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close this bookNGO Guidelines for Good Policy and Practice (Commonwealth Foundation)
close this folderPart I: NGOs: what they are and what they do
close this folder8. The framework of relationships within which NGOs operate
View the document(introduction...)
View the document8.1 A complex pattern of relationships
View the document8.2 Relationships with government: key issues
View the document8.3 Relationships with government: ways forward
View the document8.4 Relationships with funders: key issues
View the document8.5 Relationships with funders: ways forward
View the document8.6 Other strategies to strengthen relationships


all text © Commonwealth Foundation


This Chapter discusses other key features of the external environment within which NGOs operate. In particular there is an examination and discussion of the relationships between NGOs and governments, and between NGOs and funders.

Ways of improving both are also examined and discussed.

8.1 A complex pattern of relationships

Changes in what NGOs do, and in the political, economic, social, and institutional environments in which they operate, have considerably changed the nature and extent of the relationships which NGOs have with others. These relationships are with:

- a variety of central, local, state/regional and local government ministries. The relationships may be at both political and official levels;

- funding and donor agencies, which may include government departments, trusts/foundations, private sector donors, the general public, external (overseas) governmental, non-governmental, international, bilateral and multilateral aid and development agencies;

- the private sector. Relationships with this sector will partly be about funding, where companies act as donors, but also about other ways in which the private sector supports and works with NGOs. While funding and other relationships with the private sector are not common in all countries, "corporate social responsibility" in the private sector, as noted in Chapter 7, is growing;

- other NGOs (locally, nationally, regionally and internationally);

- individual and organisational members;

- beneficiary groups, communities and individuals who are disadvantaged;

- the general public.

Previous chapters having discussed a number of aspects of the relationships noted above, the following sections discuss the ones NGOs have with government and with funders.

8.2 Relationships with government: key issues

As has been noted, NGO/government relationships are complex. They are also dynamic, changing as the nature and purposes of NGOs have evolved, and as the overall context of the work of both has been transformed.

It would be wrong to say that the result of such changes has been the end of the consensual and contractual NGO/government relationships which developed when welfare pluralism was at its height. Far from it: in many countries, and in many aspects of the meeting of human needs, such relationships remain. New approaches by both NGOs and governments to their tasks have added new forms of relationship between NGOs and governments rather than replaced the old ones. The result is that the relationships now include: those involved in contracted service delivery and resource mobilisation; and those involved in bringing about broader social and economic change.

The issues which arise are now discussed.

Insofar as the relationships between NGOs and governments in the arena of contracted service delivery and resource mobilisation are concerned, two major issues arise.

First, the work of NGOs for governments in this arena generally takes place within the context of working relationships which are often referred to as a 'partnership'.

In some countries NGOs devote a considerable part of their efforts and derive a considerable part of their finance from these contracts. Where this occurs they are held by some to have forfeited their right to regard and present themselves as true NGOs by virtue of losing their second characteristic, that of independence, and thus to have become Quango- or Gongo-like.

Second, some hold the view that contracted work for government can undermine the sustainability of NGOs:

"The current arrangements for the (provision of) public funds to the non-government sector...(for service-delivery) via a multiplicity of (government) programs, most of which carry with them substantial responsibilities...Implicit within these funding arrangements is the expectation that...the (community-managed) non- government sector - which draws its capacity from the available voluntary resources of the community - has the time and the expertise to undertake the necessary administrative, management and legal requirements of accounting for the operation of (government) funded services...Very little support (is) available to NGO sector management committees to undertake these obligations.

The stresses of this are posing a threat to the viability of...(NGOs).

What these issues amount to is that there is a need, in contracted service delivery arrangements, for both NGOs and governments to ask themselves and each other: what short and long term effects on the status and viability of the organisation is this contract having? To address this they need to communicate, not just on the specifics of contracts, but on the general issues which they raise.

Turning to NGO/government relationships in the arena of broader change and development activities, the major issues which arise are:

NGOs have often pioneered and promoted innovative programmes and policies subsequently supported or adopted by governments. Both history and current practice abound with examples. Gender and environmental issues have in recent years, for example, largely been moved from the back burner to the forefront of the political stage as a result of the work of NGOs.

These are illustrations of how there can be other forms of productive partnership between NGOs and governments, even though it may not appear to be so at first sight or when the relationship appears to be more that involved in the battleground than the debating chamber.

NGOs which have pioneered new forms of provision or service feel that in taking them over, governments tend to remove the innovative components and swallow them into existing public institutions. Their sense of achievement is thus sometimes tempered by one of failure.

Reciprocally, governments feel that it is unreasonable and may be undesirable for public policy to be shaped by the whims and experiments of NGOs.

Some NGOs feel that there are too few lines and means of communication available which enable them to share the results of their research and innovation with government or to make representations about policy changes. Reciprocally, some government officials feel that NGOs are often too secretive about their work and do not wish to share their findings, views and ideas. Some also feel that NGOs are too ready to share these in the public arena before attempting to communicate and discuss them with government.

