- Hire people who understand and commit to your cause
Commitment, passion, desire to make a change, these are hopefully some of the motivators for people to start an NGO. At some point in time, we are struck by the desire for intervention & involvement, of making a difference to the existing scenario. Irrespective of the area of work of the NGO, it is critical for the cause, that we employ only those who truly understand and commit to our ideology. This, unfortunately is easier said than done. The pressure of program implementation, shortage of qualified and committed individuals, lack of funds are just a few of the several reasons an organisation may be tempted to make do with whatever and whoever is available. Quality organisations are built by hiring and engaging with quality people for whom quality is a way of life. A perfunctory approach may appear to move things forward, but only causes damage in the long run. “Why do you want to join our organisation” may seem like a dated question for the corporate sector, in my opinion, the answer to this reveals a lot about a potential hire in the NGO sector.
For this and a host of other reasons, hiring the right people to setup and head Human Resources should be a top priority. Unlike the corporate sector, NGO’s require a vastly different mindset. Social service, association with a cause, strong desire to contribute, personal stakes and a sense of fulfillment are some of the usual driving forces –at least they should be. While most founder trustees may share this passion, the real challenge is to ensure this mindset is shared by each employee and volunteer. It is thus imperative that HR policies regarding selection and hiring are well defined and properly implemented. It makes sense to hire a person who is passionate, committed and believes in what you are doing; but is maybe weak in organisational ability, because you can train him in the latter. The former are inborn traits and are hugely difficult to teach.
Professionals with extensive corporate experience are ideal candidates for organisational responsibilities in NGOs. They can bring in their vast knowledge of systems, good governance, policies and strategy. However, at times when professionals on a sabbatical from their high pressure corporate routines join the NGO sector, the results may not be as expected. Contrary to popular belief, there are an equal amount of (if not more) pressures in the NGO sector. This is not an area for those who want to recharge themselves by taking a break from the demands of their daily routines. Sadly, many times professionals want in, because they feel the opportunity will allow them to do something meaningful with their expertise and experience but with lesser demands on their time and space. Nothing can be further from the truth. NGOs primarily deal with funds that are donated and not earned through business dealings. As such the accountability required to justify spends, programs and activities are much higher, as donors ideally want to see their contributions making the desired impact. This requires extra effort to ensure that the programs are on track, teams are well prepared, stakeholders are on board and in general, official documentation and paperwork is in place AND to top it all, the programs and activities are making a genuine impact.
To cite a very simplified example, an accountant in an NGOs has to very often, prepare separate reports, one for each donor, and more often than not in prescribed formats, outlining allocations, spends, deficits, surplus, impact and so on –and this is repeated every month. It’s a very different scenario from that in the accounts department of a private company, where say, annual or quarterly account statements may suffice. Similarly those in senior management positions in NGOs may also be required to actively contribute on the field. They may or may not be mentally prepared to do so, and it would be detrimental to discover this when they are needed in the trenches. If you want to take advantage of the expertise of such a senior professional but are unsure of their ability to be active contributors, it is better to engage them as consultants on specific projects. Even then, it is advisable that both sides clearly define the deliverables and expectations at the outset.
A progressive hiring policy enables an organisation to always hire the right fit, irrespective of age, experience, expertise and background. For the purpose of continuity, it is better to hire candidates who can clearly commit time to the organisation. Unlike the corporate setup where the rules of sales, marketing, management, administration etc., are more or less common and follow established practices, NGOs have customised demands and systems that are tailored to specific programs and activities. These may require time to fully comprehend and lead. A break in continuity due to the loss of staff that is specially trained for an activity can slow down and negatively impact the activity which then directly affects the beneficiaries. It is thus crucial that hiring policies and processes are well defined and properly implemented.
- Process Documentation
Each process employed by the team to implement programs should be documented in detail. This ensures ease of use and implementation on the field. Teams then spend less time speculating about the next step and can focus on a result oriented approach where the maximum time is spent in the actual implementation of the process, rather than in trying to understand and speculate about the course of action. Another huge advantage of process documentation is the amount of time, effort and energy it saves in training new hires. A process driven organisation understands the importance of eliminating human error as a result of human interventions. This is the reason processes are documented. More the details, lesser are the chances of errors due to individual misinterpretations.
