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.

Lessons from Haiyan: five steps to improve accountability to affected people

Humanitarian Exchange #63 coverI spent a fascinating morning this week at the launch of a special edition of Humanitarian Exchange on The Typhoon Haiyan Response in the Philippines. (Video to follow soon.)

We discussed how aid agencies can be more accountable to the people they serve. (“Accountability to Affected People”, AAP, in the jargon. Of which more below.) In general, this means enabling them to influence what we do. Continue reading

The inside view : Philip Tamminga replies on Certification and Core Humanitarian Standards

I’m delighted to introduce a guest blog, by Philip Tamminga, the Project Coordinator of SCHR’s Certification Project. He replies to my blog on the Core Humanitarian Standard and Certification processes with his own unique insights and five key points for success.

You may also be interested in Ed Schenkenberg’s informed & critical response (below the original blog).

TammingaThanks for drawing attention to these two important initiatives, the Core Humanitarian Standard and the Certification Review project. As you say, this is a real opportunity to make history in the humanitarian sector, and one we collectively can’t afford to miss.

For the last two years I have been leading the Certification Review project and have been heavily engaged in the CHS process. I would like to share some personal reflections on the issues you raise – this should not be interpreted as the position of the SCHR or it members. Continue reading

Making humanitarian history

Into the sunset together?

Into the sunset together?

Two high profile international initiatives are racing towards a historic conclusion in Copenhagen this December: the SCHR’s Certification Project and the Core Humanitarian Standard.

Both aim to reform the quality of humanitarian work. Will they come together in a beautiful Clooney-style marriage or are we heading for a Kardashian disaster? Continue reading

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

The Samaritans: Kenya’s First NGO Mockumentary

Outstanding spoof documentary on international NGOs in Kenya!

Created by a Kenya-based production company, it chronicles the work of the excellently named “Aid for Aid” – an NGO that, in the words of its creator, “does nothing”.

Maybe we can do more on quality and accountability after all …

More: http://www.aidforaid.org/pilot.php#

Easy ways for philanthropic donors to see if they’re doing well

A re-post from the Social Impact Analysts Association. The excellent and experienced Caroline Fiennes from Giving Evidence describes simple ways for funders to measure their performance. The ideas are widely applicable to NGOs.

The approach is based on exactly the same principle as this site: focus on your performance, not their impact. I also loved some of Caroline’s other blogs, like Most Charities Shouldn’t Evaluate Their Work: Part One Why not?

Caroline Fiennes
Some skiers are better than others. Some singers are better than others. The same for teaching, nursing and curling. So it seems reasonable to suppose that some people are better at supporting charities than others.

Continue reading