Five Oaks Consulting

Accountability

When a Country Office becomes a full INGO member… the Do’s and Don’ts

When a Country Office becomes a full INGO member… the Do’s and Don’ts

This post was written by Hazem Fahmy, Co-Founder of CARE Egypt Foundation. 
Views expressed here are my own and do not represent the positions of CARE.

I led the transformation of a CARE Country Office into becoming an independent full member of CARE globally. This is the story of how we went through the change, and what were the challenges we endured – our story can hopefully help others to avoid some of our pitfalls.

CARE Egypt operated for over 60 years as a CARE USA country office – quite a long history! In January 2022 the CARE Egypt Foundation (new name) became a full member of the CARE International confederation. Although the idea to become a national NGO was considered as early as 2007, the actual transformation journey started in 2016. Would we be able to cross the finish line? How and with who would we get there?

In 2014 CARE discussed plans to diversify its membership by supporting “Global South” offices to nationalize with the intention to increase the legitimacy of its global footprint as well as the credibility of its local presence.  At the time CARE Egypt was fully staffed by Egyptian professionals and the country has been through two revolutions… we were ready to chart new territory.

Our transformation

Aid effectiveness, INGO legitimacy, decolonization of aid, localization of humanitarian efforts.  These have been important topics, and the subject of heated debates for many workers in the development ecosystem worldwide since 2014. In this blog post, I will focus on how we transformed, and the mistakes we made so colleagues on similar journeys can learn from how we faced our challenges.

It was first important to create ownership among our staff for this monumental endeavor. I started with convincing senior management to agree on why we should do this, what is our vision, and how we might go about achieving our goal.   But we realized quickly that senior managers’ championship alone was not enough to overhaul our $5M annual portfolio, involving120 staff operating in a complex ecosystem. We needed to change relationships with the government, CARE members, donors, and partners. We had to mobilize staff across all ranks.

Mistakes that I will avoid in the future

1/       Being overly cautious: One of the bigger mistakes that I made during the transformation journey was to downplay the effects of the transformation on our staff. My intention was to comfort them by minimizing differences between being an Egyptian organization versus a Country Office.

The outline of the “new organization” we wanted to become was very ambiguous with lot of unknowns.  As time went by, ambiguity decreased, and we found concrete answers to numerous questions we had at the early stages. Equipped with more answers, clarity did translate into bolder ways to confront and explain the reality of the future to our colleagues.

If I do it all over, I would be bolder earlier, but would continue calming staff about the future. I would better balance my messaging about what will remain the same versus what will be different.  It is essential to cater to the fears and concerns of staff, as we move forward in the transformation.

Obviously, while we had our fair share of problems in the past six years, it could have been a lot rougher if we had not worked on bringing our colleagues along, starting from senior management, middle managers and field staff.  Colleagues had to see themselves as part of the change and get excited about our future. 

2/       Change is not a projectLooking back, I would avoid treating the journey as a project.  It is too limiting to think about this change journey in terms of a plan, resource use, Gant charts and a risk management matrix.   When we started the process, the emphasis was on what are the steps required, what resources will we need? What were the risks of not achieving or not being on time to complete planned steps?

We were describing a project rather than a journey to achieve a vision. Thinking like a project made us overly focused on the details and we lost sight of the intention.   When you couple that with a high level of ambiguity, it becomes impossible to navigate and manage the complexities.  Aspects such as staff concerns, government questions, questions posed by the CARE confederation members.  It just became impossible to navigate and manage all the moving parts.

Our intent to transform, our new north star should be the lens to evaluate our progress.    What mattered is what our strategy should look like, which business model should we adopt.  Such views helped us to focus on what is important at any given moment, and it also helped achieve tasks with clarity and focus while not losing sight of the big picture. My senior colleagues and I stayed grounded and were able to put things in perspective as we tackled one challenge after the other.

In the end

In the end I am proud of what we achieved, as we pressed to create buy in by our colleagues. We expanded circles of engaged staff while keeping the visionary intent to nationalize our entity as the primary way to evaluate our progress.

