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From a management perspective, are NGOs any different from other organizations?

By Philippe Mottaz - The Geneva Observer

September 29, 2020

Briefly Noted - News

Is there a systemic tension between their vision, primarily based on commitments and values, and the ever-increasing need for strict financial reporting and accountability required in a highly competitive funding environment? How can and should these tensions be managed?

The research and literature about the management of NGOs is still relatively scarce. "NGOs can learn from management theory, but equally management theory has something to learn from NGOs, as they have been able to offer successful responses to significant challenges,” write French researchers and business school professors Bruno Cazenave, Emmanuelle Garbe, and Jérémy Morales in their just published “Le management des NGO."

“NGOs have offered original solutions to the issues of human resources management projects and the deployment of people in the field during emergencies” and increasingly for open-ended missions, often relying on local hires. For a long time, write the authors, they have done so without adopting the private sector's management techniques. They argue there is something to be learned here.

Cazenave teaches at ESC International Business School, Garbe at IAE in Paris, and Morales reads at King's College in London. They provide an overview of specific management practices in the NGO world, articulated around four themes: managing skills, financing and evaluating performance, selling altruistically, and organizing and structuring.

Analyzing NGOs with the tools of management science, they write, “offers an unprecedented look at certain practices about which NGOs communicate little, even though they are becoming ubiquitous and often help to ensure the legitimacy and sustainability of these organizations.”

The four paradoxes of NGO management

They identify what they describe as four paradoxes in NGO management: the first one is due to their work's changing nature. NGOs have no choice but to hire highly skilled personnel, resulting in an accompanying increase in compensation. “However,” write the researchers, “in doing so, they risk losing what made them so strong and attractive: doesn't the increasing salary of NGO staff run the risk of reducing their members' intrinsic motivation or their attachment to the cause? Doesn't the diversification of profiles, encouraging the formalization of human resources management policies, run the risk of being carried out to the detriment of the organizational agility which was often the strength and attraction of these organizations?”

The second paradox is “that business continuity must now be funded, along with specific projects”—a significant change whose consequences they analyze. Thirdly, the authors write that the costs associated with putting together strong and resilient organizational structures might appear to contradict the NGOs' mission and values. Finally, as NGOs assume an ever-increasing role, they supplant the states. They might be accused of contributing to the diffusion of neoliberal policies, which their constituencies are likely wary of.

They conclude their short but rich and insightful essay by addressing the question of private partnerships for NGOs.

“Today, NGOs necessarily interact with the private sector. (…) They are led by managers that speak its language, understand its codes, and make themselves heard. The risks of this proximity are obvious, as the possibilities are numerous, for instance, when NGOs try to influence private companies. (…) Pursuing professionalization while maintaining the ethos of volunteering is therefore an ambitious program. NGOs' challenge is to manage to integrate management techniques without losing their axiological orientation and thus maintain their status as alternative organizations. "

« Le Management des ONG », de Bruno Cazenave, Emmanuelle Garbe et Jérémy Morales (La Découverte, 128 pages, 10 euros).