Are SA NGOs MoneyMaking Schemes or Agents for Meaningful Impact?


I was a guest this morning on the Frankly Speaking Show on with hosts Rorisang Tshabalala and Andrew Levy. This is how the topic was framed:

There are over 200,000 NGOs in SA all tackling the same set of issues yet it would appear that we aren’t really moving the needle on resolving those issues while NGO execs continue to get paid large sums and build up their personal profiles through all sorts of fellowships, lists and international travel, living lives far removed from the lives they are supposedly trying to impact yet using the experiences of those they are supposedly trying to impact to build up their own currency.

This post is an opinion piece summarizing highlights that stood out for me during the conversation, with some added thoughts that could not be conveyed due to time restrictions. Here’s a link to the podcast of the show.

NGOs are not homogenous
Most people set up NGOs with good intentions. For various reasons things may or may not work out as originally intended. All NGOs do not have the same beliefs or value systems and may even conflict with each other. An example is that one NGO may be pro-life and another pro-choice; they both may comply with the principles of an NGO as per the Department of Social Development, but have an opposing purpose.

Funders are not homogenous
The funding community is vast and several have conversations with NGOs around the complexity and timeframe of outcomes so there’s realistic expectations. On the other hand, we see too many funders swayed by current interest and do not commit to the duration required for change to occur, which often in itself can be an uncertain period of time dependent on the nature of complexity.

What’s exciting for people who have the money to fund problems?
Last week we saw articles about companies taking civic action in the US being rewarded for their good deeds. This included companies like Starbucks pledging to hire refugees at a time of migration bans lead by President Trump. It’s fantastic that corporates want to come onboard and I encourage it, but when the marketing and CSI (corporate social investment) functions are interlinked, then we see unsustainable flavour-of-the-month investments. These investments also tend to be Band-Aid solutions and don’t address systemic problems.

How are people getting money without showcasing and reporting impact?
This is very troublesome. A few thoughts:

  • Too often we have people, NGOs (registered and not) creating on the ground real impact but don’t have the skills or tools to package their work in an appealing way to funders. We also have university (and even ivy-league) educated NGO leaders who know how to polish up attractive funding applications through storylines and numbers that aren’t that meaningful at closer inspection
  • There is a lack of standardization and professionalism in the impact measurement sector. There lacks agreement across funders on reporting methodology and we have the risk of impact being exaggerated or claimed without evidence. Like an auditor, assessors should be accredited as well. The SROI Network (Social Return on Investment) provides accreditation to users of its methodology
  • While we may argue that NGOs have boards to keep them accountable, we need to interrogate how active the board is and if it’s made up of qualified individuals who can make informed decisions on financial priorities. I’ve seen NGOs with beneficiaries on the board who are grateful for the opportunity and whose livelihood depended on this position, but are clueless about budget allocation decisions and reporting.
  • Funders tend to move on when they see that organisations are not creating the intended impact or they have not moved to sustainability. These NGOs and (social enterprises) eventually die if they don’t transform and local funders are increasingly communicating to each other both formally and informally about the funding experience of some entities. Unfortunately, we still find organisations selling the feel-good startup story and successes to international funders that keep them around longer

The outcomes vs. output debate
Corporates and government as funding sources LOVE numbers and want to be associated with success stories through numbers. This leads to the spewing out of digits (which are often impressive) without evidence that the lives of the intended recipients have been transformed. There is also usually a huge time gap between the intervention and intended outcome which adds significant complexity on how to measure impact whether positive or not. The NGO needs to be super clear on whose agenda is being driven here, all too often it’s the one who keeps the doors open.

Do non-profits follow the money or follow the need?
Access to funding primarily sits in cities, far removed from rural and often peri-urban settings with the highest need. NGOs often start work in communities that they are most familiar with and later branch out to outlying places. Unfortunately we do not have sufficient examples of scaling stories that have penetrated these communities. Building relationships that are driven by its local context is critical for a sustained intervention. Hopefully it will also end martyr-syndrome as the local community has true ownership of the intervention.

On intentions, salaries & the celebrity factor
We still have a huge heart and skills gap in the impact sector. We need NGOs to function well and retain talent; a well paying salary that’s proportionate to impact created is one way of doing so. I am however reminded by Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid where she reminds us not only of the harm of Aid, but how the aid industry can be self-serving with well earning salaries and no systemic change.

Doing this work is damn hard and we all set out with great intentions to make a profound difference in the world. This sense of purpose gets us out of bed in the morning, often questioned by family and friends on why we just don’t get a normal well paying job. When we stay connected to the “why” behind the work we are able to push on until we find models that work. The world also needs good stories and heroes so the changemaker gets celebrated through awards, fellowships, speaking engagements, international trips and media attention. These forms of affirmation encourage us to go on. They’re great when they inspire others to take action and advance your work but only until we lose sight of our intended purpose and get caught up in these superficial trimmings of doing the job.








2 thoughts on “Are SA NGOs MoneyMaking Schemes or Agents for Meaningful Impact?

  1. Reinoud

    Great blog Les. One thing I’d like to add is that in the output vs outcome debate, measuring outcomes alone isn’t enough: the measurement of impact implies that all contextual factors which may contribute to the outcome are taken into account.

  2. Reinoud

    Interestingly, I did some research (2015) on the total amount of money that NGOs receive annually (intet alia CSI, Govt, international funding, income generating activities). It’s about R130bn. On 130000 (the official number then) NGOs it comes down to R100000 per NGO per year… totally unsustainable.

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