Ask any NGO workers about failures in their organisation, it’s likely they are going to struggle to come up with an answer. Especially if they are business development people, they probably won’t tell you about a failure. However, many NGOs fail, and often. But the way the system is constructed doesn’t allow for the concept of failure. No, NGOs don’t fail, they learn lessons.

Don’t mention the F-word

Most NGOs depend on funding from their donors. Whether it comes from big international organisations or individuals, NGOs must show that they are doing ‘good things’ with the money they have been given. But there is something really nice about the phrase ‘good things’ – it’s incredibly vague. So are often the commitments of NGOs. If you say that you commit to build the capacity of 200 women in business skills; that sounds like a real thing. Yet often it’ll be measured in the number of people attending a course – rarely in measuring the actual capacities of the women – and even when they measure it, academic rigour isn’t always the norm.

When you depend on showing results to keep your business going, but results are really difficult and therefore really expensive to get, making your results vague is a good way to continue getting funding for the work you believe is doing good.

If you are being vague as to what you want to achieve, chances are you’ll be able to write a positive report regardless of what happened. If your vague results really aren’t great, then you are going to do what the NGO sector loves: you’re going to learn lessons. But make sure they are lessons you have overcome or are in the process of overcoming.

The increasing pressure – both financial and political – on NGOs means that they are cutting corners. Don’t get me wrong, they are still pursuing their good work –  this is in no form a critique as to what NGOs are doing (that’s for another time!). This is simply a critique of the reporting and accountability mechanisms.

If an NGO fails in a project – e.g. doesn’t meet its expected target – they will be worried about getting further funding. To ensure that more funding is secured, they won’t frame it as a failure. They will instead explain the reasons they didn’t achieve what they wanted and explain how they adapted their programme or will change further programmes. And it’s true. Military coups happen, floods happen, ebola outbreaks happen (these are all real examples).

However, a lot of the time, the reason why NGOs don’t meet their targets is because they set unreasonable goals. More and more NGOs compete so they have to overpromise to get a grant – and it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission to reduce your targets. Forgiveness is also a lot easier to ask for when you’re learning lessons from your mistakes.

Why failure can be a good thing (even if society is saying it can’t)

The start-up sector is all about ‘failure’ – if you haven’t failed once, can you really call yourself an ‘entrepreneur’? Of course you can, but the start-up sector is well known for learning from its mistakes. Quick product development cycles means quick shipping, means quick failing means quick re-building – all very lean.

For people outside the sector may have difficulty understanding the value of failure, because it’s engrained in our society that failure is bad –

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I can tell which Mum I’d prefer…

I think we need to revisit the whole structure of the NGO sector. Accept that failure is ok – but constant mediocrity is not. I don’t think that investing more in evaluation is necessarily the solution, because it only means that for every million you spend on a project, you pay a million and a half on an academic study. I may be exaggerating here, as I don’t have the exact figures. However, what is key is that it’s not simply a question of evidence – it’s about how donors allocate money, how NGOs work together and how much duplication could be avoided if the NGO sector wasn’t a political competition for resources but rather a concerted effort for creating good in the world.

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