Redefining the roles of NGOs

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

A file photo of an NGO. Photo: Ayan Laha
A file photo of an NGO. Photo: Ayan Laha

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.

Suvojit Chattopadhyay is a consultant with over seven years of experience in the implementation and evaluation of development interventions.

More From Livemint