Why NGOs Need Sustained Help

Thu, 2 May 2013 Source: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi

Sustainability is a big word in any dictionary or language but it looms even larger if you are an NGO trying hard to survive against the odds. Conventional businesses such as limited liability companies operate on the basis of profit and profit projections but NGOs survive on the most elusive of all possible outcomes: sustainability. This is the ability of the organisation to guarantee its existence and continue its activities into any kind of future without depending fully on external aid. Like profit, sustainability is difficult to acquire and most NGOs die under the weight of its considerable lack thereof!

The term NGO is an acronym for Non-Governmental Organisation and is applied to any organisation registered legally as not being under government control. In cases where an NGO is funded fully or partially by a government, it has to maintain its independence by excluding official government representation from its controlling structures. Another important aspect of NGO identity is that such organisations do not exist to make profit but to pursue wider social aims. Most NGOs aim for political impact although they are not political organisations themselves.

The term NGO once had a rather restricted usage, and was almost solely reserved for non-state institutions that were accredited to the United Nations when it was created in 1945. In the last 30 years, the NGO world has grown astronomically and the term itself has undergone rapid transformation.

Today, according to the UN, any kind of private organization that is independent from government control can be termed an "NGO", provided it is not-for-profit, non-criminal and not simply an opposition political party. These include even professional associations, faith-based organisations, social entrepreneurs and other private setups whose primary objective is not to make a profit for shareholders. Estimates of the worldwide spread of NGOs differ but the number must be vast; a Wikipedia article puts the number of NGOs operating in the United States at 1.5 million while Russia has 277,000. India is estimated to have had around 3.3 million NGOs in 2009, which works out at one NGO per 400 Indians.

The NGO world has spawned its own acronyms such as CBO (Community Based Organisation), INGO (International NGO), TSO (Third Sector Organisation), CSO (Civil Society Organisation) and my all-time favourite QANGO (Quasi Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation), among several others.

NGOs come in different sizes from the behemoths such as Christian Aid, Oxfam, Greenpeace, and Amnesty International to small community associations in villages. The story is told of a man and his wife who printed calling cards and simply wrote: Mr. and Mrs. XXX, NGO. But whether it is a budget-endowed organisation or a man and his wife operation in a tiny village, all NGOs have to pass the sustainability test at some point in their operational lives. It is not an easy rite of passage because sustainability determines whether an NGO can work on its own or must rely on external funding—or bust!

In Ghana the number of registered NGOs is reported by socialresponsibility.com to be around 5000, and the number is said to have jumped by about 30 percent in five years. There is no record of the number that perishes every year along the way for lack of sustainability or of those that can only operate as and when some donor funding becomes available. Last week STAR-Ghana, the multi donor mechanism for funding Civil Society Organizations organised a meeting in its ongoing effort to address the issue. Billed as an “experience-sharing and lessons festival“, the meeting brought together 43 organisations from different social sectors who are all STAR-Ghana Sustainability grantees and some donor representatives. This was the first opportunity for the organisations to get together since they received these grants which are meant to help them improve their sustainability or their chances of survival without depending on external aid all the time for all of their operations and other expenses.

Sustainability comes in different shapes and sizes and any organisation that hopes to achieve this elusive status has to touch all the bases. There is financial sustainability, which is perhaps the one that is most easily recognized. Whereas it is the anchor of an organisation’s overall fitness, this is not the only measure. There is project sustainability which is how an organisation sustains its operations one project at a time and links them together to provide a seamless fabric that covers the range of its basic mission and purpose. There is sustainability in people and human resources which can have the most deleterious effect on small organisations that pay only a fraction of what experienced personnel are paid elsewhere.

But the mother of all sustainability headaches is institutional sustainability which is the sum total of all other concerns that should make or break an organisation, including its internal culture and how it responds to external stimuli.

Conventional wisdom holds that NGOs have a lower threshold for professionalism than for-profit businesses but this notion was easily dispelled at the STAR-Ghana meeting when organisation after organisation presented professional sustainability performances similar or even better that what you would expect from a corporate entity. And across the expanse of social concerns NGOs address, they have to provide ancillary services, supervise staff and clients, and motivate partners in addition to their core projects. Then there is the fundraising which is the most backbreaking of all NGO undertakings, and for which reason STAR-Ghana is a blessing to civil society – and Parliament – for whom it provides funding.

However, despite the nice presentations and performance indicators presented at the meeting in question, the fact remains that even the best NGOs cannot become fully self-sustaining over the long haul. This is not for want of trying but the very nature of social change and its management means that NGOs will forever be catching up in their effort to meet new challenges all the time. Unlike the corporate world, NGOs cannot claim success when the bottom line is black after 12 calendar months. Therefore, our government and donor partners must accept that funding these vital social institutions is going to require increasing support; not less, and funding organisations like STAR-Ghana and others need replenishments to sustain the social sector.

Another way to support the NGO sector is for corporate bodies to channel their social responsibility funds through established funding structures such as STAR-Ghana and others because they know which organisations are performing where and how. NGOs are not without their critics but the role they play far outstrips and reproach that may be directed at them. There are parts of this country that owe most of their development infrastructure to civil society and corporate social responsibility and communities across the country would become sustainable if the two ideational engines of social change work together.

Even so, it is still very important for civil society to demonstrate responsibility and accountability as measures of their effort towards sustaining what they do, and this column hopes to be able to chart their progress in the coming months and years.


Woeli Dekutsey is a publisher well-known for establishing the Woeli Publishing Services but few people know that the man is a writer and poet in his own right. Last week, he published two books for the youth literary market which also launched the Great Ghanaian Series. The two books are biographies of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana and Dr. James Kwegyir Aggrey, the world famous educator who became Assistant Vice Principal of Achimota College.

Although the two books, Kwame Nkrumah – the Great African and Kwegyir Aggrey – His Life and Achievements – are nominally targeted at young readers, they are indeed good books for all ages. Even those who know the Nkrumah and Aggrey stories will be surprised at new insights in these two books. I recommend them highly as they become available in all leading shops.



Columnist: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi