NGO Leadership Challenges: Creating a Space for Reflection

transparency leadership ngos accountability
Wednesday, 30 July, 2008 - 07:10

NGO leaders face extraordinary challenges which are very distinct from those faced by leaders in government and the private sector. David Barnard explores these challenges.

NGO leaders face extraordinary challenges which are very distinct from those faced by leaders in government and the private sector. They often function in isolated and unsupported circumstances, and are faced with a set of complex and interrelated challenges relating to NGOs’ social change mission, increased pressure for accountability and transparency, the need for unquestioned integrity and to maximise limited resources, and the ability to network and position their organisations in an uncertain external and political environment.

The NGO environment in South Africa continues to experience various strategic changes and challenges that impact on the state and well-being of the NGO sector. The closure and collapse of key NGOs as a result of increased competition for funding and changing donor priorities, the absence of a functional national coordinating structure, and high turnover of senior staff are some of the key issues facing the sector.

Increasingly, this situation is raising important questions about leadership in the sector, the institutional memory of the sector, and the individual and collective capacity of NGO leaders to respond and overcome these challenges.

NGO leaders face extraordinary challenges which are very distinct from those faced by leaders in government and the private sector. They often function in isolated and unsupported circumstances, and are faced with a set of complex and interrelated challenges relating to NGOs’ social change mission, increased pressure for accountability and transparency, the need for unquestioned integrity and to maximise limited resources, and the ability to network and position their organisations in an uncertain external and political environment.

Furthermore, NGO leaders are also confronted with a new set of challenges, including the role and impact of technology on their organisations, the need for more collaborative approaches to project funding and implementation, and the positioning of the sector in response to the political leadership changes that South Africa will experience over the next year.

With traditional civil society strengthening and capacity-building NGOs disappearing from the NGO landscape, and staff development priorities often competing with operational objectives, not enough attention is given to the process of renewing leadership in the sector and building sustainable organisational capacity.

This situation is ultimately affecting the role, position and development impact of the NGO sector in South Africa.

In response to this situation, SANGONeT and Project Literacy initiated the NGO CEO Circle in early 2006 to create a platform within the leadership of the NGO sector in Gauteng to discuss common institutional and strategic development issues on a regular basis thereby creating the opportunity to highlight problems and share solutions.

Held quarterly and hosted by a different NGO on a rotational basis, CEO Circles are attended by 10-15 NGO CEOs per event. A guest speaker is usually invited to introduce a specific issue of strategic interest to participants. Some of the issues covered during the past two years include strategic HR management challenges, legislation impacting on the NGO sector, BEE codes, and strategic ICT trends.

Over and above the specific issues covered during each event, NGO CEO Circles also provide participants with an important opportunity for networking and to reflect on various issues and challenges facing the NGO sector in general. These include the nature and focus of media coverage about the sector, the relationship between the State and the sector, and financial sustainability.

Building on the success of the NGO CEO Circles, and to coincide with SANGONeT's 20th anniversary celebrations and the launch of Prodder - NGOs and Development in South Africa 2008 SANGONeT hosted the inaugural NGO CEO Summit on 29 November 2007 at the Balalaika Hotel in Sandton. The event was a first for leaders of the NGO sector in Gauteng.

The theme of the inaugural NGO CEO Summit was "Leadership Fitness: From Challenge, To Engagement, To Performance". Participation was limited to 40 NGO CEOs in order to ensure quality discussions and interaction through peer-to-peer, face-to-face exchange of experiences.

Discussions were thought-provoking and informative, with most CEOs sharing similar experiences and challenges in leading their NGOs. The event also presented CEOs with an important networking opportunity, one of the key benefits and outcomes acknowledged by most participants.

SANGONeT aims to convene the NGO CEO Summit annually in Gauteng, with the next event scheduled for November 2008. Based on interest generated and feedback received, SANGONeT will also consider hosting similar events in other parts of South Africa. The frequency of CEO Circles will in future also change to bi-monthly events.

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