What makes a new NGO succeed?

1. Highly targeted mission. If you have the skill set to identify a very specific goal, you are likely to have the expertise to do your work well. And when I say very specific, I mean it. Something along the lines of “supply used lab equipment to labs around the world that request it” or “provide vaccines and health care providers to one small village.” In addition, a very specific goal gives you a solid fundraising angle. Community development for one small village is too general.

2. A cool name. I only wish I was kidding. But groups with cool names like Nothing but Nets (which has as a bonus an obvious sports tie-in) or a rhyming name like Unite for Sight – which sound catchy and immediately explain the organization’s goal – are far more likely to find support. It’s easier to raise funds, hire good staff, get grants, and find high-profile supporters when everyone can easily remember who you are and what you do.

3. And, of course, the song I always sing – a funding model which does not involve getting government or foundation grants. To repeat, it is very hard to get government funding. USAID and the other government donors usually identify a problem and then give grants or contracts to solve that problem. Big grants. Generally over $500,000. They don’t have the time to manage the kind of $30K grant you probably need for start-up. And foundations like to work with partners who have a long track record; they are rarely interested in funding the new guys. So, if you want to succeed, have a fundraising plan. (Here’s a hint – a cool name and a highly specific goal will help.)

Edited to add: I forgot the thing which actually started this post in my head. I have a new job – I am the global health blogger for Change.org. I am very excited about this. Change.org is full of amazing people with big social entrepreneurship ideas. We’re seeing huge numbers of people on the site every month. But I suspect that an awful lot of our success is due to the fact that the name Change.org is easy to understand and sticks in your head with the tenacity of a Britney Spears song.

(Writing for Change.org does mean that I will be posting here less often. I only have so many words in me, and I’m putting all my health content over there. I do plan to continue posting here at least twice a week, though, so please don’t drop my RSS feed just yet.)

(photo credit: Cambodia4kids)
Chosen because they have a pretty good name and a specific goal of providing school uniforms to Cambodian kids.

Jargon of the Day: NGO, CBO

Jargon: NGO, CBO

Translation: NGO stands for non-governmental organization. CBO stands for community-based organization. The difference between them is that NGOs are generally formally structured organizations, registered with the government. Community based organization is a catch-all for any group of people working together toward a common goal.

Reader Question – Can you share some of your experiences in which inexperienced nonprofits did more harm than good?

Dear Alanna,

I too am starting up a very small nonprofit, and I admit that I am not comfortable with all of the issues you raised in your blog on November 8th.

Can you share some of your experiences in which inexperienced nonprofits did more harm than good?


Dear DR,

Here are four ways that a small (or large) NGO can unintentionally do harm to the community it’s trying to serve.

1) You can waste the time and effort of a community by initiating projects which have little chance of success. It’s hard to identify a good project for a small community. Community buy-in is no guarantee of success; possessing deep local knowledge doesn’t make a person omniscient. Projects that have little chance of success include vocational training in sewing and handicrafts, beekeeping, and raising chickens. If you waste a year of the community’s time on a broiler chicken project that never makes a profit, that’s a year of time and effort which could have gone to real income generation or looking after children.

2) You can leave communities convinced that they need outsiders to solve their problems. If you raise $3000 for a backhoe to clear irrigation ditches, then what happens next time the ditches silt up? The farmers’ cooperative will never realize they could have cleared it with hand shovels, or raised the money by charging a membership fee.

3) You can damage beneficial community structures, or solidify harmful structures. Your choice of community intermediary elevates that person or group, by putting them in control (real or perceived control) of valuable assets. If you work with existing power structures, you can support and entrench inequalities, such as sexism or racism, which are already present. If you chose partners who are not part of the current elite, you can destabilize delicate community balances, and erode resilience.

4) You can construct a building and then not provide funds for maintenance or staffing. A school needs a teacher. A clinic needs a doctor or nurse. All buildings need upkeep – painting and repairs at the very least. A building with not funds for maintenance is a drain on community resources in perpetuity, or an eyesore.

I recommend reading Michael Maren’s book The Road to Hell; it has its flaws but it is very sincere and brings up a lot to think about.



Readers – if anyone has case studies or examples, please comment.