Writing SOP’s should be one of the first things to do at the start your operations. Yes, we learn along the way, but that should not be a reason to delay documentation. In-fact the earlier we start documenting, the sooner we reach optimal performance. Documentation forces us to examine, breakdown and reconstitute our strategy. It is a fantastic way to critically analyse our systems and bring about the required changes. What may have ‘felt’ as the right way can be accepted only if it can be truly justified through critical analysis, retracing of all the steps and objectively evaluating the outcomes –in writing. Theory has to be corroborated with proof of delivery. When we physically write a process (i.e. describe it on paper), we are forced to think of all the steps, all the different scenarios that may arise, and the potential solutions to each; and this in turn forces us to critically evaluate each step and determine if it really is the ideal way to approach the situation at hand.
NGOs deal with a number of people that include consultants, suppliers, resource persons, supporters, donors, partners, beneficiaries etc. Selecting the right collaborator is as important for the organisation as are defining the goals and objectives. SOPs that describe the process of partner engagement can help in identification, shortlisting, selection and finalisation of the right people for our mission. Similar SOPs can help us to identify and engage with the most deserving potential beneficiary as well and further, enable us to conduct detailed impact assessments of our various programs.
- Active monitoring and internal audits
Implementation of programs should be complemented with objective monitoring and reporting. As the size of the organisation grows and more programs, activities are added to the repertoire, it is important to keep active control over the execution of the activities. When the intent to conduct a program or activity is clearly for the benefit of the stakeholders and in line with the objectives of the organisation, there is no reason why a thorough monitoring and reporting system should not be put in place and implemented honestly. Further, proper internal audits and reports on events and activities are a huge confidence booster for existing donors and an attractive draw for potential prospects. An organisation that is above board will ensure that its reporting on spends is accurate and with the highest degree of accountability. This is something that most serious donors appreciate.
One of the other advantages of internal audits and monitoring is that these enable us to evaluate the efforts put in by the organisation v/s the benefits received by the targeted stakeholders. If we are spending money on an activity that has poor acceptance and response, better to find that out quickly so that we don’t have good money chasing lost causes. And definitely better if we find this out internally, rather than it being revealed through an independent audit by our donors. Either we can put in corrective measures, or in the worst case scenario, utilise funds for programs yield better results. Funds are the most scarce commodity for an NGO and raising them is one of the most difficult tasks for a non-profit organisation. Our survival and functioning depends entirely on the charity of organisations that believe in our cause and mission. It’s always a good practice to justify their faith in us through hard facts and a proactive approach. A donor is more likely to invest generously in our cause, if we can show exhaustive documentation of our spends, including detailed reports that trace the impact of our various interventions.
- Pay attention to feedback
We must listen to what our stakeholders are telling us. We must evaluate and implement suggestions that help us to improve our programs. What may have been an ideal program 2 years ago, may not be relevant for the present times. We have to evolve and keep moving in sync with the times. Our stakeholders are the best sounding boards for our activities. It is for them that we are implementing our programs. If they give us feedback that something is not helping them as planned, it is time to introspect, examine and determine whether this is a genuine concern or an individual viewpoint. We must act appropriately and quickly to resolve the issues whether at the individual level or at the structural level of our program. We must never ever ignore feedback from our stakeholders using the excuse of our experience or on the pretext that we know what’s best for them. They are the affected party and the reason we are doing what we are.
Many a times, donors are not fully aware of the ground realities and rely solely on our opinions and feedback regarding program structures and impact. We must keep them in the loop and make use of their expertise. Large corporations have systems in place; good, bad or indifferent, nonetheless, these are functioning tried and tested processes. Also, people in these organisations meet and deal with a myriad of individuals and situations on a daily basis. One can never predict who can help, where, when and how. As a progressive organisation, we must keep our eyes and ears open to learn and absorb good practices no matter where we see them.
- Empathy towards stakeholders
Stakeholders form the entire chain of connections that lead up to our ultimate beneficiaries and are critical for the success of our programs. Strong empathy is a vital ingredient for this eclectic mix. We must put ourselves in the position of the other party while keeping focus on our prime objectives and core mission. If our stakeholders come to us with a problem, we must address it quickly and professionally. In most cases, the ultimate beneficiaries usually do not have anyone else but us to turn to. Once we are engaged with them, they will, in most cases look up to us to help solve their problems, irrespective of whether these are relevant to our specific activity and program. For them, we are someone who cares, and this trust should never be broken. Not attending to issues in time, procrastinating, making people wait for resolutions because our organisation is ‘busy’ is the surest way to alienate our target audience.
