End of a tunnel

Endings: the neglected chapter of organisational life cycles

Much emphasis is rightly placed on the inception and implementation phases of projects in civil society. However, there’s a crucial chapter that often goes overlooked: endings.

Endings, whether they mark the completion of a project, the conclusion of a program, or the departure of an international organisation from a community, hold significant implications for both the communities involved, local organisations and the sustainability of development efforts. Today, NGOs must consider questions on the legitimacy of their role and how best to shift power to local organisations.

Yet, endings are frequently treated as an afterthought rather than a deliberate and integral part of strategies to achieve change. All too often we rush through them in order to get to the next part of the cycle: innovation, new beginnings and implementation.

Endings matter now more than ever for INGOs, as communities and societies grapple with sustained ‘polycrises’ — reduced public spending, closing of civic space, the climate emergency, inflation and price rises, pandemics, democratic deficits. Many of the organisations and movements which exist to drive change and to promote human and planetary flourishing are creaking under the pressure of possible endings — of the legitimacy of their organisations, of projects, of programmes, of services, of business models, of leadership tenures and of whole systems which no longer serve us and the communities they work with.

But they are being held back from good endings, which could unleash new chapters, by the shame, fear, avoidance and stigma associated with them and, instead, shift power to the communities and partners that they work with in lower and middle income countries.

There are plenty of places where “everything is in crisis” narratives are being rehearsed to make the case that issues, organisations or sectors need to be urgently “saved” or “rescued” to avoid their untimely demise. At The Decelerator we think there’s another layer to the argument that’s all too rarely considered.

We see endings as an inevitable part of organisational life cycles. Sometimes tragic, sometimes timely, often chaotic, but always rich with opportunities for learning and legacy. Moments when it falls on all who are involved or affected to ask: “what needs to be taken forward, and what should be left behind?”

Here are few of the ways we see endings to be powerful, impactful choices for INGOs.

Endings shape legacies

How a project or partnership with a local partner concludes can leave a lasting impression on communities, governments, and donors. A poorly executed ending can tarnish the reputation of an organisation, undermine trust in a sector or place, and jeopardise future collaborations. Conversely, a well-managed conclusion can reinforce positive relationships, create space for the intentional shift of power, enhance credibility, and pave the way for continued engagement and support.

Endings offer opportunities for reflection and learning

They provide a natural juncture to assess what worked well, what could have been improved, and what lessons can be carried forward to future endeavours. By neglecting the ending phase, organisations miss out on valuable insights that could inform their strategies, enhance their impact, and prevent the repetition of mistakes.

Endings are an essential part of genuine localisation, anti-racist and post-oppression commitments

It is only by focusing attention on what gets left behind that we can enable development partnerships to be more locally led and anti-oppressive. The work of Stopping As Success is just one example of how, after decades of localisation initiatives, it has become increasingly important to pay attention to what needs to stop, as much as what needs to start.

Endings are critical for sustainability

Sustainable development is not just about achieving short-term goals. It’s about creating lasting change that endures long after external interventions cease. Thoughtful endings involve building local capacity, fostering ownership, and transitioning responsibilities to community stakeholders. By investing in the conclusion of projects, organisations can increase the likelihood of sustainable outcomes and empower communities to continue progress autonomously.

Endings necessitate ethical considerations

Development interventions often involve complex power dynamics, cultural nuances, and ethical dilemmas. How organisations choose to exit a community, a partnership with a local organisation or discontinue a program can have profound ethical implications. It’s essential to prioritise principles of fairness, inclusivity, and respect for local autonomy throughout the concluding phase, ensuring that the rights and well-being of all stakeholders are upheld. And if we are committed to transforming oppressive, exploitative systems into regenerative, equitable ones, endings offer opportunities to leave behind ways of working, practices and dynamics that no longer serve us.

Endings signal accountability

International development organisations have a responsibility to deliver on their promises, uphold ethical standards, and be transparent about their successes and failures. By attending to the ending phase with diligence and integrity, organisations demonstrate their commitment to accountability and earn the trust of stakeholders.

Civil society organisations can find themselves unwittingly playing a game in which resources and power move in a way that prioritises “the new” and underpins and drives a growth and survival-at-all-costs agenda. Depending on your view of the world, perhaps this is a reflection of the patterns of exploitation and oppression in the world at large.

Regardless of where you think our ending avoidance originates, The Decelerator is here to play a part in turning the game on its head. We are here to widen the concept of bravery, courage and ambition in civil society. We believe it isn’t just possible, but preferable for civil society to be led with energy, tenacity, ambition and vigour whilst holding the end in mind.

We believe we all have a part to play, and we can all start today by asking ourselves ‘what needs to end?’ Not because this question determines that something will inevitably end, but because staying open to the possibility of it unleashes purpose, conviction and a relentless pursuit of what is absolutely necessary and most impactful.

Endings are not merely the closing chapters of projects or programs. They are pivotal moments that shape legacies, foster learning, enable localised, anti-racist and anti-oppressive practices, promote sustainability, uphold ethics, and demonstrate accountability.

To truly maximise the impact of their work, all civil society organisations must recognise the importance of endings and allocate the attention and resources necessary to ensure that they are managed effectively and ethically. It is only by embracing endings as integral components of the development process can organisations fulfil their mission of creating positive and lasting change in the world.

We hope you will journey with us into a future of better endings, and better beginnings. For more information on our work take a look at our website. Or sign up to our substack newsletter for occasional updates.

How The Decelerator can help your organisation anticipate, consider or design an ending:

📞The Decelerator Hotline offers one-time, one-hour, confidential, free coaching sessions for anyone who thinks the time has come to consider or plan for an ending in their organisation.

⚒️ The library of Decelerator Tools are available free to you and your organisation and will help you design, deliver and advocate for funding for better endings in your organisation. (You might be particularly interested in the Sensing An Ending toolkit, the Considering Closure workbook, the Starter for 10 Guide to planning leadership succession, or the Legacy Lessons document).

🗂️ The Decelerator Directory shares the trusted people, organisations and services available elsewhere that you can draw on to design and deliver a better ending – from practical tools to hands-on support from expert consultants. This is in development and will be growing in the weeks and months ahead.