Tips for global activists about|
running sound organizations
By JOY HYVARINEN and ELIZABETH WALL
NGOs (non-governmental organizations) sometimes see management as
belonging in the corporate world, with little relevance to their organizations, be they citizens' groups, peace groups, environmental organizations or other interest groups.
However, management is not about expensive consultants, buzzwords or the
latest in corporate management chic. It is about making best use of resources, creating a
good working environment and being the most effective NGO that you can. Most of it is just
Some important DO's and DON'Ts for NGO managers are:
- 1. Set clear goals and priorities.
DO define what you are trying to achieve, as clearly as possible. Think
strategically and assess how short-term goals fit in with long-term ones. You need to keep
an eye out for any useful opportunities that come up, but don't be so opportunistic that
you end up losing sight of long-term goals. Prioritize: how should you allocate available
resources? If you have two great project ideas and just enough funds and staff to do both,
nine times out of ten you will be more effective by focusing all your resources on only
one of them.
DON'T try to do everything. This risks diluting your resources and
weakening the overall impact of your activities. At the end of the day, you are likely to
have little to show for it and may even have lost critical ground in important areas.
Probably the single biggest mistake NGOs make is reacting to everything - don't do it. No
NGO has unlimited resources and focusing your efforts is the best way to achieve results.
- 2. Clarify expectations.
DO ensure that everyone involved in a project or activity understands
what is expected. Clarify what the different starting points are. People might have become
involved having very different expectations and different levels of resources to dedicate
to a project.
DON'T assume! If you find yourself saying "but I thought you were
going to do it" to a colleague, or if you suddenly discover that a partner NGO will
only be able to participate in part of a project, you should have clarified expectations
earlier. Don't assume everyone has the same background knowledge or automatically
understands a goal in the same way. If an NGO network is campaigning to be allowed to
participate in a public meeting, "participation" might mean different things to
different people (does it include the right to speak? To participate in all parts of the
meeting?). Clarify, or you might find some campaign partners declaring victory to the
press while others are announcing defeat.
- 3. Plan.
DO have a written work plan for both individual staff and activities. It
reminds people of what the goals are, it helps keep things on track and - with major
projects or campaigns - it helps people see where they fit into the big picture. Writing a
plan helps you assess what kind of resources are required and when. It is a good tool when
you need to revise your approach to a project and when you are assessing staff
performance. "Plan your work and work your plan" might be a well-worn phrase,
but it is still a good piece of advice.
DON'T expect people to automatically remember what to do and when. Be
careful not to take on too many responsibilities and winding up letting a lot of people
down. Most NGO staff are overworked and there is little margin for error - if one person
in a project slips up, the knock-on effect can be disastrous. So, don't put your plan in a
drawer and forget it.
- 4. Learn from both successes and failures.
DO aim to be a "learning organization". No, it is not just
another management fad! It means becoming an effective NGO by thinking, on an on-going
basis, about whether you are approaching things the right way. It includes learning from
both successes and failures by evaluating work, which doesn't need to mean paying
expensive consultants. A project team's work plan can simply note that the team will ask
itself certain questions on certain dates. On a local project, the team might stop and ask
itself after the first six months if it has gained the involvement and support of people
living in the area. If not, why? Has the information reached the right people? Was the
DON'T think that evaluation happens automatically when you discuss
project results. People tend to repress negative experiences and it is easy to forget what
you meant to do originally, once a project or campaign has been running for some time.
- 5. Get it right.
DO ensure that you get the facts right. Double-check information. If the
information is critical - especially if it is part of a public message - triple-check.
Your mistake can reflect negatively not just on your NGO but also on other organizations.
DON'T rely on others having checked their facts, unless you are
absolutely certain that they did. Regardless of the time pressures, don't be tempted to
fudge it now and make a correction later on. Mistakes happen and good organizations admit
to them, but sloppy work creates credibility problems which can do you and your
organization irreparable harm.
- 6. Change.
DO stay open to change. NGOs are the ultimate change agents and to be
successful they themselves need to be able to change. While you should be closely guided
by your organizational mission and will want to stick to your work plan and goals, the key
to ultimate success is knowing when to adapt. NGOs work in a dynamic, constantly evolving
environment, which means that you need to be flexible and able to adjust to different
scenarios and new challenges. Explore new ways of doing things.
DON'T get stuck in a comfortable rut and assume that what you did before
is automatically going to work again. If you hear yourself saying "I guess we'll just
do it the usual way", it is probably time to wake up.
- 7. If you are the boss, lead!
DO remember that if you are the boss, you are (probably) paid more than
your colleagues for a reason: it is your job to take the decisions no one else wants to
take. Take on the tough issues. Aim to be ahead of the game. Try to sort out problems and
resolve conflicts before they happen. Hire staff for strength through diversity. Take
responsibility when something goes wrong, consider what you and the organization can learn
from it and take measures to ensure it doesn't happen again. Leaders know how to say
"it was my mistake".
DON'T hope that things will work out by themselves. Don't encourage a
blame culture by blaming your mistakes on others. Don't hire people just because you feel
comfortable with them or they remind you of yourself ten years ago. Don't turn staff
empowerment into a way of avoiding leadership responsibility.
- 8. Be realistic.
DO keep in mind that things seldom work out exactly as planned. Expect
setbacks and have a contingency plan in place whenever possible. Be realistic about
people: they often say they will do things and fail because they have too much to do or
they forget (if you need something by the 20th, you might try to set the deadline as the
DON'T sulk or wallow in self-pity if something doesn't come out as
expected. You need to be strategic and find a way around the problem. If your NGO
coalition falls apart because the steering committee members are immersed in conflict,
don't let your own frustration and anger prolong the conflict. Put your ego on hold and
try to make things work, provided you believe it is worth the effort.
- 9. Communicate strategically.
DO keep lines of communication open all the time. Be strategic about
information. Ensure you know who the relevant point people are. Consider who needs to
know. Why do they need to know? How much information do they need? Everyone in your NGO
needs to know about major public initiatives, such as a big press conference, but only
those actively involved need all the detailed information (although give the information
to anyone else who asks for it).
DON'T assume that because you informed one person, he or she will
automatically inform others. Don't overwhelm people with information. If you work in an
international environment, don't assume that everyone understands the same language
equally well. In particular, don't assume the whole world speaks English. Don't try to
censor information or control people by not telling them what is happening - it doesn't
- 10. Do the right thing.
DO keep your word, treat your staff and colleagues with respect and
fairness and lend a helping hand to other NGOs whenever possible. It will gain you respect
and you will be able to count on help from others when you need it. It is the smart thing
DON'T break promises, treat your staff or colleagues badly,
"borrow" ideas from other NGOs or take credit when it belongs to someone else.
The NGO world is small and what goes around is likely to come around sooner than you
- ©Earth Times News Service
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Comments and suggestions:
Hari Srinivas - firstname.lastname@example.org