Signing off with seven last lessons

After five years, it’s time for me to close this blog & website. I’m moving on to a new job in a new field. I’ll be leading the Cash Learning Partnership, working on cash programming in humanitarian aid.

I’ll keep this website available as an archive. It has two parts: the blog and the static pages. There’s more below about each of them, along with seven lessons from my five years at the centre of a big international NGO.

Thank you for all your involvement, debate & comments. It’s been a great ride. Stay in touch!

Blog archive

The blog archive is available from the menu on the right, and here. It covers subjects like:

  • Humanitarian standards & the World Humanitarian Summit
  • Feedback systems & community engagement
  • Randomised Control Trials & associated polemics
  • Examples of how agencies actually manage performance

My most viewed & re-posted blog was 10 lessons for NGOs responding to Typhoon Haiyan.

And to show some personal consistency, in 2011 I blogged about how great cash transfers are: GiveDirectly: Applying the golden rule?

Static pages on NGO performance

The text of the static pages is available from the menu on the left and the tabs at the top of the page. In effect, it’s a booklet on the subject of managing performance in NGOs written in 2011. It’s based on my previous experience in the sector, supported by the literature of the time.

Its core idea is that NGOs should focus on managing their performance, not their long term impact:

An NGO’s performance is how well it contributes to other people’s efforts to improve their lives and societies.

This website argues that NGOs can achieve most by managing and measuring their own performance, rather than poor people’s long term social change.

The approach focuses on factors that are within NGOs’ control and reinforces respect for other people’s autonomy. It is about helping people help themselves.

In my eyes, this core idea continues to stand the test of time.

Seven lessons

For the past five years I’ve been Director of Programme Quality at Plan International. Here are seven major lessons that I’d use to update my 2011 text:

  1. Many NGOs are trying to do a lot of different things in a lot of different places. This variety makes it hard to roll out consistent performance management systems; though structured approaches to making local judgements can work. It generates demands for coordination and administration that cannot always be met (or afforded). It also makes it hard to set focused strategy and build up deep expertise.
  2. The operating environment is increasingly dominated by winning and delivering grants from institutional donors. Grants are getting bigger and more complicated. As a result, project management is a dominant priority for internal management systems. It is getting harder for big NGOs to focus on core practices like participation, partnership and empowerment outside of this. General exhortations to improve practice won’t be any more effective in the future than they have been in the past. Donors are very influential in setting operational priorities. They may also increasingly favour actors that have proven project management capacity.
  3. Feedback systems that collect ‘client satisfaction’ data from beneficiaries are appealing but tricky. They have an important role to play. But they are too subjective and context-specific to be either (a) simple to implement across a wide range of different environments, or (b) reliable on their own as performance indicators. Specific applications of the approach, like feedback from partners, can be powerful.
  4. Working in head office brings its own pressures and competing agendas. There are no simple answers to complex organisational problems – despite the promises of change programmes, external consultants and enterprise software. Effective changes depend on consistent leadership plugging away over time in a fluid environment, building on what’s working and adjusting what’s not. At the same time, staff need the inspiration that comes with new ideas and approaches. It is a delicate balancing act to manage these different priorities.
  5. We tend to bite off more than we can chew, often due to high levels of commitment to the mission. Staff at all levels are often too busy. Across our sector we lack a strong basis for accountability. It’s easier to win big grants than deliver them; it’s easier to launch new management initiatives than see them through; it’s easier to add procedures than decide what to stop. Tough leadership is needed to steer a path through this, making judgements about how to use the limited management capacity available to best effect.
  6. Big NGOs’ governance arrangements tend to be complicated and relatively expensive. Boards are filled by experienced volunteers who are generally also highly committed. They may have different views about priorities and cannot always make the time to hold management to account effectively. Governance demands a lot of senior management attention, without always reinforcing a focus on actual performance on the ground. It may focus on other issues like revenue, risk management, and organisational & governance structure. These are all important – and largely separate from field performance.
  7. There are real opportunities to improve performance by focusing on how field teams manage their work. In reality, there’s limited bandwidth at any level to go much beyond this. This has major implications, such as: (a) there’s nothing more important than getting the right people into field leadership positions and supporting them to make great judgements, (b) ensuring that field processes balance relationships with all key stakeholders, including beneficiaries & partners as well as donors, (c) ensuring that projects are consistently well designed and managed, including learning and continual improvement, (d) cutting away as much bureaucracy as possible, including IT systems, and (e) focusing internal performance management on field-level processes and judgements.

