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The NGO Sector: Thoughts on Shifting the Mindset of Donors

May 02, 2014

(Shujaat Wasty, a practitioner in international affairs and development, is a member of the Leadership Council at the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @DrWasty.)

Headshot_shujaat_wasty2I was introduced to charity at a young age. My parents encouraged my siblings and me to put aside a portion of our weekly allowance for those in need and to volunteer during summer vacations. Those experiences were solidified when I learned how charitable my grandfather, a surgeon, had been and by witnessing my parents' own selflessness and generosity. Their example had a profound effect on me and helped define my interest in helping other people.

In addition to my professional career, I have been actively involved as a volunteer with local charitable initiatives and in the field of international development for several years, during which time I've been exposed to both the good and bad of charity work.

Charity, like most human activities, is not immune to corruption, ineptitude, or unprofessionalism. Traditionally understood to be virtuous deeds informed by compassion and empathy for the plight of those less fortunate, acts of charity are, at times, treated as little more than commodities in an ultra-competitive marketplace. The international "NGO industry" includes many players vying for ever-larger shares of the donor community's generosity, with some resorting to extreme measures. And the competition for limited financial resources is likely to intensify.

All of which begs the question: Should charities and nonprofits, many of which are working to address problems not of their own making, be held by donors to a higher — or different — standard? I don't know the answer. But I do think donors, and by extension the NGO sector, would be well served by considering the following:

1. Lower administrative costs do not necessarily mean greater efficiency. I was once in a meeting with the executive director of an NGO who excused himself to take an important call. He later told me the call had been from a donor who wanted to give the organization $150,000, on one condition: that the entire amount be applied to the donor's favorite project without deductions for administrative fees. The executive director had argued (unsuccessfully) that it was virtually impossible to use the funds without the involvement of salaried staff and, further, that if every donor made the same request, no NGO would be able to function. The donor remained unmoved, and the organization eventually gave in to his demand.

It's not unusual for nonprofit organizations and NGOs to be asked to put every dollar donated to them into programming. Indeed, donors frequently, and incorrectly, assume that lower administrative costs are directly correlated to organizational efficiency. While nonprofit entities should definitely work to prevent waste of resources (including time), donors need to understand that administration and fundraising expenses can be an investment rather than a cost. Nonprofits unable to offer competitive salaries often are at a disadvantage in trying to attract the "right" candidates with an appropriate set of skills or, even worse, face the risk of losing staff they have invested resources in without getting a commensurate return. And as anyone in a leadership position knows, an organization's ability to hire and retain the right talent can be the difference between the efficient use of resources, a growing donor base, and better results overall and the opposite — organizational drift and a shrinking donor base.

2. More commitment, less entitlement. Often after I've delivered a presentation that highlights the success of various humanitarian aid projects, I'll be approached by a crowd of motivated individuals eager to get involved. Many think the best way to do that is to start their own nonprofit organization or NGO. I know from experience that most of these efforts will not pan out, and that's because people's ideas about development work are often divorced from reality. They fail to appreciate the fact that behind every idealized image of a desperate poor person receiving a large sack of rice or wheat with a grateful smile, a handful of people have devoted untold hours to clerical work and record keeping, report and proposal writing, meetings with potential partners, responding to donor requests, and, perhaps most challenging and important of all, fundraising.

The fact is, most people are unwilling to put in the long hours needed to make a difference, and that lack of commitment is often due to an elevated sense of entitlement. Many people interested in getting involved with or starting a nonprofit or NGO are fixated on titles and are unwilling to get their hands dirty with crucial tasks like fundraising. Similarly, too many people see fieldwork as an adventurous escapade — until they find themselves in a refugee camp situation confronted by logistical and linguistic challenges, sweltering heat, difficult terrain, lack of toilets and general hygiene, and the overwhelming misery of those in need. Smiles are rare among people who are suffering and desperate. Indeed, some of the faces and things I have witnessed over the years continue to haunt me late at night.

My advice? Don't get involved or start a nonprofit or NGO if you are unwilling to commit body and soul to the effort. No one will think less of you for deciding not to make such a commitment, which may not be the case if you go ahead and make promises you can't keep.

3. Avoid power trips. Many donors fall into one of two categories: those who are both generous and unassuming, and those who are not. The former see their donations as a small part of a larger effort and appreciate the time and efforts of those involved in carrying out the work, whereas the latter too often equate giving with knowledge and espouse a patronizing attitude, not only toward the beneficiaries of their generosity but also toward the nonprofit or NGO doing the work.

I have met far too many donors who fall into the latter category. Unfortunately, for those who are employed by a nonprofit, it can be a chore, or worse, to have to deal with a donor on a power trip. Making a donation to a nonprofit or NGO should be motivated by one's belief in the cause, not a desire to tell well-intentioned people what they are doing wrong.

4. Don't make it more difficult than it already is. Implementing an aid project, particularly one in a conflict zone or an area affected by a natural disaster, invariably poses a variety of challenges. There are the inevitable logistical problems and sociocultural issues as well as other difficult facts on the ground that are simply impossible to prepare for in advance. Given this reality, mistakes will happen.

Donors have every right to know where their money is going, and I strongly believe in the value of transparency. But in striving for transparency, it is important to maintain a balance. Yes, mistakes must be acknowledged when they occur. Generally speaking, however, most of the people working in the NGO sector are committed to doing their best in difficult circumstances. When something does go wrong, donors should ask for details. If there is an identifiable performance gap, that may be an excellent opportunity for the donor to get involved and help the organization improve in that area. Otherwise, it's probably best not to make work more difficult for the organization than it already is.

The above suggestions are not meant to provide excuses for nonprofits and NGOs in the development space but rather to shed light on a subject that too often is painted with a broad brush. My experience as a volunteer for a diverse range of organizations has taught me that donors and the organizations they support almost always want the same thing. As in any relationship, however, open communication and good-faith efforts at understanding other perspectives are essential if the parties to the relationship are to forge a mutual trust. The key factors for both nonprofits/NGOs and donors are a desire to improve their understanding of each other's needs, a willingness to commit to the relationship, and the grit to do the hard work necessary to make it better.

Shujaat Wasty

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