4. Managing relationships

NGOs should systematically build and monitor relationships with local people and other collaborators, and ensure they meet appropriate standards.

In order to contribute to other people’s efforts, NGOs need to understand their priorities and gain their support. NGOs need to demonstrate that they are worth collaborating with and that they value other people’s views. Managers should focus on relationships as much as delivery. This builds on the huge literature on participation.

In particular, NGOs need to develop constructive relationships with the people that they work with directly. Relationships can be managed systematically, by:

A.  Setting appropriate standards
B.  Supporting staff to meet standards
C.  Monitoring whether relationships meet standards

These do not have to be heavy, bureaucratic processes. They can be lightweight, adapted to circumstances, and fit with small NGOs’ working cultures.


A.  Setting standards

A number of initiatives set standards for how NGOs should collaborate with other people. For instance, the HAP standard and Listen First framework can both be used to assess performance. Action Aid’s ALPS system sets out behaviours expected from staff and so do the Sphere standards, though they are not designed for assessment.

But, generally, standards in this area remain the exception not the rule. For instance, there is still vigorous debate about what ‘participation’ or ‘partnership’ means in different contexts, which creates practical confusion. The quality of relationships tends to depend on the ‘grace and favour’ of local managers.

Standards need to balance flexibility, so they apply in different contexts, and being specific, to provide guidance for staff. They should encourage staff to analyse social situations and different interest groups and to pay particular attention to the priorities of the poorest and most marginalised people, including women.

Appropriate standards help staff understand what they should do, as well as providing a basis for holding staff to account. Some of the feedback examples use tools that embody standards.

Alps requires that poor and excluded people take part directly in all processes of local programme appraisal, analysis, research planning, monitoring, implementation, research and reviews, including recruiting and appraising frontline staff. Poor and excluded people have a right to take part in decisions that affect them.”  Alps, ActionAid International, 2006

B.  Supporting staff

Across the sector NGOs have a lot of experience of supporting staff to build constructive relationships with different people. For instance, a great deal of training and resource material is available, along with opportunities for staff to reflect and share experience.

Approaches need to be adapted to the local context. NGOs rely on their front line staff to do this. Some commonly used approaches can be built into organisational policies, including:

  • Making operational decisions together
  • Transparency
  • Delivering on expectations and maintaining quality
  • Working with credible staff or partners
  • Being easy to contact and demonstrably responsive
  • Staying in one place for enough time

In almost all cases, NGOs should involve local people and other collaborators in all their major operational decisions, including initial analysis, planning activities, setting indicators and goals, assessing performance and planning improvements.

These decisions should be informed by people’s own priorities, so an NGO’s work fits into their plans and aspirations – helping people help themselves. A vast array of participatory approaches are available to engage with local people.

NGOs should make it easy for people to contact them and ensure they respond to all legitimate comments. For example, HAP has brought together a wide range of experience on complaints mechanisms.

Annual open meetings can provide an opportunity for different stakeholders to come together, review performance and make plans for the future. For example, regular participatory reviews are a central plank in ActionAid’s ALPS system.

Common Standard 1: Participation. The disaster-affected population actively participates in the assessment, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the assistance programme.” Sphere Minimum Standards in Disaster Response

C.  Monitoring relationships

The quality of relationships can be systematically monitored using feedback. This should be triangulated with other views and discussed together with staff and relevant collaborators.

Managers can check whether participatory processes are being consistently carried out, for instance through field visits, discussions with collaborators and requiring simple reports. Larger organisations could incorporate these approaches into existing oversight and audit processes.

Staff should be held to account for their performance in managing constructive relationships. However oversight needs to be handled sensitively, as it can directly effect relationships.

“NGOs deliver quality work when their work is based on a sensitive and dynamic understanding of beneficiaries’ realities; responds to local priorities in a way that beneficiaries feel is appropriate; and is judged to be useful by beneficiaries.”

“The quality of an NGO’s work is primarily determined by the quality of its relationships with its intended beneficiaries.”   Keystone for Bond, 2006

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