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Non-Profit Management: 23 inexcusable sins!
Frank Julie
March 27, 2007

No clear sustainability strategy:
No comprehensive sustainability strategy is in place to ensure the organization is able to reproduce itself and achieve its vision. Remember, the final test is for the organization to continue without you. And to continue without you it requires access to resources. Remember, sustainability does not only mean having enough funding. It is much more than that. It starts with the intangibles like vision, mission, strategies and values. And then it is important to have a plan to recruit new donors, maintaining existing ones and get them to give more, limit core expenses by developing cost containment strategies, maximize the contribution by staff, volunteers and the board and strengthen partnerships with NGO's in your sector. Remember, you cannot sustain your organization by default. You must do it by design!

No succesion planning
No succession planning is in place. We never think of succession until it is too late. No person is fallible and we cannot control what will happen to anyone at any time. This is why a succession plan is vital. And if you don't have the skills inside the organization, then go and look outside. But have a plan in place. You can either force staff members to take up a position or you can prepare them for it.

No risk management strategy in place
No risk management strategy is in place to protect the organization against the potential loss of property, accidents, funding gaps, staff retention, etc. We usually wait for the crisis to first hit us before we think of putting a risk management strategy in place. Well, will you commit resources to an organization where nobody is aware of the risks involved in operating the organization? Surely not? Then why do you expect donors to do it?

The board is regarded as a necessary evil
There is no proper investment in board members. No inductions take place. There is no proper recruitment strategy. Many organizations don't even have a board development budget! The board is seen as rubber stamp. It is what donors require. As soon as board members start to ask difficult questions then they become a liability. Then they are set up against the staff and critical information is kept away from them.

Staff is busy being busy
In most organizations everybody is so busy being busy! There is either too little time or no time for proper planning and quality reflection to extract valuable lessons and learnings from the field. Staff members work for 8 hours a day or more on structured work and leave no time for responsive work. Then they must take work home. The result is continuous burn out and stress! Staff members come to work with no work plan, no clear objectives related to the strategic focus of the organization and no clear outcomes to be achieved. The result is duplication of work, confusion, chaos and tension reflected in personality conflicts. Then people get in each other's way! Instead of proper communication the noise levels start to increase!

No clear objectives
Some organizations either have no proper objectives or when they have it is too many. And sometimes the objectives are confused with aims. Remember, an aim is a general statement of intent or an ideal. It is something you wish for. An objective is a specific and measurable activity that you engage in to achieve this ideal. It is the rung on the ladder. The aim always comes first. Unless the objective is clear then your specific course of action will also be unclear. Because the way you act is the way you think! Or to put it differently, the way you attack a problem is the way you conceptualize it. This is why one can find staff members come after 6 months or more to report work left undone! They are paralyzed in their thinking and therefore paralyzed in their actions.

Condone poor staff performance
Most leaders are not able to get rid of poor performing staff. Now this is a very serious challenge within many NGO's. There is a good reason for this. NGO's are value based organizations where we work to help people change lives and so we are very reluctant to let people go when they don't perform. We feel sorry for people. Past attachments also influence these decisions. In fact, we will tolerate poor performing staff and sometimes it will go on and on. But letting the person go is not an always an option. We may even redeploy the person, change the job description which is a code word for trying to ignore the problem. This is dangerous. Condoning the incompetence of one person condemns the whole organization to mediocrity. It becomes a cancer that will eat away at the whole organization. Any person who is incompetent and cannot deliver according to predetermined expectations should be immediately removed for the sake of the organization and the person her/himself.

No proper policies in place or no implementation
There are no proper policies in place. And where policies exist they are not implemented or implemented properly according to a procedure. In the absence of policies it is a free for all. Leaders do as they want. Where policies exist they are manipulated to suit a small elite within the organization. Every decision taken becomes ad-hoc or just to suit the moment. There is no consistency. It is in this climate that nepotism or favouratism will rear its ugly head!

No proper financial management
There is no proper financial management from the strategic plan and its strategic objectives to the annual financial plan, quarterly financial plan, monthly budget plan to the daily cash flow analysis. Forget about being transparent about these plans if they exist. Usually a small clique will control all information related to finances. We swear to transparency but well, when it comes to finances it goes a bit too far!

Reactive approach to funding gaps
There is a reactive approach to funding gaps. There is no proactive response. Funding gaps is a reality for all NGO's. We cannot control donor agendas and processes. We will always be vulnerable to funding gaps. But we can control our response to it. Start a reserve or sustainability fund. And don't wait for the next funding crisis. Start today if you haven't acted already. Remember, if you cannot pay salaries then you must blame yourself, not the funder!

Tolerating irrelevant projects
There is no organised abandonment of projects that don't work and don't produce results. There is no creative destruction. Some staff members become sentimentally attached to pet projects. Sometimes we are afraid to state the obvious - that a project is not working and not producing results. We are afraid of offending others so we keep on pumping funding into projects that only disappoint. We invest scarce resources into the past! And this is not all. We will even start new projects that will consume more and more limited resources on top of the ones that don't work. Sometimes these projects are funded driven and not even driven by need. The worst case scenario is that these new projects are not even funded at all drawing resources away from other projects threatening the performance of the projects that work and produce results.

Fear for external evaluations
How many organizations are open to external evaluations? How many are prepared to put themselves on trial? We always find excuses to open ourselves up for scrutiny. We only want to hear what we want to hear. In the process we perpetuate internal deformities by not only allowing external evaluations. There is always not enough funding to do this, forget about requesting others to give us an opinion about our development practices. We fear the critical voice always becoming defensive and not open to critique. Remember, development is about being open and not closed!

