We are living through difficult times. Austerity measures by governments in Western Europe and North America have seen the coffers of local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) depleting. It has been widely discussed as a season of sustainability challenges for most NGOs. Owing to our reliance on foreign funding, austerity has apparently dented our sustainability. I, however, do not readily share into that perspective of sustainability. Perhaps the greatest challenge is defining sustainability itself. Yes, semantics can be the difference between survival of NGOs or their death. I have realised that by and large most NGOs have defined sustainability as a reflection of the availability of funding into the future. I rather we define sustainability as an assessment of the continued need to drive a cause, only when such need is validated, can we effectually explore opportunities to fund such cause.
NGOs are essentially social enterprises, founded to address a social challenge. The termination of funding contracts does not always coincide with the fulfilment of the underlying social cause. What these times demand of us as managers of such social enterprises is out-of-the-box thinking. We need to introspect as organisations, self-audit and identify the latent capital within our organisations. This latent capital is mostly in the form of human capital; organisational intellectual memory, goodwill, geo-political relationships and the state of the ‘market’ and ‘competition’ thereof. I have deliberately used the words market and competition as I believe there is a lot we can learn from the profit sector in terms of surviving and sustaining ourselves through difficult periods.
There is a lot of potential in the human being that is unfortunately suppressed by job descriptions. Management culture should unlock such human talents and allow free expressions towards achieving the mission of the organisation. You will be amazed at the number of social activists, fundraisers, relationship builders, innovators you will liberate by allowing staff to freely express their talents beyond their job descriptions. These contributions ordinarily come at no additional cost. As you unlock the latent human capital, you invariably foster sustainability as innovation; energy and collective drive naturally attract capital from different sources.
NGOs do not operate in a vacuum. They are, to a large extent, a vehicle used to implement international aid strategies of foreign governments and philanthropists. NGOs that are best able to interpret foreign affairs and the international relations objectives and strategies between local and foreign governments will have a lead in optimizing and leveraging such geo-political relationships to their best advantage in unlocking cooperation and funding opportunities. Such global political intelligence should consider existing and developing bi-lateral and multi-lateral relationships as well as emerging fora such as BRICS, understanding how they intend to work and the opportunities they present to your NGO. In such geo-political fora exists latent opportunities which must be unlocked to support the sustainability of NGOs.
Organisational intellectual memory: Past achievements, work and intellectual products should be retained and articulated to generate new knowledge and/or justify the need and your capacity to lead the generation of new knowledge. Such organisational memory should thus be the building block of organisational goodwill. In showing why your cause should be supported, goodwill is an important and attractive asset.
State of the ‘market’ and ‘competition’: There’s so much we can borrow from the for-profit sector in terms of survival and sustainability strategies. Noting that there are multiple NGOs pursuing a similar cause, this may be a time to reflect on the effectiveness of our individual efforts and the potential of a collective front. Remember the adage: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Sustainability speaks to distance and continuity and therefore we are best advised to work collectively in such trying times of funding challenges. In the profit world, companies merge and undertake other humbling strategies to ensure survival and protect the interests of the shareholder (cause in the case of NGOs). It is time to explore such strategies to unlock the potential of a united front towards driving a cause. This should mean improved infrastructure, skills and goodwill which will prove beneficial to a united NGO rather than different singular NGOs.
NGOs and the corporate social investment (CSI) market corporates are increasingly developing social investment programmes. However, being profit-oriented, these organisations may not readily have the know-how and infrastructure to implement these programmes. This therefore opens another avenue to collaborate with profit companies to drive our mutual social ambitions. As NGOs we must now learn corporate-speak and show cause why partnerships between the two sectors will enable them to achieve their social investment strategies in a cost- effective manner by partnering with our NGOs. Just by researching the CSI strategies, which may be readily available for listed companies, we may be able to develop sound proposals to attract such profit companies and thus support our sustainability.
I hope that this article provokes you to reconsider how we strategise the sustainability of your organisation. Better still, I hope this article opens your eyes to the latent capital within and around you and that when unlocking such potential you protect the space of the NGOs in contributing to social good.
- Simba Chigwedere is a Finance and Projects Officer at the Southern African Network of Nurses And Midwives. His interests include research, strategy, project management and writing. He writes in his personal capacity. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.