Another area we must pay attention to is induction of new hires into our organisations. We must follow a proper induction program that is well defined and clearly understood by HR. It is not enough to merely go through the customary introductions followed by a brief statement of the role the inductee will be playing. Remember why we are all here and what is our common purpose. The new inductee is an addition to our group who believes in something –individually as well as collectively. He/She should therefore be welcomed with inclusiveness from the group. We must make them feel comfortable and important. He/She is not just another employee, but is an important addition to our committed group of individuals. We mustn’t leave them be to figure out the people and their roles in the organisation. The manner of an individuals’ welcome into a group or team makes a lasting impression and plays a vital role in subconsciously determining their overall attitude towards the group and its objectives. It’s basic human nature and nothing beyond it. Would we really want to work for an organisation that claims to work for others but hasn’t the foggiest idea of how to treat its own?
- Sensitivity towards vendor relations
This is all about keeping our extended team together for the sake of our programs. We must remember, that it is our program, our need and our requirement because it is our cause. No one else cares about it or has to care about it as much as us. So it is in our own interest to keep our flock together. Building a shared sense of belonging and belief in the objectives and core mission of our organisation is winning half the battle. A supplier has no pressing compulsion to give us good rates on his products, save and except for the fact that he recognises and respects our cause and wants to be seen as an active contributor. That’s him making peace with his own self; his feel good factor. Now, its up to us to either keep him on our side, or alienate him as a result our behavior. A false sense of entitlement is the main reason for a non-profit organisation to lose critical supporters. It takes time to build relations with people, to make them see the value of what we are selflessly doing for society. Even then, the cause, objectives, beliefs and reasons are ours alone. Yes, there may be many suppliers available in the market for a particular requirement, but where would you rather spend time, on programs and activities or on constantly developing new vendors for routine requirements? We must ensure we clear payments on time and not make suppliers chase us for their dues. We must be proactive in accounting and should call and inform ahead of time if we are likely to miss a deadline. We should command respect, and not demand it just because we are doing some charity. That does not entitle us to preferential treatment from anyone. We must respect, appreciate and be grateful for the support that we get. We must ensure professional and ethical operations as these alone will help us to build long lasting relations with the right people.
- Engage with industry to build capacity
Securing funds to specifically enable capacity building is a big challenge for NGOs. The reluctance of donors to support such initiatives remains a mystery. The skewed philosophy of willingness to support programs but not capacity building activities that ultimately affect programs seems to be based more on perceptions and misconceptions rather than on hard facts and ground realities. While there are organisations that help NGOs specifically in capacity building initiatives, for the majority, it is still a difficult task to find the funds that are needed for such activities.
Nonetheless it is important for our organisations to regularly engage with professionals from the industry as well as from our own sector to help augment the capabilities of our teams. These could be in general areas such as individual personality development or in technical aspects that are specific to the requirements of our core programs. Regular refresher courses and stakeholder training programs can ensure better communication, overall improvement in program delivery, monitoring and audits, feedback, stakeholder engagement, development of team members and better impact of our activities.
- Network & Collaborate
Organisations cannot and should not try to do everything on their own. We must focus on our core competence and objectives. We should seek out like minded NGOs that are willing to collaborate, share resources, contacts and truly expand our network. Unfortunately, with an exponential increase in the number of NGOs vying for a share of the not so vast corporate CSR pool, it takes a high degree of maturity, professionalism and confidence in our own abilities to really open up our network to a ‘competing’ organisation. The irony of organisations competing to provide social services cannot be lost here. To a large extent it is the responsibility of donor organisations to encourage the culture of cooperation. Replication of efforts is justified where limitations of outreach and bandwidth affect the ability to make a meaningful impact.
Donors can also provide resources that are over and above financial aid. Often times it is a contact or a specific resource that can be arranged through the offices of our donors. We should not shy away from using this opportunity. A donor is not merely a bank account that facilitates funding. Each and every supporter can bring a huge cache of non-material goodies to the table. A large part of this depends on the groundwork laid at the time of initiating a new relationship. While some donors may be happy to provide funds and then practice a hands-off operations policy, others may be a lot more involved (beyond the quarterly update meetings and reports). That does not in any way imply, that as an organisation we should refrain from engaging with our donors in a more proactive manner. Asking for help is a sign of maturity and not a measure of competence.
