By Rick James.

The NGO sector has plenty of dead wood. NGOs are set up with good intentions, but simply not making much difference. They go through the motions, but seem tired and traditional. They are less than the sum of their parts. Good staff appears almost imprisoned by stifling structures. If they closed down tomorrow, few people other than staff would notice.

As someone passionately committed to civil society and with many years of experience facilitating organisational change with NGOs, it feels almost heretical to say such things.  What has happened to my belief in the Holy Grail of sustainability? Have I sold out to a ‘Goldman Sachs’ commercial slash and burn approach? Have I converted to Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’?  Or am I just getting older, grumpier and less tolerant?

I’m not sure…

But I do know that in the NGO sector we have a completely unrealistic view of organisational life cycles; how they are born, grow, live and die. In the business world, we know that only 20% of new businesses live beyond the first 18 months. But in the NGO sector, our proposals promise and target 100% organisational success and sustainability to partners. This is a damaging fiction. Organisations are not machines. As with people, organisations have a natural life span. Some even die early. Tragic accidents occur. Infant mortality exists. Death is a normal and natural part of life.

Furthermore we know from nature that death is essential to creating new life. If some NGOs closed, dynamic, motivated staff would be released. They could start their own things. And so the NGO world would be renewed…

But in the NGO sector, death is viewed as the ultimate failure. Failure is not good for funding. We ignore the wisdom from the Native Americans who advise: ‘When you are riding a dead horse, the best thing to do is dismount.’So we expend increasingly limited resources on keeping our partners on expensive life support machines, rather than enabling strategic funerals

Our own survival also becomes paramount. Despite our rhetoric, income takes precedence over impact. Income is certainly easier to measure. Few international agencies seriously question their existence and have the courage to follow EveryChild’s lead of working themselves out of a job, closing down and handing over assets. Others, like Afrikids, are transferring ownership and assets to Ghana, leaving just the bare minimum for fundraising in the UK. To what extent are these examples the way forward or simply the exceptions that prove the rule?

Whether we like it or not, sustainability for NGOs is about the ‘survival of the fittest’. But what really matters is how we define ‘fittest’. The aid system sees fittest in pretty meaningless terms – the ability to write a good proposal and find convincing numbers quickly. Fittest is limited to the ability to manage a grant. This is too superficial.

Fittest must be about mission and values. But NOT about mission and values statements. These are aspirational. All CSOs have them. It is much deeper than that. It is about whether they are lived, not whether they are on paper. It is about whether the organisation is genuinely realising its mission of changing lives; about whether or not the organisation’s behaviour is aligned with its values.  ‘Fittest’ is about the NGO’s character – how much they are truly focused on changing lives in an empowering (and therefore sustainable) way; how open they are to learning when things do not go as planned; what they do when they do not live up to their values…

So if we are serious about sustainability, we have to focus on what really matters. Mission and values – the character of the organisation – must be at the forefront of all our thinking, our policies and our practices in promoting sustainability. Funders need to radically adjust their partner selection processes, their management processes and their measurement processes to focus on organisational character. Not just on whether they can write well and report on time. For too long, we have let ourselves get away with superficial proxies for performance which do not promote sustainability. What would it look like if we moved beyond the rhetoric and we genuinely rewarded ‘learning from failure’? Making an effective contribution to sustainability has major implications, almost every aspect affecting the funders work – they too need to be open to their own internal change if they are to make a long-term difference to a sustainable civil society.