I recently had the great privilege of attending a dinner with a number of high level participants in the climate change issue. The attendees represented a diverse group from academia, government, business, philanthropy, non-profit advising, and international conferences – leaving only the multilateral organizations unrepresented. As is usual, and indeed interesting, every participant spoke from his or her experience. However, there was not a single comment during the evening that considered the most effective role for, or the most effective working relationship amongst, each of these actors in addressing the climate change issue.
Similarly, at NGO board meetings, trustees recognize that the organization will not solve global issues alone, particularly given declining resources. However, individual NGOs’ strategic discussions rarely include a panoramic view of all of the players necessary and their appropriate roles in solving the issues that the NGO addresses.
Finally, I had the great privilege of attending a lunch with several women focusing on the issue of women in UK prisons. One was from a major bank, one a trustee of a non-profit trust, one a journalist, and one a prisoner out of prison on work experience. The biggest struggle that emerged from a discussion of specific examples and individual contributions (all fascinating and reassuringly realistic) was the lack of understanding of how these various actors engaged in the issue of women in prisons, as well as government and the prison system itself, should work together.
First, what is the most effective and ethically appropriate role for the myriad players addressing global issues: academia, government, business, philanthropy, non-profit organizations, the multi-lateral organizations, and the international media and conference circuit? How do they best work together? Second, is there a way of distilling best practices and methodologies for these different actors to work together without reinventing the wheel for each different issue (recognizing the technical, legal and human variations between say HIV/Aids and climate change)?
The struggle is complex and mired in the management of uncertainty and 20/20 foresight issues that are the subject of this blog. The struggle is apparent at the highest levels such as the World Economic Forum in Davos and at the level of small, local non-profit organizations.
Questions to Consider. From the perspective of a non-profit organization, the following are key questions to consider:
- Who else is in your space – i.e., which other non-profits? How do you add value differently? How can (and should) you work together? Who is best suited to deliver programs and services? How should redundancy be handled?
- Who else is in your space from governments? Multi-lateral organizations? Academia? Business? Other stakeholders? Map out who brings what to the table: resources, knowledge and expertise, capacity to deliver programs, capacity for evaluation of quality and impact, and capacity to deliver related necessary assistance (e.g. security or water). Are there partnering opportunities (or indeed responsibilities to work with others)? Are you taking on tasks more efficiently or effectively suited to others?
- What is missing from your resource base that you need from another organization?
- What is missing from other organizations or efforts that your organization can bring?
- What is the best entry point of foundations and individual philanthropists – maximum efficacy and ethics in line with their own interests and missions yet of true service to your organization and the non-profit sector?
Strategy and reality. Finally, include in your strategic planning processes analysis of all of the players and stakeholders around a particular issue. What does each – ethically, practically, programmatically, and financially – bring to the table? Business has its legal limits in a responsibility to maximize value to shareholders. Corporate social responsibility can be part of that strategy but within boundaries. NGOs trying to maintain independence must exclude certain governmental and corporate funding sources. They also have limited resources, focused missions, and often access difficulties (e.g. security, political access, access to patients). Governments today have increasingly limited resources, political pressure (e.g. not to give to India despite the poverty in light of the Indian economic situation and individual wealth at the highest levels), and difficulty truly engaging the voluntary sector (e.g. the confusion around Big Society in the UK and the on-going failure to recognize the professional opportunities of volunteerism in France). One prominent academic and policy leader from the London School of Economics and Political Science recently noted that LSE educated (the public as well as LSE students) and produced leading papers and research but did not campaign (but benefitted from campaigners). Philanthropists provide resources and occasionally expertise. However, there is increasing risk of money driving mission in the non-profit world instead of the reverse.
In sum, defining your role requires understanding the roles of others. It is a strategic question and an accountability and governance question as much as an operations question.
As always, comments and questions are most appreciated.
Copyright© 2012 Susan Liautaud. All rights reserved
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