NGO work is part of a joint effort to help poor people make life better for themselves, in complex and changing circumstances. NGOs contribute best when they collaborate, empower and respond.

A good rule of thumb is for NGO staff to act the way they would like to be treated, if they were on the receiving end of their NGO’s assistance.


An NGO’s managers have to make sure their activities link up with other people’s efforts, as well as being high quality on their own. The linking up is as important as the NGO’s own activities. It involves different people and approaches in every context.

As a first priority, an NGO has to collaborate with the people it works directly with and adds value to. For example, this might include poor people themselves, local partner organisations or policy makers.


Most NGOs support local people and organisations to gain more control over their lives. NGOs have to avoid undermining their autonomy, for instance by telling people what to do. NGOs contribute most when they are demand-led, responding to what people want, rather than supply-led.

A demand-led approach can also make changes more sustainable, so they last after an NGO project finishes. People make their own decisions about what they value.

Many NGOs work with the poorest and most marginalised people. It can be difficult and slow to build relationships with them and involve them in making decisions. Furthering their causes is almost always political, involving negotiations with people who may lose power.


Local contexts change continually, for instance as politics and economic opportunities change and people interact in different ways. They always include different social groups, some of whom win and some lose from any set of activities.

NGOs need to respond to people’s priorities as they develop, rather than just complete pre-planned activities.

Development management … is not just a question of getting the task at hand completed by the best means available.”  Alan Thomas, 2000

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