Meet Our Trainers: Bea Bezmalinovic Dhebar

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April 04, 2017

Meet Our Trainers: Bea Bezmalinovic Dhebar

Beatrice Bezmalinovic Dhebar facilitating a proposals workshop for InsideNGO in 2016.

By Elizabeth Walsh

Director, Communications and Marketing InsideNGO

This is the latest post in the “Meet Our Trainers” series, where we get to know InsideNGO’s trainers beyond the training room. Here we highlight Beatrice Bezmalinovic Dhebar, a business development expert who leads InsideNGO workshops on that topic. 

Q: How long have you been working in the international development sector? How did you get your start?

A: I got my start in international development working as a research associate for a senior fellow at the now-defunct Overseas Development Council, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that focused on development issues. He was working on a book on natural resource management in Central America. My internship involved a six month stint in Washington D.C. followed by six months in Guatemala. When the internship ended, I stayed in Guatemala and worked for a local applied research and evaluation firm. During my four years in Central America, I participated in evaluations or applied research on topics ranging from breastfeeding to water and sanitation to HIV/AIDS. After that I was hooked.

How did you get involved with InsideNGO?

I did my first proposal while working in Guatemala. It was my first week on the job when USAID faxed the organization an RFP requesting an evaluation of USAID’s non-traditional agricultural export program in Guatemala’s Western Highlands. My boss asked if I would take the lead in writing the proposal, which was due in a few days. Although I had never written a USAID proposal, I agreed. We submitted a proposal but did not win. I remember thinking that there had to be a better way.

Fast-forward a decade or so, I was managing business development operations at Management Sciences for Health (MSH). We had a high rotation of staff through our proposal coordinator positions. I kept thinking about my experience in Guatemala. It seemed to me that many people in the international development community learned how to write proposals on the job. Again, I thought that there had to be a better way.

I had been to various InsideNGO events. At the time, InsideNGO (known then as APVOFM) was focused on finance, grants and contracts, and HR. I met (founder and former CEO) Alison Smith and told her that I thought it would benefit the international development community to offer an introductory course on how to manage a proposal for USAID. I thought a workshop that walked everyone through the proposal development process from start to finish would give everyone a broad perspective on the process. I thought it could save us all a lot of headaches.

You do a lot of work in business development, and that’s the subject you train on for InsideNGO. What’s the number one question that people ask you?

I am often asked "how can my organization win an award with USAID?"

I believe that USAID is interested in working with new partners and I have seen new partners succeed but it takes effort and commitment. I usually tell new partners that they are more likely to succeed if they pursue a two-pronged strategy to winning work with USAID:

1) Get experience as a sub first: Build up a track record of successfully implementing USAID-funded projects by working as a sub. This demonstrates that an organization knows USAID, and knows the USAID environment and its implementing partners. It also allows an organization to build up the systems to manage, report, and comply with USAID requirements. Tools like Foreignassistance.gov and USAID’s Foreign Aid Explorer can help an organization understand the funding landscape and which primes might be bidding. The USAID business forecast is another great tool to find out what is coming up for bid. Be proactive. Primes appreciate partners that are organized and ready to go.

2) Bid directly only on appropriate and relevant RFAs and RFPs. Preparing a USAID proposal is time-consuming and demanding, especially for small organizations. Be selective when making bidding decisions and be prepared to submit multiple bids before winning an award. When deciding to pursue a solicitation directly, the organization needs to be sure that it has geographic and technical experience that is directly relevant to the RFA, has demonstrated competence managing awards of comparable size, and can show that knows how to comply with donor requirements including USAID’s ADS and any relevant FAR clauses. (If you have to look up what those are, you don’t the USAID well enough yet)

In short, be strategic and do your homework first. Be prepared to try several times before you succeed.  

Are there any particular moments from leading InsideNGO workshops that stick out to you—a funny story, an "a-ha!" moment, or anything else you remember well?

Every workshop leads to some kind of ‘a-ha’ moment for me. The proposal management workshop is very interactive and I learn a lot from listening to the participants as they share their experiences. 

A comment from a Canadian participant: “Attending this workshop is like learning a foreign language.” He was referring to all the acronyms and abbreviations common to USAID. It is a good reminder that it takes time and effort to get to know a new donor well enough to speak their language.

Where in the world have you traveled, and which destination has been your favorite?

Picking a favorite destination is like naming a favorite book. I have been fortunate to travel to more than 30 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I also lived in Asia (Bangladesh) and Latin America (Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica). If pressed, I would say that I have a special spot in my heart for Bolivia. I made my first trip to Bolivia with my father when I was in my teens. My father was from Bolivia and we went back to attend a family wedding. I went back again a decade later while working on a reproductive health project at MSH.

Bolivia is breath taking, not least because when you land in La Paz, you are at 11, 975 feet above sea level. La Paz is nestled in a valley surrounded by the Andes. Illimani, a triple-peaked mountain, orients visitors to the city. On my last trip, I worked with several NGOs around Bolivia to prepare a guidebook, which gave me an opportunity to see amazing landscapes and meet dedicated and thoughtful NGO staff. And of course, I ate salteñas every day. I would go back to Bolivia just to have salteñas, a savory mix of potatoes, peas, chicken, and egg in a pastry shell, and coffee.

What is your most memorable story (good, bad, interesting, weird) from the field?

My most memorable trips involve getting meeting with community leaders or activists who are trying to make their communities better places to live. I remember one evaluation trip to Central America to assess national and regional natural resource NGOs. All of the organizations were community-based groups that were interested in improving the ways in people lived with the natural resources around them. A colleague and I interviewed people and visited projects. It was inspiring to see all the ways in which these organizations were changing their environment. Intellectually I recognize that major development changes often involve engaging national decision-makers in policy change, but when I think about my most memorable trips, I think about the inspiring conversations that I have had with people doing their ‘every day jobs’ with a vision and commitment to change.

When you aren't traveling or working, what do you like to do?

I like to read. I am currently trying to read my way around the world with a BookRiot challenge to read a book about each of the 80 most populous countries in the world.

Below, Bea with her co-trainer for USAID Proposal Development, Derek Reynolds.

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