6. Frontline staff

NGOs’ first priority should be to support and encourage frontline staff to contribute effectively to other people’s efforts.

Frontline staff are often the most important factor in delivering high quality work. NGOs depend on them to develop relationships with local people and other collaborators, make judgements about what to do and provide appropriate assistance.

Managing frontline staff is crucial for NGOs’ performance. They will not be able to serve and support other people if the NGO is not supporting them to work in a flexible, responsive way.

This has implications for all stages of human resource management. For instance, NGOs should recruit frontline staff for their values and judgement as well as technical competencies, and provide training and guidance in these areas. Training should be provided on a demand basis, rather than a supply basis, supporting staff’s own enquiry and development.

Staff need flexibility and support to respond to and empower collaborators. A coaching style of management can enable this, helping staff make good judgements, as well as discussing their performance in relation to pre-determined targets. An authoritarian style, where staff are expected to do what they are told, is unlikely to work.

A great deal of NGO work is about putting personal values into practice. It is often not intuitive to ‘help people help themselves’ and respect their autonomy, rather than trying to solve problems for them. Staff may need continual encouragement and opportunities to deepen their understanding of these values.

Management systems should strike a balance between control and support. They should allow a reasonable level of decision making and flexibility at the local level. For instance, overly rigid budgets and procedures reduce flexibility and the NGO’s credibility as a responsive collaborator.

There may be a natural tension between central and local priorities. This needs constant monitoring by managers, including routinely asking frontline staff about the impact that organisational systems and priorities have on them.

NGOs should fight bureaucracy! Frontline staff need the time and space to do their jobs. If they are asked to take on one additional responsibility, can another be taken off them? It may be appropriate to set targets for the amount of time staff spend working with collaborators, to help protect this space.

… responsibility and authority must be decentralised … as far as possible. … A responsive and flexible development practice can only be achieved by the organisation that has responsive and flexible practitioners out there in the (development) field, reading the development process of its clients/counterparts and facilitating responsive interventions.”  Allan Kaplan, 2000

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