Writing this post has encouraged me to document a more detailed description of the journey and what we learned.  We are still discovering what it means to be a southern member in an international NGO. But that is for another blog post: to speak of power dynamics and how they shift (or not) in an INGO. Stay tuned!

When a Country Office becomes a full INGO member… the Do’s and Don’ts Read More »

When nonprofits conform to common financial management norms, they may sacrifice as much as half of their impact

When nonprofits conform to common financial management norms, they may sacrifice as much as half of their impact

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

By George Mitchell, Associate Professor of Nonprofit Management at the City University of New York. He reports on recently published research, conducted together with Thad Calabrese, Associate Professor of Public and Nonprofit Financial Management, at New York University. (George, Hans Peter Schmitz, and Tosca are the co-authors of the book ‘Between Power and Irrelevance: the Future of Transnational NGOs’, and have collaborated for close to 20 years.)

Charities that conform to common nonprofit financial management norms may be sacrificing more than half of their mission impact over a decade. This is the conclusion of our recently published research on a large population of US registered nonprofits and NGOs (domestic and international ones).

As charitable organizations, NGOs have long been under pressure to make themselves look financially trustworthy by following practices like:

  • minimizing overhead
  • being fiscally lean
  • diversifying revenue sources; and
  • avoiding significant debt.

Many funders, watchdogs, and other stakeholders routinely evaluate NGOs based on their conformity to norms like these. But how does following these norms actually affect organizational performance? My co-author Thad Calabrese and I analyzed data from thousands of US charities over several decades to find the answer. Read more (short article) at The Conversation.

Or check out our original research here  (open access/no paywall) or here (paywall).

Let us know how you react to this — perhaps counterintuitive — research outcome! Email me at george.mitchell@baruch.cuny.edu, or leave a comment.

When nonprofits conform to common financial management norms, they may sacrifice as much as half of their impact Read More »

Can Organizational Culture Help Explain Recent INGO Scandals?

Can Organizational Culture Help Explain Recent INGO Scandals?

In recent years, leading international nongovernmental organizations (INGO) such as Oxfam International, Save the Children, Amnesty International, MercyCorps and others have been implicated in scandals about sexual abuse and other forms of abuse of power and harassment. In this ‘pracademic’ essay, just published in the peer-reviewed journal Nonprofit Policy Forum (Open Access, yes!), I suggest focusing on organizational and sectoral culture as an explanatory variable for these crises, which are particularly hard-hitting for purportedly value-based organizations. In the case of NGOs, these are driven by six factors:

(1) particular individual leadership traits that may be prevalent especially in the emergency and humanitarian relief related sector

(2) the effect of power on leaders’ perspectives and behaviors

3) a culture of silence that makes it hard for NGO staff to speak up about toxic workplace behaviors

(4) the presence of deep power structures within NGOs which are not openly acknowledged and therefore addressed

(5) the myth of own innocence that leads NGOs to treat wrongdoing as aberrations instead of systemic problems; and

(6) a culture of limited individual and team-level accountability practices.

The extent to which these cultural failures can be addressed through formal policy and (self)regulatory measures is limited, given that culture is primarily about informal, covert belief systems. NGOs will have to do sustained and disciplined culture work themselves if the roots of the scandals are to be taken away.

A couple of warnings and notes: this essay is on the longer side. And I do not claim I am an expert in sexual harassment and abuse, either in the workplace or when NGOs interact with program impacted people. I am an expert in organizational effectiveness, dynamics, and culture as it relates to NGOs, and have a background in gender and gender and leadership as well. It is from those perspectives that I have written this essay. What I do is drawing links between organizational phenomena well researched in other sectors (public/government and private) and what can happen equally in NGOs, based on my 30 years of experience in the sector.

The other essays in this special issue of Nonprofit Policy Forum – written by well-known academics – are also available if you are interested.

Your comments on my essay are very much welcomed.

Can Organizational Culture Help Explain Recent INGO Scandals? Read More »

Activist wearing sign 'We don't have time'

Radical transformation: time to restructure? Or time to declare victory and move on?

