|NGO Guidelines for Good Policy and Practice (Commonwealth Foundation)|
|Part I: NGOs: what they are and what they do|
|6. The governance and operation of NGOs|
This Chapter describes how NGOs are operated and managed.
It discusses related issues, which include accountability, management, human resource development/training, evaluation and monitoring, information, networking and alliance-building.
NGOs in both the North and the South are being challenged to address issues concerning their accountability and representativeness. The key questions being asked are:
To whom are NGOs accountable?
Who or what do they represent?
The debate around these questions has grown as NGOs have come to extend the scope, breadth and depth of their work, and as their structures have come to include both private and participatory forms of control and various forms of incorporated or unincorporated entities.
The questions appear at first sight to have simple answers. An incorporated private NGO is controlled by and thus accountable to a Board of Management or trustees. These people derive no financial gain from the organisation, and thus are independent in the sense that they do not have the vested interests even staff or those served by the NGO may have. In the participatory NGO, the Board is elected by the membership thus making the organisation truly democratic and thus also accountable to its members.
More broadly, NGOs are accountable to the wider public through processes of registration and regulation, described in the next chapter. They will also be accountable to funders through agreed reporting arrangements.
NGOs working with marginalised and disadvantaged people see themselves as representing the interests of such people. Those NGOs which are more involved in a particular aspect of disadvantage or with an issue affecting the well-being of society as a whole see themselves as representing a cause of some kind rather than a specified group of people. In both cases the representation will be stronger where the NGO has a participatory rather than a private structure. But issues of the accountability and representativeness of NGOs are more complex than the above might suggest.
The fact that it is not that simple is implicit in particular aspects of the above discussion. The private NGO can be controlled by a Board which in reality is a rubber stamping device for the employed staff, who in reality control the organisation.
Private NGOs, lacking the feature of democratic accountability to membership found in participatory NGOs, can thus in reality be accountable to nobody but themselves. Private NGOs can also be used by individuals to pursue their egotistical or political ambitions under the guise of representing people or causes.
Organisations which claim to be participatory organisations can, when closely scrutinised, turn out to have a narrow, disenfranchised or "token" base of membership, and thus in reality be privately controlled or even used for fraudulent purposes.
Just as the existence of a small number of fraudulent NGOs can bring the financial integrity and honesty of the great majority of NGOs into needless doubt, so too do the small number of NGOs that are unaccountable and unrepresentative attract unwarranted doubt and criticism to the majority. Most NGOs are controlled by people acting out of genuine personal concern and commitment, and operating with high standards of honesty and integrity.
There are a number of ways in which NGOs can improve the quality of their governance and operations, and these are outlined in the following sections. Many NGOs already recognise the need for such improvements. Signs of them being made are abundant, as are debates about issues raised by the changes, and the following sections try to reflect them. But changes in the external environment in which NGOs operate will also help achieve such ends, and these are discussed in later chapters.
NGOs are improving both their governance and operations in the following ways:
- stating their mission, values and objectives clearly and ensuring that their strategies and operations are at all times within them;
- better management processes as well as financial management, accounting and budgeting, systems;
- better human resource development and training within the organisation - of managers, administrators, project staff, Board members, beneficiaries, members and volunteers;
- better procedures to ensure that men and women have equal opportunities to participate effectively at all levels of the organisation, from members to leaders;
- better means by which both the organisation, and its projects, services and activities are monitored, evaluated, and reviewed;
- better information provision by and about NGOs;
- better networking and alliance-building among NGOs.
Work in NGOs has always been demanding. It has traditionally attracted people having high ideals, boundless energy, creativity, commitment and resilience. It is a sector which has a high level of female participation among volunteers and staff as well as at a leadership level. Indeed in some countries, such as Jamaica, the majority of NGO leaders are women. The explosion of NGO activities over the recent past has not only been quantitative, but qualitative, too. As has been noted, NGOs can now be very large and complex entities, financing and running their own programmes as well as being contracted by governments and others to be providers and deliverers of public services. They may simultaneously operate a number of activities, from service delivery to advocacy and campaigning. At the same time they will be seeking funds for their work from a wide range of sources, and applying these funds to their work in the most effective and efficient manner. They will also constantly review, monitor and plan their work. They have to be able to mobilise the creative energies of a team including paid staff, Board members, volunteers, members and beneficiaries. They need to inspire as well as manage. In participatory NGOs, managers also need to know how to work with people rather than administer unto them. Many NGOs work in insecure circumstances, by virtue of having to rely on funding from external sources.
