The Harrowing Tale of NGO Human Resource Management

South African NGOs underpay senior management while overpaying support staff.  We also employ a disproportionate number of administrative staff and our efforts at defining roles and responsibilities can best be described as vague.

These critical comments come from human resources consultant Lisa Lazarus of LTF Consulting, who recently addressed the Gauteng-based CEO Circle.

Lazarus’ presentation reflected on “Human Resource Trends in NGOs”, predominantly covering the themes staff performance and remuneration.

Citing several human resource challenges related to inadequate performance management, Lazarus contended that NGOs accommodate poor performance all too easily; automatically award bonuses; and are weak at developing clear performance standards and indicators. This she argued, sets inappropriate precedents when NGO bosses suddenly find themselves in the awkward position of having to let someone go. However, she did go on to argue that human resource problems lie not so much in laid-back staff as they do in reluctant managers.

An important issue in the remuneration discussion was the poor pay packets of NGO managers. To this end Lazarus provided a few ideas to reduce the risk of losing qualified staff, in addition to offering some genuinely useful tips for attracting high calibre employees. Nevertheless, she did argue that administrative staff are paid well above private sector norms and contended further that NGO colleagues working in a support capacity, resolutely hold on to their jobs, secure in the knowledge that their bread is generously buttered in the non-profit sector.

What one walked away with from this presentation, was the realisation that structure, rigour, consistency and innovation are what appears to be missing from the reluctant manager’s performance management menu. For someone filtering NGO issues through her human resource consultant’s lens, Lazarus’ observations are relatively accurate. For those of us faced with the ugly task of managing other people, many of her observations ring true.

However, moving beyond the discussion at the CEO Circle, this obsession with the professionalism and performance (or lack thereof) of the NGO sector really has been somewhat excessive in the past decade. It’s something I find quite odd in light of the fact that there’s little evidence to suggest that our NGO colleagues of the apartheid era ran clean, mean, high impact operations. One suspects that back in the day, while our erstwhile comrades drowned in donor money, no one really paid much attention to languid associates fading in and out of meetings. Notwithstanding the overwhelming unity in purpose that automatically ensured a steady flow of funding.

The post-apartheid NGO is a different establishment working in a completely different context. In today’s era, confusion reigns supreme as consensus evades the motley crew of development experts strongly influencing divergent streams of development funding. As NGOs re-invent themselves in every proposal, repackaging projects to meet varied donor priorities, it's not surprising that delivery impact is diluted as a disproportionate amount of time is spent developing proposals and chasing money.

Whichever way you may wish to look at it, whether the pot of donor money is shrinking or spreading itself too thinly - a disturbing preoccupation with the professionalism of the NGO sector has taken root and is growing. One focal point is a bias for issues related to human resource management much to the detriment of human resource development. 

Most unsettling is the mushrooming of a feeder industry that has moved in quickly to lecture about policies and procedures entrenched in neo-liberal management philosophy. As we embrace performance management and KPI ourselves into knots, few NGOs question the divergence of these approaches with our progressive value base.

With donors demanding a stake in their “partnerships” and dissecting delivery impact, the hands and feet of the NGO sector have become an important area for scrutiny. There is no question that there is no place for the fluidity of the past in today’s working environment. However, what is disappointing is the lack of ingenuity in developing appropriate alternative responses. As the sector struggles to develop an original solution, there is a clear and present danger in totally succumbing to the demands of bean-counting bureaucrats importing quick fix corporate solutions with unfitting yardsticks. The emphasis should be on building strong institutions based on principles of organisational development stemming from progressive management models.

Creating market imbalances should be the least of our concerns in a month proclaimed by May Day. At a time when we highlight the fact that 60% of employed South Africans earn less than R2,500 a month, it really seems tasteless to reflect on NGOs skewing the market by overpaying support staff.

Moreover, like most managers I am at an age where the realities and responsibilities of life bite hard, so I make the following comments with due consideration. Rather than lamenting the underpayment of senior staff, we should be promoting the NGO salary scale as a model that is more in synch with the requirements for bringing about a more equitable society.

Should you wish to contribute to this discussion on non-profit performance management, please write a letter to the editor.

Turning to SANGONeT matters, this web portal turned six months old during the month of April 06. In this period, an astonishing 87, 250 people visited this site. Currently more than 3 000 people subscribe to NGO Pulse, the weekly e-mail newsletter that keeps visitors abreast of new postings on the portal. SANGONeT is extremely honoured by the calibre of its subscriber base, which is developing into a niche group of development professionals and practitioners that includes NGO workers, development consultants and a significant number of donors.

In addition, the portal's April poll sought to reveal perceptions about the impact of the local NGO sector in bringing about social change. A total of 94 people participated in the poll. The vast majority of participants (65.3%) believe that NGOs make a significant impact on social change. Only 27.4% hold the view that NGOs have limited influence on social change, while a meagre 7.4% argue that NGOs play no role in social change. These results are encouraging for the thousands of NGO workers in South Africa who often work in challenging conditions with little affirmation.

Take our May 06 poll, which interrogates the non-profit legislative and policy framework. The poll question was submitted by the Non-Profit Consortium.

- Fazila Farouk, Deputy Director,

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