Friday, January 2, 2015

NGDO Identity

The next module in my masters is "NGOs in a changing international context". The first piece of reading is from the book "Striking a Balance" by Alan Fowler. The chapter in particular begins with the question of how do we define NGDOs (Non-Governmental Development Organisations), but the interesting part for me came when he talks about NGDO's identity.

Fowler talks about the overlapping principles that an NGDO must deal with:

  • Voluntary Principles
  • Business Principles
  • Government Principles

Primarily, he focuses on the growing influence that business principles have on NGDO's, with efforts focusing on market position, success measurement, cost reduction and other similar concepts.

Fowler takes a default position that these growing influences are a negative force impacting on NGDOs. He believes that the NGDOs lose focus on their main aim - the primary reason that the NGDO exists, in response to trying to appease these business principles.

I have seen this first-hand. When working with Srijan Foundation in India I often felt that the organisation was working to simply win the next piece of work, rather than existing in a framework where the organisation had a central purpose. Whether this had ever been the case or not, I can't comment, but certainly there was a lack of focus on the primary aim of the NGDO.

So, does this always have to be the case?

I do not see why it should. Fowler talks about how donors can become the primary stakeholders rather than the people who are the supposed recipients of the NGDO's focus. However, if we want to compare to the business world, this is no different to the contrast with shareholders and customers. The business that ignores all customer input and opinion will do so to its own cost and the shareholders will ultimately suffer too. In the same way, an NGDO that ignores its true primary stakeholders will not have donors for long.

However, I do agree with Fowler in that having a strong identity is important. Without this being agreed and shared amongst the NGDO's staff, it is much harder to remain focussed on the true stakeholders when the market pressures come to bear. Cutting costs and improving efficiency are only possible when contrasted with the impact on the primary aim of an organisation. Otherwise the obvious extrapolation is to stop all work and end all costs completely!

Fowler's explanation for this lack of explicit identity is a strange one for me - "better to leave things implicit than face contention and futile debate". If that really is the reason for many NGDOs to resist explicitly stating their purpose, then I believe they probably have far bigger issues. That speaks to me of an unstated conflict within the NGDO that is being avoided, rather than addressed, that will probably surface at some later point and with serious consequences.

Stating an identity is important. Doing so does not tie an organisation to that identity forever. Identities can, and maybe should, change as an organisation grows. Accepting that and allowing that identity to be the guide by which you direct your organisation is surely better than allowing secondary influences (such as cost cutting exercises) to set your course instead.