Posted by Brian Pratt on 26 March 2012
I like sailing. I am not that good at it but I understand that one has to fix a destination before starting, then one may well have to tack (change direction) several times before reaching that destination. If the wind is against you then there is far more tacking required, sometimes if you are lucky the wind is perfect and you can head in a straight line to where you want to go. I also know how easy it is to get blown off course and end up somewhere you didn't intend to be, or even to capsize!
At the moment I am not sure all of my fellow CEOs in NGOs in the developed world are as clear as they ought to be about where they are heading or whether they are tacking correctly to lead them towards their eventual goal. Meanwhile I see many in our sector who seem not to have heeded the weather warnings and are now paying the price. There are several, as far as I knew, good NGOs closing their doors due to lack of funds. Is this because the donors changed, or the NGOs failed to change when they should, or because the ones who have closed were more honest to their values and felt they had done as much as they could within the current constraints?
I also see some strange new strategic directions being taken by some UK NGOs, where they seem to be completely changing direction without any transparent discussion of the implications of such changes. The British volunteer-sending agencies seem to have all compromised long-held policies of sending well-qualified people (from a range of countries, and with average ages of 30+) rather than young students. They have signed up to the UK government's International Citizen Service campaign to offer a form of gap year experience: this may well be good development education for the participants, but has moved these agencies back to a model probably last seen 30 years ago.
I would agree though with the general point that in the interests of organisational survival, some INGOs are compromising on the decisions they took years ago (i.e. to move from young volunteers to more skilled and experienced 'development workers'). It is not clear what the alternative options might be.
Is the preservation of an NGO more important than consistency of values? I have read several studies looking at the 'marketisation' of UK and US charities, and also the growth of social enterprises. I can see some very positive elements in these trends but also some possible traps. One paper by the Third Sector Research Centre, 'The marketisation of charities in England and Wales', has argued that fee incomes are replacing grant and voluntary income in many charities; but of more importance is whether these charities are still providing the services, support or information as they intended. Are they still on course? If they are on course perhaps the method of funding their activities is less important as long as it is consistent with their values. If it is not then should they rethink their whole raison d'etre?
It is not the development of fee income in itself which is the problem; it is the failure to link this to an NGO's mandate and values. Aid agencies (governmental and NGO) have both at times been guilty of turning local civil society groups and NGOs into sub-contractors obliged to work on whatever the money was paying for, rather than following their own routes. We could now be seeing this happening in sectors which were able to hold to their own ideas and objectives during easier times when money was available and continued to grow. There is a major debate at the moment in Canada where the government is subsidising contentious partnerships between Canadian private mining companies, some of which have been much criticised for their policies and practices, and NGOs. What started as a dialogue seems to have changed into a funding operation.
There are also live debates about other forms of fundraising. Oxfam years ago talked about raising the 'educated pound' with acceptable development messages, and many other agencies followed that route. The trouble is that they can get outflanked and lose donations to others using less 'PC' messages. Some recent advertising, especially around emergencies, is shocking: leading to many comment pieces about 'development pornography' or 'poverty porn'! Some people may not 'mind paying extra if it they were clear on where the money was going', but I suspect that many others find the 'save a starving baby's life' message more motivating; potentially why some agencies are going 'down market' again.
I noticed adverts in January with '50% off everything at Oxfam' for the post-Christmas sales. Instead of increasing awareness to why people should be shopping at Oxfam, and giving some examples of the work they currently need money for, they seem to have gone down the commercial route of 'sales' to compete with high street shops.
Meanwhile many people seem to be creating their own boats and plotting their own courses. The proliferation of different types of community groups built around a fantastic array of ideas, causes and issues is impressive. Looking at some of the current research and surfing the net shows a dynamic set of initiatives from community run stores, young high-achieving people networking globally, small community self-help groups, and attempts to rebuild community by minorities and majority groups alike. A recent paper, 'Little Big Societies: micro-mapping of organisations operating Below the Radar', looked at the large numbers of small local groups that operate 'under the radar' – I suspect such finding would be common in most countries of the world. Recession may challenge the strategies of the larger professional NGOs, but seems to lead to an increase in small (micro) community level groups.