Edited to add – 1) Check out the fascinating examples in the comments and 2) Owen has two more ways an incompetent NGO can hurt the population it is trying to help.

(Photo Credit: Copyright Glenna Gordon)
She gave it to me as an example of aid with unintended consequences.

The story of FORGE

About two weeks ago, something fascinating happened. Kjerstin Erickson, the director of FORGE, a small NGO that works with refugees in Zambia, posted on her blog at Social Edge. She said that FORGE was in major financial trouble and might have to shut down. The story has unfolded from there. A major philanthropy blogger wrote about FORGE on his blog, lauding their transparency. Consultants have been stepping up to help FORGE find a way to carry on. It’s become an opportunity to have some fascinating conversations about transparency, accountability, and what makes an NGO “deserve” to exist.

For something of such interest, this is getting no attention on Twitter; there is also surprisingly little attention from the web at large. I think this is because FORGE’s web presence is limited to the FORGE site and the Social Edge blog maintained by Kjerstin. Both of these are a good start but to create buzz you need to be all over the place. FORGE does not seem to have buzz.

FORGE needs a Twitter account immediately, as well as a friend feed account, and a Flickr pool. I know they have a very small staff, but they could work with a consultant to get the ball rolling (yes, I have contacted Kjerstin and offered to donate my services on this), and even some of the ongoing stuff could be done by a committed and well-informed volunteer. Their fundraising model – many small donations – is well suited to microblogging. So is their commitment to transparency. I’d love to see Kjerstin with a Twitter account, as well as someone in the field. Epic Change‘s use of social media would be a great model for FORGE.

Where is their board in all this? Sara Hall from New Philanthropy Advisors makes this point well. Why doesn’t their board care enough to give? And if they cannot give, why are they not out foraging for donations? FORGE can’t really overhaul their board now, but your board is not just a source of guidance or a required technicality. They should stand ready to open their pockets, call their friends, and do media on your behalf. The Nonprofiteer has some great writing on what your board should be doing for your non-profit.

Another thing: I hate to say this, but I don’t like the FORGE website. I think the writing is jargon-heavy, and obscures the power of their model and their message. I also think that the color and design is unwelcoming. In general, it feels very academic to me. It feels like something I am supposed to read about, not something I am supposed to be involved in.

Finally, I think FORGE is choosing the wrong selling points. Their main website page says “With FORGE, you can help end the cycle of war and poverty in Africa.” That doesn’t make them stand out from the scores of other organizations that work in Africa. They also emphasize that FORGE lets you choose how to support and change lives – again, that’s not very different from what everyone else is saying right now, especially Kiva. It’s all just more of the same. I also suspect that use of the catch-all “Africa,” instead of naming countries, may be off-putting to some people.

What is exciting about FORGE is that it is refugee-driven. Refugees themselves identify their needs, request funding, and implement their projects. FORGE just provides money and gives them tools and support as needed.

FORGE has the community drive and focus of a local NGO, paired with the accountability and transparency of an international organization. That’s exciting. That’s where they should shine their spotlight.

Reader question: When is it okay to start an NGO?

Hi Alanna,

I have been reading your blog for some time. I was particularly struck by your entry on founding NGOs. While in the context you are speaking I completely agree with you, I am curious about your opinion on something:

I am part of a (very) small NGO whose mandate is to help a small village in rural Bolivia. We have one partner in the village and several of us volunteering in the evenings/weekends to raise money in order to fund income generating projects in the village. Our ultimate goal is to develop these projects until they are capable of sustaining themselves as well as a small school that has been built in the village, at which point we would like to walk away. I am curious whether this type of operation even falls under the term NGO as you are using it, and what the feeling of the development world is with regards to these small operations? Does your opinion stand that we would be better off contributing our resources to a larger organization (even though our overhead is approximately zero)?



Dear PB,

I can’t really answer your question without knowing more about your organization. I think, though, there are questions you can think about to decide for yourself:

• Do you have a clear idea of how you’ll measure success, or are you just assuming something good will result from your project?

• Do you have an identified funding source that does not involve applying for grants?

• Are you deeply familiar with the village you work in, and the theory and practice of the work you are doing? And I would not call one or two visits deeply familiar with a place.