Radical transformation: time to restructure? Or time to declare victory and move on?

These are the views of Veena Siddharth, consultant on organisational change, advocacy and human rights. They do not necessarily represent the views of Five Oaks Consulting. You can reach Veena at veena_s@post.harvard.edu

 “It (Transition House) survived the seventies because the women who worked there were so fervently committed to the theory and the principles, and it survived after that because, year by year, they abandoned every one of them.”
(“The Radical Transformations of a Battered Women’s Shelter” by Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker, August 12, 2019)

In a recent blog, Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken asks whether hiring and promoting “rebels” could be a way to transform NGOs. Her skepticism reflects the reality that the crisis many NGOs are facing cannot be solved by individuals.

A mismatch between increased ambition and systems

As NGOs have broadened missions to take on global problems, measuring progress becomes harder. The failure to radically transform contributes to a vacuum of accountability that is fertile ground for poor performance at the very least. Sometimes, it even leads to allegations of abuse, as we have seen in the last few years. The root problem, in my view, is a mismatch between increasingly ambitious objectives and systems inherited from another era.

Although I focus here on INGOs, multilaterals and bilaterals share a similar dissonance between their objectives and functions. UNICEF, UNAIDs, and the Global Fund are just a few of the multilaterals that join Transparency International, Oxfam, Save the Children, IPPF, the Red Cross, and Amnesty International in allegations that include bullying cultures, sexual harassment, lack of oversight, exclusionary internal networks and misuse of funds.

For example…

NGOs that thirty years ago specialised in stand-alone projects added campaigning, policy research and advocacy to tackle power structures and problems that transcended individual projects. Oxfam’s website, for example, says, “Eliminate injustice and you eliminate poverty”. CARE aims to “to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and social injustice” Plan International focuses on “significantly advancing gender equality by tackling the root causes of discrimination.” This expansion of the mission is not limited to development INGOs. Amnesty International moved from championing the individual political prisoner to addressing climate change, corporate accountability and “living in dignity” as priority areas of work. For their part, humanitarian organisations are signatories to the “Grand Bargain”, which aims for nothing less than a “Participation Revolution” in which those receiving aid make the decisions – a dramatic shift in power and authority.

Old structures persist

Yet…. the old structures persist. Donors still dictate terms of funding with short-term horizons without real recognition of the need for collaboration. Foundations and other funders give lip service to holistic approaches but are themselves divided into regional and sectoral divisions that do not support the cross-sectoral and institutional cooperation needed. Achieving the mission is impossible without unconventional alliances that require long-term investments and risk-taking. Such strategic alliances are distinct from the typical MOU with a corporate sponsor and may require finding allies on the other side of a political divide or reframing a divisive issue.

Systems with regard to planning, strategy, staff appraisal, evaluation and learning, fundraising, knowledge management and the internal culture form the scaffolding that determines what is rewarded inside organisations. Being clear about the overall goal while giving staff a high degree of trust and autonomy is essential, yet most NGOs still operate with Cold War-era internal structures related to regional and sectoral divides that are no longer relevant in a more connected era. While there are nods to more relevant approaches – such as developmental evaluation and adaptive management — existing systems tend to support technical expertise with static outputs.

Governance structures are also ill-equipped. The INGO boards in many of the recent scandals appear out of their depth to address profound questions of the skills and metrics best suited to the current environment. Board members may be appointed for their background in management consulting, the corporate world or the NGO sector, but few boards understand the challenges that Executive Directors face today in meeting both technical and political challenges.

What we need instead

One reaction to the scandals has been a growing business in the area of safeguarding, restructuring, and governance. This is necessary but insufficient. We need ways to establish long-term strategies with adaptability to shift tactics in the short-term, and develop boundary-crossing networks organised around change. Stress learning over static evaluation and increase the tolerance for investing in new areas. And we need Boards who understand the shifts this way of working requires in measuring progress and ways of working.

