The blogosphere is filled with numerous articles of how to create a successful non-government (NGO) organisation but what is missing is a review of the most common death traps. In other words how to kill a successful NGO?
As with any business, NGO or not, non-profit or for-profit the lifeblood is cash. It’s a sad truth, like it or not, but cash rules. Cash is king. It makes things happen. It’s not to say that it’s the only thing that makes a successful NGO but it’s critical because it’s not that easy to find an experienced workforce that will turn up to work each day, give it their all and go home with nothing but a feeling of love and peace. Hence, cue the need to think about financial sustainability or positive cash flow.
Financial sustainability is basically having the ability to pay the bills as they fall due. Unfortunately, it’s an area that most visionary leaders that we admire in the social impact space fail to recognise. Ultimately, it’s this failure that will mark the death of their NGO and cause that most have spent a whole life devoted. So where do we look before a NGO signs its own death certificate?
Here are two critical areas to look at before its all over:
1. Every NGO needs a clear and touching story with a solution or mission. Something sharp and clear that people can identify with and makes donors wants to contribute. This means that presentation of the NGO is EVERYTHING – it’s the first point of contact, the drawcard. It requires a serious investment in slick zero-error presentations, high-quality media and a stand-out presenter. The brand is on the line.
Nevertheless, operationally the solution can be really simple but the important part is to do it well, really well, time and time again. This means no diverting to get involved with other business activities that seem like easy money. Although it may sound boring to stay on the same road, take a moment to think about all the great companies today. What do they have in common? A simple product or service that is executed well, time and time again. It’s a process that brings trust and repeat clientele and in the case of NGOs, donors and plenty of money that assists in generating greater social impact. Changing the mission confuses the story and alienates donors meaning the end is near.
2. Enthusiasm and a passion brings life to the organisation. No one wants to work with a bunch of robots, but NGOs too often have an overpowering feeling of “family”. But as with every loving family there are dark secrets are lurking in the background. Covering-up the pain just leaves the real business issues never to be addressed – and the situation is worse when actual family members work together in the NGO. When everyone just loves everyone and everything they do…it’s sickening – enough to want to put yourself in a self induced coma. The task of telling the truth about someone’s work or removing staff for incompetence, bad behaviour or a downturn in the business is never easy but it has to be done. It’s business and a NGO is no different in its need for an efficient and effective team to develop and maintain a sustainable business model. The only difference is that a for-profit business reports returns in terms of dollar$ to its shareholders and the NGO reports returns in turns of impact to the community but at the end of the reporting period both must demonstrate that they are sustainable.
Establishing an international NGO with numerous accolades and steady donor revenue takes many giant strides and thousands of heart breaking hours to achieve but only a few failed steps for the dream to be over. Thus constant checks are required to ensure that social impact business is healthy. In the case that the diagnosis is not well – the model is unsustainable – its up to the NGO founder and executive team to face up to the common vices to halt a certain death as love, peace and a touching story will never save a NGO.
For a NGO to remain fighting fit it needs to keep evaluating itself through a regular check-ups and exercising tough and often unpopular business decisions because without a new diet life becomes critical with no chance of revival and in that case its better to turn off the life support.