• Is there no existing NGO who could do the same work in the same place? If you can commit to ongoing funding, even huge organizations can be willing to run little projects. You can actually go to Save the Children or Mercy Corps and say “I have $20,000 a year, can you support this specific school/clinic/agriculture center for that amount?” They may not be able to, but they will listen, especially if you want to work somewhere that doesn’t get much attention or funding.

• Are you starting a new organization because of ego? Do you think it will be cool/exciting/glamorous/make your mother proud to be head of an NGO? Do you actually know enough to do this well or are you just convinced in your heart you’ll do a better job because you are special?

If you feel comfortable with the answers to these questions, you can be pretty sure that your organization is value-added and not just noise.

You’ll notice that there is nothing in there about overhead. People have a problem with overhead costs because they feel that it makes money donated have less impact. But inexperience and mistakes also erode a program’s effectiveness. A skilled organization that spends 15% of the money it raises on accounting, budget transparency, and experienced headquarters oversight may well have just as much impact for every donor dollar as a no-overhead group who ends up doing training that has no impact on actual behavior, or buying supplies that are wrong for the situation.


(photo credit: Alexander Drachmann)
Chosen because I loved the muted colors and the weathered look of the ground and the cement.

Dear everyone who’s ever thought of starting an NGO

Don’t do it. You’re not going to think of a solution no one else has, your approach is not as innovative as you think it is, and raising money is going to be impossible. You will have no economy of scale, your overhead will be disproportionately high, and adding one more tiny NGO to the overburdened international system may well make things worse instead of better.

Now that you’ve ignored me, here’s the rest of my advice:

1) Make your bones. Go work for an existing NGO that addresses the same problem, or one like it. Learn from the existing knowledge in the system so you don’t waste time re-inventing the wheel. If you’re not qualified to work for an existing organization, you’re probably not qualified to run your own.

2) Identify a new funding source. If you’re just going to compete for the same donor RFPs and RFAs that everyone else does, you’re not bringing anything new to the world. If you didn’t get that grant to reduce child mortality in Liberia, another organization would. The children of Liberia benefit equally either way. If you can bring new money in, then you’re having a genuine additional impact.

3) Hire experienced people to work with you. There is a certain charm to a bunch of inexperienced people trying to change the world together, but a group that combines new ideas and actual experience can produce genuine innovation.

4) Your finances are probably the most important part of your NGO. Your donors will want to see your financials before they give. Your projects will require a steady stream of reliable funding to succeed. You can’t do good if you can’t pay your bills.

(photo credit Mosieur J.)

Five mistakes international organizations make when using Twitter

1. Using it just for press releases. People don’t follow you on Twitter for generic organizational announcements. They follow because they want to feel a personal connection with what you do. They want to become friends and allies. Write your Twitter updates in less formal language, and tweet little things, too. Not just press releases. Welcome new employees, for example, or tell them a little bit about one specific project.

2. Only asking for money. Constant calls for funds will bore people and cause them to unsubscribe from your Twitter feed. Ask for money no more than once a week, and when you do, tie it to something you mentioned that week.

3. Not following back or replying to others. As an organization, you should automatically follow back anyone who follows you on Twitter. People don’t want to be broadcast to; they want to be part of a conversation. Following people is the first step; the second step is paying attention. Use Twitter search to monitor mentions of your organization. Reply to those mentions. Periodically read the postings of people you follow. You don’t have to read every post, but check in from time to time, and reply if you have something interesting to say.

4. Forgetting the global audience. Twitter has a worldwide user base. This includes people in the countries where you work. It may include potential donors and beneficiaries in other countries. It will definitely include your own staff. When you write about events in, say, Rwanda, assume Rwandans will be reading. Are you still comfortable with your post?

5. Not having a Twitter strategy. There are things to think about before you post your first tweet. Do you want to encourage all your staff to have organization-linked Twitter accounts, or just a single account to represent the whole organization? What aspects of your organization do you want to highlight? What kind of expertise do you possess and can showcase? Who will update the Twitter account, and will all postings need to be approved first? These are issues that can be resolved with some planning, and can go very wrong on you without some advance thought.