All this means that NGO managers have to be a unique breed of men and women. It is however recognised that:
- the personal qualities of the unique breed need to be supplemented and complemented by the possession of knowledge and skills relevant to the NGO s activities, provisions and target groups, and to the tasks involved in the management of the organisation as a whole. The personal qualities and dispositions of NGO managers are not enough in themselves to sustain and enhance the work and development of the organisations, in other words:
- efficient and effective management and financial systems are essential in NGOs.
NGO work is much more difficult and demanding than many realise, as managers and staff moving from the private sector and public sector to work in them have found. NGOs often undertake projects of a very demanding scale and complexity with limited resources. Yet the myth that NGO work is undemanding lives on.
More and more, NGO management training is regarded as a distinctive task. In a number of countries, agencies have been established to provide it, and such agencies are often constituted as NGOs themselves. The distinctive HRD and training needs of Boards, members, volunteers and programme beneficiaries are also being increasingly identified and responded to. This is based on the recognition that it is as important to have a well trained and effective Board, for example, as it is to have qualified and competent staff, properly trained volunteers and aware, able beneficiaries. Well trained and informed Boards are less dependent on staff and more able to ensure that they are properly accountable.
Some of these new NGO HRD/training initiatives have an international orientation. Others offer research and consultancy services to NGOs as well as training programmes. At the same time more and more NGOs are recognising the need to allow time and resources for training, both in-house and outside.
Funders are doing the same: indeed some training initiatives have been set up at their instigation or with their active support and involvement. All that said, there is an oft-repeated view that too little investment is still being made by NGOs and their funders in this aspect of their work.
In NGOs, as in other sectors, HRD begins with being able to attract and retain staff of the right calibre. In part this means being able to offer salaries and conditions of service that are as adequate and secure as possible. Many people involved in NGOs agree that the insecurity of work in them is a major problem. Job insecurity in the NGO sector affects both men and women but not always in the same ways. Labour force studies in many countries show that women tend to be concentrated in the low-waged service sector, which includes many NGOs. This may be one of the factors explaining the large number of women employed in NGOs which have generally emerged from the welfare sector.
Even where NGOs are contracted to deliver public services, as they increasingly are, this is not bringing an end to job insecurity in NGOs. This is because the trend towards contracting out such services is often being accompanied by trends towards applying market place economics to the delivery of public programmes.
This means NGOs compete with each other and even with private providers to secure contracts. Trends in this direction are well-advanced in a number of countries. They are stimulating a great deal of debate, not just about security. Many NGOs question whether human needs, issues and problems should be seen as "markets" within which competition takes place.
Funders and contracting agencies have key roles to play in this aspect of HRD in NGOs.
From the subject of adequately remunerating NGO staff there has grown another debate, one that is about the general "professionalism" of NGOs and their staff. One view holds that NGO staff should be paid comparable rates with staff in other sectors, based on a recognition of the demanding nature of their work and to ensure the respect of their peers in other sectors.
Another view sees NGO staff as people who should be selfless, poorly-paid workers and dedicated amateurs rather than slick professionals. There are undoubtedly NGOs which have gone to extremes here:
"(NGOs are) now an industry in which lots of money can be made. The director of (national NGO A) gets US$75,000 (per year). The salary of (national NGO B) is kept in line with top (government officials). (This) welfare elite (has developed) while (such) leaders are publicly condemning poverty..."
The debate is complex. Other issues come into it, including those of control, accountability and representation discussed earlier:
"Many voluntary agencies have become generally centralised in power. Their directors have turned autocratic, and are not guided by any democratic process...There is very little identity with the people with whom they work... the very antithesis of that prevailing in genuine people's organisations... To the people (NGOs) are become middlemen... they are the new thekedars, replacing landlords and moneylenders... often seen by people as exploiters and carpetbaggers..."
NGOs therefore walk a thin line between being on the one hand professional, and achieving it by paying adequate salaries and investing in staff development, and on the other hand, retaining their traditional values and ability to be effective and efficient. It is not an easy line to walk. The NGO sector is inevitably affected by trends in other sectors in society, by labour market forces, and by prevailing social attitudes which increasingly lean towards individualism. To an extent, NGOs have to live with these trends and are inevitably affected by them. NGOs, however, have to keep in mind the values and non-self-serving aims which drive them, and express them in all aspects of their work. These values are a needed counter-force, especially in societies where self-serving individualism becomes extreme. NGOs are recognising this.
Almost by definition, NGOs are organisations that are constantly changing and evolving. Thus monitoring and evaluation activities are of critical importance to them because they are the means by which change and evolutions can be guided, rather than be serendipitous or opportunistic. Monitoring and evaluation are also valuable ways of capturing accumulated experience and expertise that is all too easily lost when rapid changes occur either within organisations or in the environments in which they operate.
