experienced in managing grants or running these types of programs, so they did not have the infrastructure to implement their own. Mercy Corps realized that allowing reuse of Office in Box would be very helpful to these initiatives.
Since the Mercy Corps team responsible for developing Office in a Box had never been given guidance on the legal sharing of its resources, it was not sure whether or how to go about distribution, especially considering that Mercy Corps was competing for the same grants as many of the organizations who would benefit from Office in a Box. Eventually, it became apparent that people were sharing Office in a Box widely anyway, and that there was no way to control distribution once an employee left the organization.
At this point, Mercy Corps started seriously thinking about how to legally share its resource. Mercy Corps wanted four things:
- To add to the knowledge base of the profession (contribute to Aid industry) in a way that would improve operations, management, and facilitate widespread use of Office in a Box. Mercy Corps knew a lot of colleagues didn’t have very effective operational systems, and realized its resource could become a type of industry standard for operations management.
- To finalize an agency-wide policy on distributing Office in a Box. Essentially, make it clear for everyone what Mercy Corps was trying to do with the resource.
- To share in a way that was easy to administer, ie. Mercy Corps did not want to create a whole system to maintain the ability to share the resource. It wanted a system of sharing that would not cost any time or effort.
- To contribute to Mercy Corps' reputation as a leader among NGOs.
After several internal discussions and discussions with CC, Mercy Corps decided that the CC BY license or the CC0 public domain dedication tool would be the best fit for their goals. Upon further analysis, Mercy Corps decided releasing Office in a Box into the public domain via CC0 was more optimal for its needs, because:
- Mercy Corps did not want those implementing the resources to have to give credit to Mercy Corps.
- Mercy Corps did not want to have to enforce attribution if users did not give credit.
- Mercy Corps did not want to discourage those NGOs who might not bother to use the resource due to the perceived legal risk over the attribution requirement.
- Mercy Corps thought more people would use the resource if they used CC0 to put it in the public domain.
According to its website, "By using the Office in a Box, Mercy Corps has greatly improved its efficiency, increased program impact and become a better steward of donor funds." Previously, Mercy Corps would develop individual agreements with partner NGO's for the implementation of these materials; with the use of CC0, Mercy Corps has been able to reduce the overhead costs since permission is already granted through dedication into the public domain.
Greg Shortreed from Mercy Corps also shared some history on the before and after of Office in a Box, to help frame its impact in the present day. In summary:
Mercy Corps was founded by leaders working for many different NGOs. Headquarters had very strict manuals on how to run these different offices; however, these manuals never applied very well to the local context, and it soon became apparent that local operations would be very field-driven, giving a great deal of autonomy to the field director, who would need to tailor the manuals to what was necessary for each context. This resulted in 40 different Mercy Corps operations in 40 different countries: how they made purchases, hired staff, managed vehicles and warehouses, and all the back office issues of running programs in a field were done differently in each, reinventing the wheel every single time. Adapting to each context was not done very well or very efficiently, and it used up a great deal of time and resources.
For example, in the aid industry, a lot of expats, ie. people from the west, take jobs in management in these countries, and there is a high turnover in management -- the average turnover being once a year or every two years. Each new manager would change how each Mercy Corps office ran its operations, which resulted in the longer term staff having to relearn a new system and set of skills every time.
Office in a Box originated after the 9/11 attacks, when Mercy Corps experienced a huge funding increase for its group in Afghanistan. At that point, Mercy Corps had been operating in Afghanistan for seventeen years with no systems in place to implement large programs. Over a year, the group came up with a set of tools and documents in collaboration with many field offices. This set became the Office in a Box.
Since developing Office in a Box, Mercy Corps experienced a huge increase in program impact. Its program managers are no longer spending time on operational issues, and are instead spending that time on actually managing their programs. For instance, water and sand engineers are working on water and sand issues, versus ordering pipes and managing vehicles.
Specific benefits include:
- Improved program impact overall.
- Saving money on recruitment; obtaining good employees and retaining them at Mercy Corps.
- Documenting and demonstrating to donors that Mercy Corps is adept at managing its money and resources. Relatedly, Mercy Corps has definitely seen an increase in grant funding. Additionally, several high profile problems with grants in certain areas have dissolved.
- Staff transferring from one country to the next don't have to be retrained, saving time and resources that normally go into retraining.
- Streamlining operations has freed up resources and enabled Mercy Corps to target and begin improving other weak areas in its programs, ie. the absence of strong project management skills in program teams.
Provide any technical details of the implementation here