- Structure the organisation
Whatever be the size of our operations, we must structure our organisational hierarchy. We should clearly define each role and the associated responsibilities. We must delegate appropriate authority with responsibility. In the initial years, many people may be required to wear multiple hats. This is reason enough to define roles clearly so that in future, when we do acquire the ability to expand or add more activities and programs, people are clear about expectations and deliverables. Structure enables easier delegation and accountability with less chance of oversight due to assumptions. When we add a new position or remove, amalgamate existing ones, we must ensure that the entire organisation including our stakeholders and donors are appraised of our decision.
We must ensure that we set up clear lines of communication between the various levels within our organisational structure. We should discourage people to jump the direct line of oversight. As the head of an organisation, department, team or collection of people, this means we should not encourage juniors to go around their immediate superiors and come directly to us, merely to ensure that we are seen as a leader who follows an open door policy. Structure and hierarchies are designed for a reason. Whether we follow a pyramidal, horizontal or diagonal design, allowing people to sidestep authority encourages indiscipline and undermines seniority and authority assigned to our personnel. Many CXOs fall into this trap, where, in an effort to be ‘close’ to their employees, they deliberately blur the lines marking the domains of leaders under them. Why appoint a department head, if you are going to overturn every decision, and directly deal with the members of his/her department?
Every good leader is known to nurture talent, but the secret of exceptional leaders is that they actively nurture successors. It is very easy to lure talent into an organisation, but is a lot more difficult to ensure that they stay. Committed professionals do not want to invest time, effort and energy in an organisation that itself is in a state of disarray. They have far too many options and opportunities awaiting. So if we want to attract the best, we must start by implementing structures, systems and processes within our organisation. It has the added advantage of attracting serious donors as well. Corporates have little interest in investing time and energy in ventures that are disorganised, either structurally or operationally.
- Focus on quality, not quantity
It doesn’t matter if our interventions impact 1 life or a 1000. What actually matters is the quality of our impact. Social work is not a competition. As an NGO, our focus should be purely on the quality of our interventions measured as a difference between the baseline and endline assessments of our beneficiaries. Unfortunately most donors do not invest the required time in the field to really study the impact of their financial contributions. They rely largely on spreadsheets and reports and in some cases the occasional organised donor visit. None of these provide an accurate picture of the ground realities. Reports are largely quantitative in nature. e.g number of beneficiaries in the previous year v/s numbers adopted in the current year etc. Unfortunately, the detailing is these reports is limited to breakdown of fund allocation and spends, whereas it should focus on the qualitative impact of each rupee spent. It doesn’t matter to our beneficiary if along with him, 20 others like him, have received our support. What matters to him is the quality of our support and the actual difference it has specifically made to his life. And ultimately, isn’t that the main reason why we are operating? Our focus shifts from quality to quantity when we start chasing numbers and this happens the day our question changes from how can we affect lives to how many lives can we affect?
The nature of marketing is such that most organisations base their credibility entirely on numbers. Claiming that a skill development seminar attracted 1,000 participants is definitely a better marketing pitch than accepting that 50 attendees benefitted from a session. The majority is more interested in shouting out the number of footfalls and not in the actual takeaway for the participants. This is a common practice found in public events and seminars. Unfortunately there is no simple answer to this as there are a many reasons ranging from pressures of fund generation to requirements from donors. There are many instances I can cite where financial support has been refused because of the inadequate number of beneficiaries. At times, certain donors want to be seen as touching a large number of lives, and are not overtly concerned about quality of the impact. Similarly, NGOs may want to be seen as making an impact on a large section of society in order to substantiate their claim to the leading position in that specific area of work. Quantification of impact is actually a fairly simple exercise, but requires detailed documentation. At the very core are baseline and endline results. These are supplemented by assessment reports that may be corroborated through independent audits. We can create a fairly accurate picture of the actual impact of our programs if we are regular in the upkeep of the progress track of our beneficiaries. When we focus on the quality of our impact, we remain true to our core ideology and the fundamental reasons for our interventions in the social sector.
In order to build a truly sustainable organisation that makes a real difference, it is advisable to not rush but to build slowly and carefully. It doesn’t matter if that takes twice as long because an organisation that is built on strong fundamentals is more likely to survive for twice as long and grow twice as much. In this respect, building an NGO is no different from building a professional company, with the only difference that a corporate conducts its operations for profit. In fact when we actively aspire to adopt best practices from all sectors, we are assured of the good that these do in the long run.