The World Humanitarian Summit: where are the results?

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The ‘People at the Centre’ session: No one at the centre!

I wrote this on the way home from the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul last week. Disclosure: I was involved in the summit’s preparations, particularly working on reforms to improve community engagement in humanitarian response.

I enjoyed a lot at the summit, from iris-scanning for cash delivery (amazing! dignified, cheap, effective: a vision of the future) to the Tzu Chi Foundation’s mission of inspiring love among givers and receivers (also wonderful).

But the headline commitments did not add up to much, at least in my area. We have a lot to think about how to do better. It was a great trade fair, but it fell far short as a summit. Continue reading

What should the new Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative do?

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Greece 2015: Who holds the humanitarian system accountable?

A new member of the humanitarian family is being born this month. The Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative is taking life. The first board meetings are happening in the next few weeks.

It’s a member of a small and select group of organisations that shape international humanitarian action. Continue reading

Last week’s Global Consultation for the World Humanitarian Summit

The closing ceremony: all on song?

The closing ceremony: a greater music?

I was at the vast Global Consultation of the World Humanitarian Summit last week. It was a big step in the final push to Istanbul, next May.

It’s been a rollercoaster. Stephen O’Brien (the UN’s relief chief) has outlined a vision that the summit should focus more on inspiration than transformation, reported as “the UN doesn’t need to change”.

In other words: inspiring states and others to support humanitarian action, rather than transforming the organisations that dominate the aid landscape. Previous leadership put more emphasis on transformation. But there is still a great opportunity for significant progress.

Here are the key messages I took away. There are four general messages and then more detail on community engagement. Continue reading

Ten steps to a better humanitarian system

jungs_blogThis is a reblog of a great piece from Nick van Praag, of Ground Truth Solutions. It was also posted by the CHS Alliance. There’s real food for thought here for the World Humanitarian Summit. But who will take the lead in making some of these changes happen? Will any of us stand up and be counted?

This week’s global consultation on the World Humanitarian Summit looks like it will be long on calls for commitment to reform and short on agreement about how to make it happen. Here are my ten suggestions for a better humanitarian system. Continue reading

More on the World Humanitarian Summit: it’s up to us.

I just posted this blog on Plan International’s website. It’s an update on preparations for the World Humanitarian Summit. It’s up to us to make it work.

The message from Kathmandu

The writing’s on the wall in Kathmandu

I’ve been working with the World Humanitarian Summit team over the last year, preparing for the huge summit looming in Istanbul next May. The whole process has its ups and downs. But it remains a unique opportunity to drive real progress in the sector. And we all have a role to play in making it succeed.

From a meeting in Berlin last week, it looks like the summit team will have to focus on headline reforms that need political commitment at the highest level. These are areas like: working out a new deal for hosting refugees, localising leadership for humanitarian action and global leadership for innovation or work in urban settings. Continue reading

Is a TripAdvisor for aid agencies a runner?

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Is there anybody there?

The idea of a “TripAdvisor for humanitarian aid” surfaced again in the World Humanitarian Summit consultations. Is it a runner?

On the face of it, it’s got a lot to offer. Recipients could rate the services they receive, using smartphones and a standard on-line platform. Their assessments would be publically available, creating a new level of transparency and accountability for aid agencies. Everyone would be able to see which agencies are doing well and agencies would have incentives to drive up performance.

It’s a good idea in theory. Continue reading