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.

Five lessons from the UK’s Independent Commission on Aid Impact

Traffic lightThe UK’s Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) published another fascinating review of DFID’s work this month. It’s well worth a look, for their methods as much as their findings.

This one was on DFID’s Contribution to the Reduction of Child Mortality in Kenya. (Good summary here from the Guardian.)

It builds on an impressive few years work. ICAI have developed a sensitive approach to systematically assessing a wide range of programmes. And some practical tools others in the sector may be able to learn from. Their work is not perfect. But it’s the result of a lot of thoughtful investment and looks pretty good from the outside. Continue reading

State of the art resource: Keystone’s technical note

Newsflash! A great new resource has just been published on how to get – and use – powerful feedback from the people NGOs work with.

It’s Keystone’s first Technical Note on Constituent Voice methodology: required reading for anyone interested in feedback systems in NGOs. Continue reading

Listening to those who matter most: two inspiring new publications

More and more people are writing about how feedback can improve the quality and accountability of aid. And we’re seeing more serious pilots about how we can use feedback systems at scale.

For example, DFID’s major piloting exercise on using feedback systems to improve aid is getting into gear. Just last week Mark Maxson blogged on a new collaboration called Feedback Labs, working on the same issues.

Two major new publications provide more inspiration to all of us. Both point to similar obstacles and ways forward. And they both lay down a challenge for everyone involved in the debate. Continue reading

Real Transparency: IFAD’s Independent Evaluation Ratings Database

Repost from Rick Davies on Monitoring and Evaluation News. I agree, this is news!

IFAD follows ICAI by publishing summary ratings of evaluations of all its programmes. Oxfam went some way down the same route with its Project Effectiveness Reviews. This is a great trend towards real transparency. Let’s hope other agencies will follow suit. Continue reading

Wonks make peace not war?

keep-calm-and-make-peace-not-war-11A follow up post on the “wonkwar” between 3ie and the Big Push Forward about measuring the results of aid.

Duncan Green said it was the most read ever debate on his blog. As ever, his summary was balanced and readable – great attributes in this war of words!

Last week, I went to 3ie’s public lecture in London on evidence-based development (watch it on video). And today I popped in to the Big Push Forward conference in Brighton. Continue reading

Lessons from World Vision: Mandatory indicators don’t work!

Screen shot 2013-03-27 at 22.11.38Here’s another powerful experiment by a major NGO on how to measure results. It’s from World Vision, a few years ago. The experiment was to roll out the same 12 standard impact indicators across all their programmes, worldwide. (World Vision currently works in over 80 countries worldwide.)

I’m greatly impressed by how much material World Vision has published. Their original approach was ultimately unsuccessful. But they’ve continued to evolve the ideas. Both the original effort and their current materials have powerful lessons for other NGOs today. Continue reading