Thus again the issues tend to come back to the need to communicate. In many countries the ways and means for this to happen appear limited.

The two sets of issues discussed above, arising from different aspects of NGO work and consequent NGO/government relationships are complemented by more general ones. A number of these arise from concerns about NGO governance and operations which were discussed in Chapter 6 and from concerns about regulation discussed in Chapter 7. They include:

Accountability: In theory both governments and NGOs are accountable to the public. But the more this is not evident in practice, the more each tends to be suspicious of the other. In extreme, for example, the relationship between a private NGO operating in a poorly regulated environment and the government of a society which is less than fully democratic will most likely be poor. Both governments and NGOs need therefore to ensure that their lines and processes of accountability are clear.

And both need to have good information and communication arrangements between each other and with the public.

The blurring of boundaries: As has been noted, the boundaries between the concerns and interests of governments and those of major sections of interest and activity in civil society have blurred. As a result, issues concerning the roles, rights and responsibilities of the various parties have arisen and will continue to arise, as this is still a fluid and changing situation. Again, only dialogue between the parties will improve understanding between them.

8.3 Relationships with government: ways forward

It will be clear from the foregoing that good, understanding, and respectful relationships between NGOs and governments emerge in part from good, clear information. Mystery breeds suspicion and misunderstanding. Open and accessible information, of the kind referred to in Chapter 6, between government and NGOs, fosters good relationships.

In addition, communication between NGOs and government through regularly convened fora help a great deal. There are many examples of good practice already:

In one African country for example, there is a formal structure and process through which the government involves and seeks the views of NGOs when policies are being formed.

In other countries, government conferences accredit NGOs to attend. In at least one northern country, for example, there is a close working relationship between the Ministry concerned with overseas development and the principal NGOs, expressed through regular dialogue as well as contracts for service and grants.

Many people point to the value of the establishment of a central unit within government which co-ordinates and acts as a signpost between NGOs and all government ministries. This is the case in at least one country. But some people feel that such a unit may hinder rather than foster effective communication.

There are therefore many ways in which NGOs and governments are developing the dialogue essential to good relationships between them. In general, however, more needs to be done.

8.4 Relationships with funders: key issues

A common observation by NGOs of their relationship with funders is that there is often a lack of clarity as to whether funds being provided are contract payments or grants:

- contract payments mean the NGO doing what the funder (often a government funder) wants to be done;

- grants mean financing the NGO to do what it wishes to do.

Thus different forms of relationship are required in each case.

Where NGOs function as contracted service deliverers, funders contracting with them can legitimately expect to have a form of relationship which gives them an influence over the NGO on matters related to the specific service being delivered.

Ideally this relationship allows, reciprocally, for the NGO to influence the policy during its formation or review. But where NGOs secure funds for their services, activities or projects through grants, funders should not expect to exert the kind of influence they would have in a contract arrangement. A relationship through which the NGO can report on its work and experience is nonetheless still desirable.

A second issue concerns funding periods. Government funding of work within their own countries is often in the context of policies which tend not to change over long periods. In broad terms, therefore, NGOs feel that such funding should be secure over such periods, and regret that in practice it is actually often only offered on an annual (or at the very best, three-yearly) basis. This is a further way in which NGOs feel that their goals of long-term security and sustainability are undermined.

Outside government, the fact that other funders are prepared to commit funds over periods of three or more years is welcomed by NGOs.

A third issue concerns what is termed "funder faddishness" or "funder paternalism":

"Donors' funding strategies...many-a-times determine programmes, policies and priorities of the NGOs...instead of encouraging the latter to evolve their own priorities and programmes in response to their (own) analysis of the local conditions and situations"

Many funders frame their policies on their own perceptions of how their resources are best expended, and on where they feel they can secure the maximum possible impact. In the case of trusts and foundations, there may also be requirements placed upon them by the stated objectives of their founders, or the companies or endowments from which their resources are obtained. So, typically, they will have their own priorities, perceptions and objectives. NGOs point out that this has the effect of causing them to shape their work according not to their own perceptions and knowledge of needs but to the perceived interests and sensitivities of funders. Even funders having flexible mandates - including those that raise their resources through donations from the general public - are felt by NGOs to change their priorities and objectives from year to year or even more frequently, without warning or consultation. This not only distorts NGO activities - forcing them to shift from one activity to another as funder policies change - but where they actually work. One NGO worker in Asia, for example, pointed out that a number of external funders had shifted their geographical priority from one state to another: "So region A is now out and region B is in," she said, "where does that leave us ?"

Similarly, some NGO programmes supporting the development of women were adversely affected after the Rio Summit, when funding trends shifted from women to the environment.

Growth in funder faddishness has a number of other effects:

It undermines as well as distorts. Since many big funders publicise their work and concerns in order to secure funds from the public, their fads and perceptions therefore influence public opinion. In turn this can restrict the ability of many NGOs to raise funds directly from the public.

