Non-profit organisations: A question of efficiency

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Why do we have to go far away into a world that we don’t understand to try and save it? Humanitarianism is as old as humanity itself, but it seems to be more prominent and necessary now than it has been in the past. Never before has the world seen as many non-profit organisations – enriching the poor, educating the uneducated, enlightening the ignorant, and enabling the unable. But what are we really trying to achieve with our humanitarian ambitions? Are we making the world a better place or are we just funnelling resources back and forth without actually changing the very root of the problems?

I have worked in a variety of NGOs by now, all of which were small organisations led by the most amazing volunteers with all the right intentions who had dedicated their lives (and significant parts of their income) to making this world a better place. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of them were nevertheless desperately inefficient. They are chronically under-resourced and often badly managed. The reasons for that are varied, but if I had to pick one it would be the following: NGOs are almost never led and managed by economists, financial experts, or businessmen. Because those people are out in the world making money… It is the sociologists, anthropologists, or psychologists who work for NGOs, people with degrees in non-profit management, international development, communication, or international relations. People (and this includes myself) who often have no idea how to effectively run a business.

If you manage an organisation whose workforce entirely consists of volunteers you can’t operate in the same way as you would in a business. You can’t fire volunteers. You can’t “force” them to do anything because you depend on their goodwill to keep the organisation running. By definition, a non-profit organisation doesn’t have a “bottomline”. There is no distinction between red and black numbers, no targets to be met, no measures to be taken due to a lack of profitability. How is success rated in an environment like that?

There are no international guidelines about who can found an NGO and under what circumstances this foundation may be necessary. Not to say that it is not a great achievement when people create an organisation that helps to ease an existing misery. But is it always necessary to found a new organisation? Would it not be a better idea to see if there is one already that addresses a similar need? There are too many tiny one- or two-person NGOs that have no clear goals and try to do too many things at a time to be effective. The result is a swamp of organisations which don’t work together but rather parallel to each other and therefore take resources away from each other which leaves less for everyone to work with.

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One response »

  1. Pingback: Non-profit organisations: A question of efficiency | thecookedconscience

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