The Business of NGO Leadership study

The Business of NGO Leadership study has been prepared by CENDEP and the Business School of Oxford Brookes University. Oxford Leaders and Oxford Change Management partnered in the production of this study and Workforce Development with Oxford Brookes funded the production of the study and its launch.

About the Study

The last ten years have seen significant changes within humanitarian aid work, including among other things, changing demands (for example from urbanisation and an increase in disasters), more funding (for some), professionalisation of the aid sector (and current pushes for forms of recognised professionalisation) and an increased need for accountability to donors.

With an average annual 6% increase in staffing across humanitarian organisations over the last ten years* there are now thought to be just over 210,000 humanitarian workers throughout the world**. At the same time the needs of affected populations have increased and the nature of the humanitarian response has changed. NGOs are re-evaluating their accountability structures, their working relationships with southern NGOs and governments, their response times and role as subcontractor.

While organisations have made some progress on coordination and assessment tools in the humanitarian sector, and reconsidered their skills base and technologies accordingly, studies show that progress on leadership has been weak - responses to skill deficiencies have in many cases led to employing more technical experts and importing management approaches from outside the sector***. Organisations are struggling with the pull of responding to the 'humanitarian imperative' and the need at the same time for increased efficiency, effectiveness and professionalisation.

To these ends CENDEP is working closely with NGOs in the humanitarian sector and looking at ways that we can support leadership development needs through a variety of educational tools.

Essentials of good leadership

Most of the leaders interviewed for the Oxford Brookes study The Business of NGO Leadership pointed above all to the need to draw in people who are committed to the values of the organisation and staff from outside the sector who come with a fresh questioning eye and new skills.

There is a strong leaning towards an enabling type of leadership where the leaders foster staff to be fully engaged in influencing the direction of the organisation.

One interviewee stated: "Leadership doesn't have to come from the leader and certainly doesn't come from the headquarters but is at a number of levels. You need good judgement at all these levels."

There is a strong desire to develop training programmes for existing leaders that bring in the best qualities of the business sector while maintaining the spirit and values of the humanitarian sector. Some NGOs like to develop staff internally with a view to establishing a career within that organisation while others see their role as providing personal development outcomes for staff who will work in the wider aid sector, and thus need skills that can equip them across the sector.

A fast changing sector

With changes internationally around the roles of NGOs, partners and government, NGO leaders have to look hard at how they manage their relationships, at all levels. Relations with donor and policy decision makers are important for them to manage. They are developing useful and healthy relationships with both NGO and community partners at the local and national level, while increasingly developing strong and clear partnerships with the private sector wherever this partnership will be advantageous to support work with beneficiaries.

Leaders are tasked with managing their respective organisations internally so that all levels are playing an informed and effective role in moving the organisation towards meeting its objectives and following its vision, while maintaining its core values and keeping true to humanitarian principles and practices. These challenges highlight the need for reflection, skills in organisational change and a high level of skill in team management. Some said that to achieve this they need a good understanding of all parts of their organisation and a technical understanding of on the ground delivery. Most of the leaders interviewed however felt they had deficiencies in some of these areas.

Personal development

In the Brookes Report The Business of NGO Leadership leaders identified coaching and action learning sets as two of the most desirable and useful tools to support them.

Action learning sets allow them to meet in a safe and structured environment with their peers from outside the sector, to look for solutions to problems around management and leadership. Coaching on the other hand allows for the injection of experience and support in a very personal and bespoke format.

On the job (or related to the job) financial management and accountability training were identified as potentially useful.

Organisational change and leadership and advocacy skills were also sought.

What significant context issues do leaders identify?

The growing importance of corporates

There is now and will almost certainly be in the future an increased role for the private sector in humanitarian aid, including stronger local private sector actors who have more direct access to donor funds.

Changing media technology

24 hour media means that leaders need to be more media savvy and at times speedy about certain decision making. Expectations about turnaround time and response times have increased with better information technology, and as a result management styles need to change to respond to the additional pressures these can put on managers and staff, but also to make best use of better remote communication.

Use of rights based approaches

Leadership style has been challenged by social rights being brought to the fore alongside economic and political rights.

Analysis and assessment

The sector is evolving its understanding of what produces change. This means programming can be more difficult and time consuming to do.

Changing donor agendas

As Southern NGOs continue to grow they are becoming more essential to the work of Northern NGOs. Donors are responding to this and increased access to media is facilitating it.

* Stoddard et al. Quoted in Harvey et al. 2010, p.18
** Harvey et al. 2010, The State of the Humanitarian System: Assessing performance and progress - a pilot study, ALNAP, p.18. This refers to staff working on crisis response and rehabilitation only
*** Clarke P. and Ramalingham B., 2008 Organisational Change in the Humanitarian Sector, 7th Review of Humanitarian Action, ALNAP, Chapter 2.

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