Overuse of consultants
The new trend amongst the well funded NGO's is to call in a consultant for every little problem. Sometimes this degenerates into only jobs for pals and it fails to develop internal capacity in the organization and the hence the ability to deal with its own challenges in future. Sometimes it is just sheer laziness amongst some leaders. Remember, the solution to any problem lies inside the organization and not with consultants. The role of the consultant is to bring this awareness to the client and to create an environment conducive for solutions to emerge collectively and not imposed arbitrarily by so-called experts.

No or little sharing of information
There is no regular sharing of financial information and knowing how much the other person is earning is sacrilege! This is a typical corporate practice. Why should you be ashamed of what you earn if you know you deserve it? Why should it be a secret what you work for? You can only be ashamed if you know you don't deserve what you are earning; if you know you are underperforming. Sometimes staff will not even know who their donors are and how much they are funding. Once again a small clique will monopolize this information, creating the space for corruption and mismanagement of funds.

No comprehensive communication strategy
You cannot create continuous interest in your organization without a clearly formulated communication and marketing strategy. I must still find a NGO who can convince me that they have one and more importantly, that it is implemented. Trapped in survival mode, many NGO's forget to raise visibility about their work in the form of newsletters (print and electronic), websites, blogspots, articles in newspapers, brochures, pamphlets, letters, faxes, block e-mails, etc. So trapped in survival mode, they forget their work is about changing human lives and that they need to celebrate their successes. And don't hide your challenges! Let others know about it! And tell them what you are doing about it.

Staff development regarded as a luxury
Staff development is considered a luxury instead of a necessity. And where there is staff development it is usually not focused and planned. Some staff members are sent to workshops just to fill up places. And the aim is only for the staff member to perform better in her/his work, i.e. it is only task focus and not also person focused. Remember, you employ a whole human being not just half a human being!

Image not congruent with true identity
The image (what you stand for in public) and true identity (what you actually do in practice) of the organization are not the same. What we write in our proposals, brochures, reports, not the same as what actually happens in reality. They preach accountability but provide each other with secret loans, salary increases, distorting reports, etc to secure the next funding tranche. And then they get the auditors to hide this. Some preach gender equality just to make life difficult for females in the organization. Remember, the proper balance between image and true identity leads to organizational integrity!

Problem focused approach
Many NGO's have a problem focused approach in their work. They do not celebrate successes enough. They like to flog themselves unnecessarily. When donors commit funding to projects, nobody celebrates. It is seen as just another donor! So what? The same thing happens when we hear success of stories of beneficiary, .g. a person who is healed, reintegrated into a family and community, someone starting a successful business or accessing sustainable employment, or a policy change effected after pressure by the organizations, etc. Instead we are looking for the next problem.

No learning organisation
We pay lip service to a learning organization. It is more rhetoric than substance. Instead of seeing the learning organization as a means to an end it is approached more as an end in itself like some renowned American academics do. Learning is viewed as a neutral construct and not a process influenced by power relations. The learning organization is not viewed in the context of a world of globalization, etc. and as a tool to end social and economic relations based on inequality and injustice.

Too many meetings
Now here is a common illness. Too many meetings leading to analysis paralysis, i.e. we analyze so much that we become paralyzed. More time is spent inside instead of outside the organization where the need and opportunities are. Remember, sometimes you may not only have too many meetings but you may sit with the wrong people attending meetings. The first question to ask when organizing a meeting is not who should attend but who should NOT attend! Remember, you cannot work and meet at the same time!

No social accounting
Financial accounting may be fine. But this is not enough. You need to account socially as well. This is about accountability to the vision and mission of the organization. That means keeping all relevant stakeholders informed about both your challenges and successes. It is your duty to do this. Failure to do this will slowly but surely cause your organization to become irrelevant and degenerate into job creation for a few individuals. Whilst funding last of course!

No tracking of beneficiaries
There is no tracking of beneficiaries to check the impact of their work. If you want to establish the impact of your work then they are the best people to tell you what worked and what did not work. But we forget about them due to crisis management and losing focus on the real reason why we exist. For e.g. it is rare to find educare centres who track children when they reach primary or high school or youth development centers who track youth accessing employment, etc. We simply don't care. It is too much of a cost! It takes too much time! And we are always busy being busy . . .

Secrecy and nepotism in the sector
There is no sharing or little sharing of information and other resources within the sector itself. Most of the time we are governed by a scarcity mentality, i.e. that there is always not enough for everyone! We fall into the mindless corporate trap of competing with each other instead of cooperating. And even where forums or networks exist to promote sharing of resources, these will descend into private clubs to keep others out and not bring new ones in.

Please note: This list is far from exhausted. So feel free to add other sins. We can only learn what to do and do it right if we know what not to do and what is simply just wrong and unacceptable!

"Remember, the task of a true leader is to create more leaders not followers!" (John Maxwell) "A manager is paid to be uncomfortable. If you are comfortable then it is a sure sign that you are doing something wrong." (Peter Drucker)

Written by: Frank Julie, independent development consultant and author of "The Art of Leadership and Management on the Ground" (A practical guide for leaders and managers to develop sustainable organizations for permanent social change)

To read more about the book, view its detailed contents and comments from community leaders and academics around the world, please go to

To order the book and get a free list of donors in South Africa, please e-mail Zandile Stols (PA) at

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