NGOs are key to the post pandemic future

Climate Voices

NGOs are key to the post pandemic future

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NGOs must reaffirm their purpose and cooperate better to help the world recover from COVID-19

Our world has changed. The global pandemic is testing the purpose and relevance of organizations and sectors like never before. Stakeholders’ roles are shifting as they try to navigate a way forward. Whether at a global, national, or community level, there is a growing recognition that stakeholders must collaborate differently and take responsibility for holding each other to account.

The development sector has been operating under growing pressure and scrutiny for some time. The crisis is increasing risk at a human, financial, and operational levels, challenging roles, resourcing and business models — and in some cases their very purpose and viability. 

A Bird’s Eye View recently conducted a seven-country survey with 1,000 respondents to understand people’s hopes for the future. Encouragingly, we found that despite differences in culture people share a universal belief that we must transform society, the environment, and the economy for the better. Only 25% of people seek a return to the “old normal,” and barely a fifth want a recovery focused on economic issues alone. 

People are demanding change and have clear expectations of who is responsible for delivering it. Our study indicates that national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are seen as less important to the recovery than government, community, businesses, and even religious leaders in one country. 

People are demanding change and have clear expectations of who is responsible for delivering it.

With a long history of playing a critical role in environmental, social and human rights issues, this is a wake-up call for NGOs. At a time when their role has never been more important, the ground is changing under their feet. A transformation is needed if the sector is to contribute more meaningfully to the change and future the world wants to see. It is critical NGOs understand how they are perceived to help facilitate this process.

Change needs to happen 

Nearly nine in ten surveyed believe the crisis is revealing issues and accelerating change in the world that needed to happen anyway. 

The pandemic has accentuated demands for change on macro issues like social inequality, climate change and food security, and individual challenges like the ability to meet financial commitments, the safety of families, and access to healthcare. World Economic Forum indicators suggest the economic fallout from the crisis will only widen these gaps and create greater fragility and vulnerability. 

It has also strengthened people’s expectation for organizations to change how they work, behave and contribute to society. The development sector is aware that this period of rapid change is creating risks and opportunities, as highlighted by BOND, the international development network. In their recent report, BOND recommends four transitions to help transform the UK’s international development system and create more resilient charity models that can deliver better outcomes.

Purpose, role, and relevance

Despite dissatisfaction with Government leadership, transparency and accountability, we found that people expect national and local governments to lead the recovery. They want community to take a more important role — and recognize their personal responsibility too. 

Across the world people are also united by their expectations of business. They are demanding improvements in their environmental and social impact, a greater distribution of wealth in society, fairer and more inclusive workplaces, and a better way of working with government for the common good.

As gaps in the needs of society expand, traditional roles once held by NGOs are being delivered by other stakeholders stepping up to the task. Advice from consultancies like Accenture on government matters of climate and development policy continues to grow. Social movements such as Extinction Rebellion are empowering voices on environmental issues across the world. Investors are supporting the green transformation through access to capital and giving greater priority to climate risk. Innovative startups like TerraCycle have become the go to partners for businesses seeking large scale solutions to recycling and waste. 

As gaps in the needs of society expand, traditional roles once held by NGOs are being delivered by other stakeholders stepping up to the task.

In this context, staying relevant will be critical for NGOs. Founded in 1992, Fairtrade International influenced the way we shop through their market-based approach to make supply chains fairer and more sustainable. However, their certification model didn’t adapt enough over time to stay ahead of major companies who significantly raised their standards. This came to a head in 2017 with several major companies ending their partnership creating a public debate questioning their reason to exist.

With government and business under pressure to take greater responsibility for social and environmental issues, NGOs need to rethink their identity, rearticulate their purpose and point of view, and redefine their role and how they partner. The challenge will be how to add greater value in the debate and co-own the delivery of accountable impact and change.

Here are three things NGOs should do.

1. Strengthen their value propositions

COVID-19 has dramatically restricted the development sector’s ability to deliver support on the ground and influence policy. A recent article in The New Humanitarian highlighted the enormous scale of the disruption to aid delivery nationally and globally, from funding and access, to resourcing and employee safety. 

For some INGOs, the crisis has reinforced and elevated the importance of their purpose and value proposition such as global non-profit PATH, working with governments and the private sector to support the response to COVID-19 and accelerate global health equity. For others like Oxfam it has magnified gaps in finances and the loss of public trust following a safeguarding scandal exposed in 2018. In May this year, Oxfam announced a significant reduction in their country operations and staff numbers, also affecting some partnerships. 

2. Improve impact and accountability

People surveyed are calling for greater transparency and accountability. NGOs need to play a key role shaping policy, holding governments to account, and ensuring essential services are more accessible and fairly distributed. At the same, NGOs’ boards need to demonstrate with transparency their own efficiency of resources used and, importantly, tangible impact and value add generated. 

For example, in 2016 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched a new conservation strategy to restructure and align itself to the UN SDGs. This helped WWF embrace a new way of working, leveraging local expertise, embracing innovation, and accelerating transformational alliances to generate significant and lasting change at scale. It is now globally recognized as the leader in sustainable development and an effective corporate and public sector partner, going beyond holding them to account and helping them deliver.

3. Become a more relevant partner

In this environment of uncertainty and shifting stakeholder roles, NGOs need to completely rethink their identity and purpose, how they collaborate, and where they can add greater value in a more efficient way and lasting way. 

Being an essential partner to, and mediator between, local government and community will help execution at a grassroots level to people most in need. For NGOs simpler organizational structures, more adaptable business models and greater accountability can create more agile cultures and attract the right talent required to better support devolved power.

Being an essential partner to, and mediator between, local government and community will help execution at a grassroots level to people most in need.

Working more effectively with business can help them transition faster to a fairer and more sustainable economic model and innovative product offering, reducing environmental impact and facilitating the wealth distribution that people across the world are demanding. 

Developing a clearer value proposition as a partner, and ensuring closer alignment to stakeholder objectives, such as corporate SDG and ESG goals or government NDCs, will be crucial.

This is all easy to say. NGOs feel embattled. Driving significant change at pace, with limited resources in a highly uncertain environment can be a fraught exercise. Rather than retrench or fight for market share, NGOs should use the crisis for reinvention, starting with understanding how they are perceived. And those capable and willing to do so will help shape the future of the sector and society.  

Written by

Helena Wayth

Helena Wayth is the founder and CEO of sustainability consultancy A Bird’s Eye View advising clients on purpose, strategy and governance. Prior to this Helena held senior leadership roles at L'Oréal and Unilever working across countries, sectors and cultures. In more recent years Helena worked with several International NGOs at a strategic, programme and community level. She sits on the Board of two International Non-Profits, PATH and Practical Action, which focus on developing and scaling solutions for global health and technology equity to create systems change.