In addition, many NGOs recognise that carrying out their own evaluation and monitoring, as a matter of course, is preferable to having external evaluations, and all the disruption and uncertainty they can cause, imposed on them by others. NGOs are thus increasingly recognising the need to enhance their work by having their own procedures in place for constant monitoring and regular evaluation. More and more NGOs mount such exercises in respect of particular programmes and projects. Less common are wholesale reviews or evaluations of entire organisations, but these do occur. There is a growing body of literature and training related to monitoring and evaluation. A number of organisations have been established to assist NGOs with evaluation and/or with reviewing or generally reflecting upon their work, some national and some international in their scope. They include the Charities Evaluation Service in Britain, the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) in India and MWENGO in Zimbabwe.
The quality and extent of information made available by or about NGOs varies from country to country. Legal requirements (discussed in the following chapter) commonly mean that while NGOs must produce and make available certain information about their work, such requirements are frequently minimal. Indeed sometimes NGOs are only required by law to supply financial information to the relevant regulatory authorities. As the provision of information requires resources which many NGOs do not have, there is often a dearth of information about NGOs and their work. In turn this can lead to:
NGOs being accused of consciously being secretive about their work;
NGOs unconsciously not providing or recognising the value of publishing information about their work.
Neither is healthy and many NGOs are recognising this. But, as with other aspects of improving NGO operations this is an area where NGOs need the support and understanding of others: as noted, information requires resources. In turn this needs a recognition on the part of funders that information, like training, monitoring and evaluating, is a necessity and not a luxury.
Like other aspects of NGO improvement discussed here, additional resources expended will in the long run increase the cost-effectiveness of what is done. It is a mistake to see them as simply additional, unnecessary expenditure which brings no return. NGO Directories are a practical way of informing the public, NGOs, government ministries and agencies and funders about the work of NGOs. Depending on the size of the country, and the range and scope of NGOs, they can be produced on a country-wide or more local or sectoral basis. Solomon Islands has an excellent directory produced by a network NGO. It provides much more than names and addresses (as tends to be the rule). It sets out a summary of the objectives and work of each NGO and is updated from time to time.
Shortage of resources, as noted, is one reason why information about NGOs, whether individually or in directories, tends on the whole to be scarce. But another impediment is the lack of an agreed basis on which to present information, including that required for regulatory purposes. It is hoped that the definition and typologies contained in this report might form such a basis.
Through networking and alliance-building, NGOs identify common interests and concerns, share information, provide support to each other and maximise the use of available resources to achieve common goals. They are in other words manifestations of co-operative strategies to improve the impact of NGO operations. Many NGO networks now exist at local, regional, national and international levels. The Third World Information Network (TWIN), the Third World Feminist Network, Developing Alternatives for Women of a New Era (DAWN), Disabled People's International (DPI), the International Debt Network and the Commonwealth Association for Local Action and Economic Development (COMMACT ) are examples of international ones. There are also international NGO networks associated with the United Nations Summits of the Environment, Population, Social Development and Women. International networking is increasingly linking NGOs in the North and the South on common issues.
There are also networks which link groups within international regions: the Caribbean People+s Development Agency (CARIPEDA) and the Caribbean Network for Integrated Rural Development (CNIRD) in the Caribbean, the African NGOs Self-reliance and Development Advocacy Group (ASDAG) in Africa, and the Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO) in the Pacific are among them.
In the national arena networks such as the Community Business Movement in Britain, the Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development (AVARD) in India, the Development Services Exchange (DSE) in Solomon Islands, the Association of NGOs - Aotearoa (ANGOA) in New Zealand, the Development Network of Indigenous Voluntary Associations (DENIVA) in Uganda, and the Canadian Environmental Network are just a few examples of the many networks linking NGOs generally, or those involved in different specialist fields. There are also networks active, both nationally and internationally, in such fields as health, education, and people with disabilities. At all levels of their operation, the revolution in international telecommunications and information-sharing, through the internet and information super-highway, is presently enormously increasing the extent and impact of NGO networks.
Funders are acknowledging the value of NGO networks, just as international agencies are recognising them through admitting them to international fora. While they are not confined to NGOs involved in advocacy for change, alliance-building and networks are proving to be effective for such purposes, notably when the networks extend beyond NGOs to link them with other organisations. Networking and collaborative relationships between NGOs and the private sector are growing in a number of countries, and there is no better recent example of the value of networking links between NGOs and other organisations than what was achieved over the issue of apartheid in South Africa.