On a global level, the challenges are unprecedented, and the broader goals are exactly the right ones. If we are serious about tackling climate change, migration, political instability and inequality we need a starkly different approach to what NGOs currently value, as expressed through their systems and processes.

Radical transformation: time to restructure? Or time to declare victory and move on? Read More »

Anger and grievance among Amnesty staff: should the broader INGO sector pay attention?

Anger and grievance among Amnesty staff: should the broader INGO sector pay attention?

Introduction

When was the last time you read that an entire Senior Leadership Team (SLT) of a major NGO offered to resign? This happened recently in Amnesty International (shy of Kumi Naidoo, the relatively new Secretary General). It occurred after Amnesty made public (to its credit!) an independent report on the state of its staff well- being. The report put allegations of unfair treatment of staff, negatively impacted by a recent big organizational change process, and of racism, gender discrimination and bullying front and center as part of a longer standing cultural issue.

Why I write about this

I have followed these developments in Amnesty closely because I was part of a team that between 2014-2017 undertook a two part External Assessment of Amnesty’s Global Transition Program (GTP) . This big organizational change effort, as embodied in its informal name ‘Moving Closer to the Ground’, in effect decentralized Amnesty’s International Secretariat away from London to 11 Regional Offices, led (among others) to the appointment of many more global South staff and leaders, instilled a greater focus on gaining more global South members and supporters and led to the departure of a relative large number of staff who often had been with Amnesty for a long time.  In effect, GTP also led to some redistribution of power within Amnesty.  The Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University, USA, which I directed at the time, undertook the External Assessment. Co-authors in this effort included Ramesh Singh, Steve Lux and Shreeya Neupane. In addition, I also was the co-trainer in an annual Senior Leadership Development Program for major INGOs including Amnesty since 2013, and in that process have heard many observations about Amnesty culture, including when it comes to interpersonal communication styles.

Our Assessment had a much broader scope than effects on staff of the Global Transition Program (GTP) alone, but it certainly included those effects. We included data on persistent and legitimate staff grievances as a result of especially weak change management capacity and practice, particularly during the first (crucial) stages of GTP implementation. We indicated that Amnesty’s Management seemed to consider these grievances in ways that we found to be unhelpful. Our report came out in May 2017, and from the Staff Well-being report produced by the consulting group Konterra which just came out it appears that our work did not make much of a difference – a not uncommon limitation of externally commissioned work!

It should be said that the internal communication culture of Amnesty was known to be ‘confrontational’ well before the Global Transition Program. By this we mean a style of communicating that is dominated by attempts to persuade others through internal advocacy style communication, the use of argumentation and attacks – instead of on skillful interpersonal communication that leads to greater mutual understanding, conflict management and collaboration. This communication culture, anecdotally, is not just reported in Amnesty, but also in some other campaigning NGOs. The phenomenon is described by David La Piana, for instance, in “The Nonprofit Paradox (Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2010).

This made me reflect on some things[1]:

