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Redefining the Roles of NGOs

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture

NGOs must strive for scale if they want to fulfil their roles as enablers and incubators in striving for development

As small but key players in the social development space, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often worry about scaling up. If you have worked in this space, you’d surely agree that models of development interventions promoted by NGOs often remain small islands of success (if at all they do succeed). NGOs themselves are aware of the limited traction they achieve with policymakers due to their inability to influence or demonstrate change at a larger scale. Also, often organizations that are effective at a certain scale falter as they attempt to grow bigger in size. In this column, I restrict myself to service-delivery organizations—those that work in the areas of livelihoods, basic services, etc.—and not those that are involved in activism or rights-based social mobilization.
One view is that the very nature of a development NGO sometimes limits its ability to grow. The objective of an NGO should be to demonstrate: (1) proof of concept of their model; and (2) that implementing this through a government agency is indeed feasible. The latter is especially important, given that key stakeholders in the sector have by now realized and acknowledged that the state/government is at the forefront of the development battle. Scale is crucial in a country like India—it is expected of organizations that they will demonstrate consistent results over a long period of time, and at the same time, reach out to large numbers of people.

Thus, even while attempting to redefine their roles as enablers and incubators, NGOs remain of great interest to students of organizational behaviour. In particular, scaling up as referred to above remains a serious conundrum, but in order to demonstrate the “implement-ability” of an intervention, attaining a certain level of scale remains inevitable. In going to scale, NGOs should watch out for the following potential pitfalls:
  1. The blueprint trap—innovative NGOs often start out rejecting the status-quo. Thereafter, as they grow and become old, they have a tendency to fall in blind love with their own initial path-breaking idea, and often, the world has moved on and they fail to notice. The only solution possibly is to keep alive a culture of reflection and learning within the organization.
  2. Matching ambition with capacity—particularly relevant to attempts at scaling up. If and when the pace of expansion in an organization peaks (either because of technical capacity or funding constraints), the management as well as frontline staff struggle to cope with their own inability to continue functioning as before. Strategic manpower planning and investing in staff capacity needs to be given the attention they deserve.
  3. Matching quality of work with quantity—sometimes, the above-mentioned expansion is achieved, but at the cost of quality of outputs and outcomes. This is usually not a pretty sight and it is hard to hide the cracks for long. Without a system of iterative evaluation and learning, this cannot be addressed.
  4. Staffing woes—sometimes, organizations are crippled by their inability to attract high-quality manpower. Often, the good ones work in difficult locations, pay very little and don’t mentor well enough.
  5. Management by loyalty—some of the above kinds also have had a charismatic founder/leader who rules the roost. Not only is there no succession plan, there are also ugly confrontations sparked off by insecure loyalty-demanding power centres. This is one of the most common weaknesses among NGOs and almost certainly sounds the death-knell for organizations in the medium- to long-term.
Think of any NGO you know—and if they are afflicted by one or more of the above, you should know there is cause for concern. Unfortunately, too many NGOs around us fall into one or more of the above traps. Do we have cases that buck this trend? The microfinance industry possibly—most big microfinance entities have corporatized in one way or the other but still continue to struggle with issues of culture and business practices, which have had a direct impact on their operations.
Whether to go to scale or not is not an easy choice to make for an organization. In a context where small solutions need to be shown to work at a large scale, it is important that NGOs strive for scale if they want to fulfil their roles as enablers and incubators in striving for shared social welfare and development.

This post first appeared on livemint
Photographs courtesy of Masaru Goto via the World Bank Photo Collection, available here

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Submitted by Robin Mathew on

The author has pointed out common issues faced by NGOs.Good effort. But scaling up of NGO activity to show that small solutions can be extended to a wider area would not be the right option. The big issues of cultural, political, geographical & economic differences might not get addressed. Possible solution is to showcase the model so that other NGOs embrace the model with required changes suiting to local requirements.This is already happening through effective networking within NGOs and with government support. Best example is MYRADA's SHG experiment.

