Take Your Pick!

governance ngos sustainability beneficiaries
Monday, 30 July, 2012 - 08:49

In this article, the author looks at two nonprofit organisations and what they could consider doing in order to sustain themselves and their services and reach out to more beneficiaries

“Social justice leads to social stability, which leads to people who are committed to the future,” Dr Mamphela Ramphele.

I am very privileged to consult train and mentor to a variety of nonprofit organisations (NPOs) and community-based organisations (CBOs) around the country. Some of these organisations do the most astonishing and brave work – consider the NPO in Bloemfontein; which deals with rescuing people from satanism and the occult, those who deal with restorative justice, those who offer safe abortions to pregnant girls and women, and those lobbying for the rights and protection of sex workers. These are people who are addressing the very tough and uncomfortable social ills we face daily, but they do it with extraordinary pride and dedication. For these organisations and many like them, the driving force is the welfare and protection of their beneficiaries. The two case studies below illustrate the difference between NPOs who work for beneficiaries and those who are suffering from ‘mission-drift’.


Staff: 70–75

Annual budget: R28 million

Projects: Between five and seven at any given time

Beneficiaries: Exact figures not available - somewhere between 5 000 and 6 000

Organisational operations: Duties clearly spelt out; every staff member has a very specific job title.

Meetings scheduled for 9am every Monday morning

Control measures: Very strict control measures for finances, time and work sheets, stock control, telephone and cellphone bills.

When I arrived at NPO A I found a very orderly place. The staff all knew what was expected of them, everything was running smoothly. It seemed like an NPO of textbook perfection. No noise, no chaos. ‘Gosh’ - I thought ‘they do not need me – this place is running like a well-oiled machine. No problems here.”

I did have to wait 35 minutes to see the person who would made the appointment (some crises occurred, she explained). So I thought a good start would be to chat to some staff members – the fundraising department, social workers, administrative staff and senior management. I had no problem accessing any staff members, they had time to see me - no pressure at this NPO, everything was running according schedule. The things the staff members told me were so disheartening – they did not trust the board, management or their colleagues. The amount of jealously and backstabbing has led to staff dissatisfaction and a high staff turnover. They believe money and resources are not always being used effectively and beneficiaries are paid lip service – their lives will never really change. It is sad to hear these things – and I was angry when I left knowing that there is so much to do.


Staff: 78

Annual budget: R133 million

Projects: 11 projects

Beneficiaries: 13 865

Organisational operations: Staff were employed with specific competencies in mind i.e. finances and project leadership. But their collective mission is to serve beneficiaries – so if duties become blurred, so be it – get the job done. Meetings are held as and when needed.

Control measures: They are not policed, they are trusted - but if they let the team down - they are toast.

My experience at NPO B was quite different from NPO A – a sense of quiet chaos reigned. Staff were rushing around; phones were ringing all the time. A switchboard with 30 incoming lines were answered by staff who instinctively knew where to direct calls to.

The person with whom I had the appointment was dead on time – and our meeting lasted for exactly an hour – of course it did, I would have been sent an agenda weeks before. Our goals were clear, their problems verses my solutions.

No whining or whinging. No gossiping – no time for that. Many of the staff have been there since day one. They are excited about the work they do, they pitch in to get the work done – whatever it takes – they feel a real sense of joy and job fulfilment when the lives of their beneficiaries are permanently improved. New ideas and dreams are encouraged. The status quo is upset every day to make way for new and better systems, calculated risks are taken and anything that will increase the number of beneficiaries and the way their lives are positively affected.

Formal meetings are replaced by informal brainstorming sessions and an attitude of ‘can do’ prevails.

I have no doubt that staff members at NPO B feel valued and important. Why not? They are treated like adults with valuable contributions to make.

Both NPOs do wonderful work and their services are in demand.

Where would you like to work? NPO A or NPO B?

I cannot fault the original organisational structure at NPO A, but I feel they have allowed themselves to drown in systems; systems which perhaps suit senior management, but look at the high staff turnover, the relatively small beneficiary and donor pool. Let go! Trust your staff, allow them to take risks, let them own their projects and support them when times are tough.

I applaud the way NPO B allows for individuality and risk taking – in a happy and chaotic atmosphere. Beneficiary numbers are increasing every month and communities are being transformed and healed.

It is time for us to remember that the most important people in any NPO are the beneficiaries we serve. It is their plight that should be top of mind and not the systems that prevent us from doing valuable work and as is evident from my experience that when your beneficiaries are the most important people, good governance, efficiency and sustainability will automatically follow.

- Sandra Millar is founder of NPO Development & Training. Over the past 10 years she has trained, coached and mentored National NPO’s, CBOs, FBOs, members of Corporate South Africa. She has also trained in many SACD counties.

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