  1. Symbolically, the offer of collective resignation by Amnesty’s Senior Leadership Team was a necessary and useful action – this is irrespective of whether it accomplishes anything ‘structural’. It met the emotional needs of some staff (though not all) and the political needs of Amnesty’s  Board. 
  2. It gives the current Secretary General a free hand to start afresh with new leadership – even if Kumi decides to hold on to some SLT members while accepting the resignation of others. This can help with top leadership getting ‘unstuck’ with regard to certain ‘mental models’ of how staff grievances should be understood.
  3. Based on work I have done with other mid to large size NGOs who have gone through big change processes, I wonder if two realities co-exist in terms of whose voices counted or were privileged in the Staff Well-being report: on the one hand, there is a widespread, deeply shared and easily understood set of grievances. At the same time, it is my sense that there is also a set of voices that is critical of all the attention that has gone into ‘looking to the past’, who think that the power imbalances within the movement as well as the very identity of Amnesty needed to change, and who think the Staff Wellbeing report is (somewhat) overblown. The latter people just want to move on with the direction of travel that Amnesty is on, because they deeply believe in this direction and feel that the significant amount of change the organization went through was badly needed. I would have been interested to see in the Staff Well-being report, for instance, whether the latter voices had certain characteristics in common or not?
  4. And I also struggle with this question: on the one hand, a human rights organization cannot be seen to violate staff rights within the organization. And people certainly cannot work productively and contribute to worthwhile outcomes if they feel strongly aggrieved. On the other hand, all this attention is inward looking instead of outward looking, to rights holders who Amnesty aims to support and promote. And this is after the GTP change process itself already instilled a strongly inward looking climate for staff in the International Secretariat for several years.
  5. We all know there is a perennial debate within civil society as to what is the importance of having ‘passion for the cause’ and having ‘the right values’ (reflected in what some call the ‘soul’ of civil society), relative to the aim to professionalize. And it is obvious that mission and values-focused NGO staff are driven more by intrinsic motivations than by extrinsic rewards such as salary.  However, we as staff still need to be competent (professional) in how we communicate and treat each other; and we also may need to be more concerned with external effectiveness, and less with ‘good intentions and passion’.
  6. This in turn reminds me of the time I facilitated a senior leadership training, and we discussed the concept of a ‘psychological contract’. This concept (developed by Denise Rousseau) points to the set of – often unspoken – mutual beliefs and perceptions with regard to the informal obligations that may exist between employers and employees. As trainers, we asked each participant to indicate what their psychological contract was with their NGO employer. I recall how one set of participants indicated that theirs consisted of two things: having passion for ‘the cause’ and a willingness to work long hours for not that high a salary. I remember thinking to myself: but what about actual outcomes for the people or causes you work on? Outcomes did not seem to be part of the equation.
  7. This also brought back memories of the time when I set out to work in the international development field – a long time ago. I never saw myself as a ‘do gooder’ even though that was the assumption that many people had about young people like me. I did want to work on public causes, but I was weary of any notion of ‘saving the world’: the arrogance and ego that was personified in that idea was not something I was comfortable with. II just wanted to do meaningful work well. Please note that I am not saying I always succeeded! But doing work well was my main mission.
  8. Coming back to Amnesty’s current situation, this sentence in an editorial of The Times (after the publication of the Staff Well-being report therefore stuck with me: “Staff and managers employed … may pride themselves more on their commitment than on their professionalism. Being morally right all the time can induce an attitude towards fellow employees which is characterised by impatience and intolerance. Due process can come to be seen as an impediment to doing what seems to be the right thing, rather than as an assistance. Nothing is as “toxic” in the workplace as the resulting arbitrariness.” (The Times, February 6, 2019)

In conclusion, perhaps we as a sector should get better at balancing being ‘morally right’ (which is in any event depending on one’s viewpoint of the world), with being focused on skillfully interacting with our colleagues, so that we may support the creation of better outcomes. Why does our ‘moral outrage’ entitle us to treat others badly? Does this showcase a certain amount of ego and self-gratification, while masking as ‘doing good’? Should we apply a bit more humility, honesty and self-awareness?

This is a highly complex situation. What do you think? I look forward to hearing your comments and to learning from your perspective.


[1] I am grateful to Catherine Gerard, my colleague at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University (USA), who has been my mentor as well as co-trainer in the Senior Leadership Development Program since 2011, for inputs received.

Anger and grievance among Amnesty staff: should the broader INGO sector pay attention? Read More »

Accountability: do NGOs really aim to be accountable to a multitude of stakeholders?

NGOs prioritize their accountability to multiple stakeholders a lot more now than they did, say, 10 years ago. But to what extent does this go beyond rhetorical commitment? This academic article [HYPERLINKED], co-written with long time Maxwell colleagues Hans Peter Schmitz and Paloma Raggo, investigates the gap between rhetoric and behaviors.

Schmitz, Hans Peter, Paloma Raggo, and Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken 2012. Accountability of Transnational NGOs: Aspirations vs. PracticeNonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 41 (6), 1176-95.

Accountability: do NGOs really aim to be accountable to a multitude of stakeholders? Read More »