Good Intentions Aren't Enough To Manage An NGO

NGOs are easy enough to start, but it takes more than good intentions to manage them effectively. For starters, you need to have identified a specific problem that you want to address. It can’t be something that you simply perceive as an outsider. It’s something that can only be determined by spending time in the community and the environment concerned.
For example, you might think that you need to develop an initiative to combat domestic violence and alcohol abuse in a collection of rural villages. But the underlying problem could be a new pesticide-resistant crop disease that is killing all their crops, which may be a major source of food and income. The resulting frustration and desperation could be the cause of the alcohol abuse and domestic violence, which requires an entirely different approach.
You also need a very clear mission statement so that you always know exactly what it is you are trying to achieve. It doesn’t need to be a tome; in fact, it should be exactly the opposite. It should be short, punchy, and memorable. It should inspire staff and volunteers and, ideally, encourage the private and public sector to support your cause.

The basics are all good and well, but what about the actual management?

Managing an NGO, like managing a for-profit business, requires a special set of skills; skills which not everyone has. Managers need to be able to see the bigger picture, as well as the granular little details. They need a blend of soft skills and hard skills to ensure that the NGO performs at its best, and that the organisation operates effectively as a whole.
You can think of it as a blend of people and social skills and analytical and organisational skills.

  • Hard skills

Hard skills are the technical and analytical skills. For example, someone with excellent hard skills can put together a killer presentation. They can compile a comprehensive business report and can set quantifiable performance metrics. Then they can glean insightful information from the metrics and make calculated strategic decisions to drive the initiative forward. They understand the principles of financial management and project development
Hard skills can be learnt.

  • Soft skills

Soft skills are the relationship management skills. For example, someone with excellent soft skills can sell the presentation to investors. They can motivate and inspire staff members and volunteers, often by leading by example. They communicate strategic decisions to all the parties concerned, and maintain open, transparent lines of communication with investors, employees, volunteers and the community.
They ensure that everyone is on the same page, that individuals are given the support they need to do their jobs efficiently, and that the team works well together as a whole.
It’s difficult to learn soft skills unless you genuinely enjoy working with people.

  • The blend

Good NGO managers are never one or the other. They are a blend of both. It’s inevitable that one set of skills will be stronger than the other, but successful managers are aware of their weaknesses and take pains to address the imbalance.

NGO Management

NGO Performance is a great resource for people who are looking to start an NGO, as well as for NGO managers who want to see if they’re staying true to management principles. For example, it provides a template for a basic performance management agenda. It covers 10 points which are spread across four categories.

  1. Planning performance, which includes strategising and planning.
  2. Measuring performance, which includes feedback, relationship management, and technical management metrics.
  3. Managing performance, which includes frontline staff support and continuing development.
  4. Communicating performance, which includes transparent and open communication, ethical fundraising, and collaborative sector learning.

It breaks down all of these points into greater detail and includes additional resources on proper planning, feedback methods, and project monitoring.
Another great resource for NGO managers is on It covers organisational management principles, as opposed to the performance management principles on NGO Performance. In this case, organisational management is also a 10-point system broken into four categories.

  1. Strategic planning, which includes setting the vision, mission and goals; planning the project cycle; incorporating sustainability, ensuring there are equal employment opportunities; determining strengths, weaknesses, and problem solving; and resolving conflict.
  2. HR management, which includes creating a comprehensive HR policy, skills development, and people management.
  3. Office management.
  4. Financial management.

The road to hell and all that

Many people start NGOs with the best of intentions. They genuinely believe that they can bring about positive change and alleviate social and environmental ills. However, unless they have comprehensive management skills, they can do more harm than good. Not only can their poorly directed, poorly executed plans worsen the problems they are trying to address, but they can also damage the trust that communities may have in any future, well-organised NGOs.
An effective NGO requires a manager who can don several hats; who can be the communicator, the negotiator, the friend, the leader, the financial advisor, the strategist, the coordinator, and the analyst. The job is not an easy one, but it’s necessary if you want to bring about real change.

Featured images:

License: Creative Commons
image source
Jemima Winslow has worked for several different NGO and seen firsthand the damage that a poor manager can do to community relations, and working relationships within the organisation.