Suvojith: Thanx for this article

Submitted by Suvojit on

Thanks for the comment, Robin! Agree about the importance of networks - it is not necessary that individual NGOs scale up their own operations; it can also be achieved through coalitions or associations of like-minded organisations. In fact, the plurality in implementation may actually be of benefit to the broader eco-system

Submitted by Meera Mehta on

The question of scale is indeed crucial. However, what has to be scaled up is the idea and not necessarily the NGO as an organization. These are two different things!

Secondly, the scaling up can happen not only through the government - but also through many other organizations picking up the idea. What is important is to have the necessary eco system to enable such scaling up to happen. It maybe through appropriate financing and supportive policies. The important aspect is to design actions/ projects that are likely to be picked up in this manner or that there is "a market' out there - either through government or through other NGOs/ social entrepreneurs etc.

Submitted by Cynical on

What about leading NGO's to collaborate? There are so many organisations trying to fight the same issues, implement the same programs and change the same truths. I believe it is Point 5 in your article that is stopping this happening, also known as 'founderism'. Founders ego's get in the way of maximising impact. What if resources were shared, learnings were open sourced and the impact was what was recognised, not the name of the organisation or the founder?

Submitted by Suvojit on

No need to be cynical though! There is definitely a lot of potential learning gains lost due to an unwillingness to collaborate. But we need to keep trying. The challenge possibly is creating conditions where collaboration is recognised and rewarded

Submitted by Cynical on

Yes, I agree. Right now the celebrity of being a socent founder seems to be very alluring for many. I've toyed with the idea of funders insisting on collaboration, so instead of giving individual funding to individual organisations they support an Outcome - such as in USAID APHIA programs. has also just launched a collaboration platform, but I'm not sure it will work for NGO's or more just passionate individuals.

Submitted by Heather on

There are many good points here. I agree with your previous article with which you link, that the idea of NGO-led development should change. To be overly broad-brushed, NGOs really took off when the state in developing countries was being pruned back by fairly neoliberal ideas, enforced by structural adjustment and the crumbling of one type of state-led planning and development. They were the 'third way,' where states and markets couldn't or didn't function for whatever reasons and to that end, they have done a lot of good in a lot of lives.

What I point out above doesn't mean that NGOs were complicit in a neoliberal philosophy or attempts to undermine the state but it does mean that their role has often been to substitute for the state and its capacity. Ultimately, this limits citizens' rights to have real conversations (via elections and other means of grievance redressal) about the social compact and what is owed to people by a government (and in return for what; I obviously do not advocate for the rentier state no matter what public goods they deliver, nor I am excluding the possibility of states and markets working together or the market delivering some goods/services on its own).

NGOs may plug holes where there are government or market failures but my sense is that they should be a temporary fix, drawing attention to a problem, getting it on the agenda, and showing that there are viable solutions. As you suggest, they can be innovators and incubators of radical (and practical) ideas but, like many tech start-ups, perhaps the goal should be to be "bought up" either by a firm or by the government. Maybe scale should not be the goal. Rather, NGOs take risks that governments cannot and pave the way for the government (or, again, the private sector) to try new things with less risk.

Do things work perfectly when lumbering bureaucracies take up the ideas of nimble and passionate organizations? No, and that is a major challenge that students of organizational behavior will need to take up.

Of course, many NGOs have the mantra that they are working to put themselves out of a job. But their actions and grant-seeking do not always align with their words.

Peter Evans writes about the "developmental state" and the symbiotic relationship that governments and markets should have with each other. It may be time to revisit this idea and discuss where the 'third sector' fits in in different forms of the developmental state, what kind of symbiosis works and what kind instead lets governments off the hook.

It is precisely for the 5 reasons that you list about NGO sustainability that we should think seriously about whether NGOs (or, worse, charities) are a long-term solution to ensuring human capabilities / equality of opportunity are fulfilled, which I think is a goal on which most people can agree.

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