It confuses the distinction which should exist between contract and grant funds. NGOs often find themselves securing resources which restrict them to doing what funders determine to be needed, even when the funders describe such resources as grants.

It fosters fraudulent NGOs, the operators of which are very adept at exploiting "funder fads".

It leaves smaller NGOs at a disadvantage, especially those working in the fields of relatively unknown or unpopular causes and needs and those not in the know about what the latest funder fads are.

It fosters competition among NGOs, for NGOs having close relationships with particular funders are able to know about new trends and priorities at an early stage, and respond accordingly. Others get left out. It thus also tends to discourage positive development in the field of NGO co-operation and networking.

A final issue concerns funding purposes. NGO expenditure can often be divided into two broad headings: what can be called core or administrative costs, and what can be termed activity or programme costs. One of the reasons why NGOs are effective and efficient is that commonly, a greater proportion of their resources is expended on their activities and programmes, compared to public institutions. But this can, some NGOs feel, become a threat: an expectation grows that their administrative costs will not just be low in proportion to programme expenditure, but minimal, even non-existent.

The problem is compounded when funders, even those who make genuine grants available, impose conditions or have expectations which restrict the proportion of the funds that can be used for core, administrative expenditures. In consequence there are NGOs which are under-administered and under-managed, even by the admission of those running large-scale programmes. It leads some NGOs to think that they are valued by others not for their speed, creativity, efficiency, understanding, values and commitment, but rather because they are merely a cheap way of getting things done. It also means that NGOs often do not have sufficient resources to expend on the task of improving their governance and operations, as discussed in Chapter 6. When in consequence they are accused of mismanagement, their frustration is understandable.

8.5 Relationships with funders: ways forward

As in the case of NGO/government relationships, the way forward here is clearly in the direction of information, communication and dialogue. There are many good examples of funders communicating clear and detailed information about their policies and priorities. Few funders, however, appear to inform the development of such policies and priorities through dialogue with NGOs. While many funders communicate among themselves, this can have negative as well as positive effects, for dialogue among them can as easily reinforce "faddishness" as produce complementarity of diverse policies and priorities.

What funders need most of all to do is to establish mechanisms to include NGOs as partners in policy and programme goal-setting and decision-making.

8.6 Other strategies to strengthen relationships

Relationships with funders can be and are being strengthened by action among NGOs themselves. First, by communicating and networking with each other. It was noted in Chapter 6 that NGO networking has many other purposes and dimensions than sharing information and collaborating over funding and funders.

The tendency, noted above, of the potential or actual availability of funds of promoting competition among NGOs needs to be counterbalanced by co-operation. The ASDAG network in Africa was stimulated by a concern to do this, the group noting that:

"...competition among NGOs for.....funds greatly erodes their capacity and commitment to mobilise collaborative action and achieve consensus around issues of common interest..."

In partnership with an international NGO, ASDAG has prepared and published a code of practice which it hopes others will follow when dealing with external funders. Those involved in this network noted:

"...the tendency of (NGOs) in the region to place a high priority on their external links. This externally-focused orientation undermines local NGOs' legitimate mission as co-actors in the struggle of...peoples and...communities for...effective empowerment and participation, and for sustainable development..."

Among the many policies and practices proposed in the code is that:

"...NGOs must exercise adequate institutional caution in entering into funding relationships with external partners. Funding/donor contracts must be studied in detail, and the implications of every condition must be weighed carefully against the receiver's own true objectives. In particular...NGOs must avoid opportunistic funding; although such funds may provide short- term gains, they are likely to compromise the receiver's autonomy and genuine institutional development in the long-term..."

The objectives of ASDAG go beyond networking and co-operation in fact, and illustrate a second strategy. Increasingly NGOs are recognising that dependence on governments and other funders will always place some limitation on their activities and can create a culture of dependency which limits their ability to achieve long-term sustainability.

There is therefore a growing trend among NGOs to find ways of increasing their ability to be self-financing. The starting point for many is the realisation that they have specialist (and often advanced) knowledge and expertise. This may be in dealing with particular needs and problems, or in activities such as resource mobilisation or research in particular fields. In this, organisations which choose to remain focused upon activities and services which relate closely to their objectives (rather than branch out into various activities in an opportunistic manner, regardless of their objectives or knowledge and skills) are at an advantage. In the search for self-sufficiency this specialist knowledge and expertise is the greatest asset of NGOs that can be capitalised upon. Doing so includes selling the expertise by providing services or goods: for example, NGOs that have become expert in providing training for the unemployed can sell such expertise by selling training services to the private sector. This in turn means setting up enterprises to do so. Mechanisms for self-sufficiency also include establishing endowment funds, making investments, and increasing fund-raising abilities generally. Networks and individual NGOs are pursuing such strategies more and more.