In the 2007 film ‘Lions for Lambs’, Tom Cruise plays a slick US senator pushing new military tactics in Afghanistan. Meryl Streep is a sceptical journalist. At a central moment, he stands over her and asks: “Do you want a win in the war on terror? Yes or no?”
It’s impossible to answer. The idea of ‘war’ gets people thinking the wrong way about tackling terror – setting up the idea of military conflict and battlefield victory. The idea is good for winning public support and making complex social issues seem simple. But it’s bad for doing much about them.
In the same way, the idea of ‘impact’ is not much use for managing the performance of NGOs or holding them to account. It gets people thinking the wrong way about what NGOs do, and a whole lot of management decisions flow from that. Luckily they don’t involve guns and international destruction. But they do have real implications for people on the front line of global poverty and injustice.
‘Impact’ is normally seen as long term social change – whether poor people are healthier, richer and more in control of their lives, or whether the Millennium Development Goals are being met.
Using it to manage an NGO is like asking what effect one single teacher has on average wages in a town. The teacher probably does have an effect. But her work is one factor among many others – and the others, like employment prospects, government regulation or family pressure, may be more important.
We need better ways to ask whether the teacher is doing her job well. She needs to be motivated and focused on being a great teacher. She also needs to be aware of how her work contributes to long term social benefits and there are important questions for education policy. But asking her to focus on average wages won’t improve her teaching.
It works the same way with NGOs. NGOs are almost always one factor among many others in any particular context. They aim to ‘help people help themselves’ – building up their skills and confidence to make their own decisions. So NGOs need to focus mostly on whether they are doing their specific job as well they can, which is within their control, rather than on whether long term social issues are being solved, which is not. It’s also not their responsibility.
www.ngoperformance.org sets out a new approach to managing performance in NGOs. It brings together established ideas and best practice from across the sector, informed by extensive personal experience. It lays out a ten point agenda around the central idea of ‘performance’. Performance is defined as how well an NGO contributes to other people’s efforts to improve their lives or societies.
For instance, NGOs should set their strategy on the basis of how they can make the best contribution to other people’s efforts, rather than on the basis of other people’s needs. A good way to measure NGOs’ performance is to get feedback from the other people involved, rather than trying to measure ‘impact’. A key determinant of how well an NGO can contribute to other people’s efforts is the quality of the relationships it has with them: relationships can and should be systematically managed.
www.ngoperformance.org includes links to and examples from a wide range of work and related initiatives. It is written in plain English, without jargon, specifically for managers in NGOs. It is intended as a contribution to the debate on improving accountability and performance in the sector, helping busy managers tackle the practical challenges they face as they juggle dozens of different priorities.
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