The most recent installment of the Notes from the Field series on the Aid Watch blog was written by a “veteran NGO leader” from Nepal, Scott MacLennan. In it, he decries the absentee management and outright deceptions of large NGOs, arguing that “Only small NGOs it seems are able to actually get out in the field and get their hands dirty making things happen.”
I disagree. I disagree passionately. Only competent, well-run NGOs are able to make things happen, and those factors are unrelated to size. It comes down to the skills and qualities of the people running the NGO. An organization can influence this by the way it selects people. This is wholly unrelated to size.
To further argue my point, I’ve made a handy list of the pros and cons of small and large NGOs:
- Have a certain base level of competence because of their broader experience.
- They can more easily expand or supplicate successful projects.
- They usually have enough staff that if a country director in Nepal leaves they can pull someone from, say, Sri Lanka rather than leave the post vacant while they hire.
- They are used to the requirements and mechanics of donor bureaucracy, and that lets them get started more quickly and not be bogged down in paperwork.
- They generally have more experience with financial controls and are usually better at it.
- They may have enough different projects to leverage their presence. For example, I once threatened a local official that we’d cancel laboratory skills trainings if they didn’t allow a child health campaign.
- They can be inflexible.
- They can have a lot of bureaucracy that stifles change.
- They may lose their personal touch – it’s just work to them.
- They generally have a higher percentage of funding from government donoirs, which limits their programmatic options.
- They tend to be more flexible and able to change directions quickly.
- They tend to be emotionally committed to their work.
- They are generally funded by small private donors, which means they have many more choices of how to use their money.
- They are often very connected to the communities they serve.
- They can be more innovative.
- They may be short on technical background, or have more good intentions than useful knowledge.
- They may not have enough experience to realize they are reinventing the wheel, or worse yet, reinventing a flat tire.
- They may not have dedicated finance and administrative staff, which means financial accountability is weaker.
- If a staff member leaves, they have to advertise and hire to replace them – no pool of people to draw on.
That list makes it pretty clear that it’s not the size of the NGO that matters. Different kinds of organizations have different strengths. What matters is now an organzation uses those strengths and overcomes its weaknesses. Size, in this case, doesn’t matter.
Chosen because, well, it was pretty. And this is a hard concept to illustrate.