© Warchi/iStock

© Warchi/iStock

There has been a lot of noise over the past few years about value for money, effectiveness, accountability and transparency in international development.  We are even embracing complexity theory and social network analysis in an attempt to better understand the environments that we work in.  However, very little has been said about the nature of the organisation in all of this.  Correction, a lot has been said about the nature of the organisation in all of this, but not whether the organisation per se or its construction is actually right.  Mostly we just move the deck chairs about and give each other new and different job titles.  But the ship is still sinking under the weight of inappropriate organisations repeating and repeating inappropriate projects hoping for a different response.  There is something a little mad in the way we choose to approach NGO design in all of this.

I have seen recently that there are some NGOs that have tried to adopt different structures, trying to break away from the usual silo approach.  There is nothing worse however than seeing an organisation try to adopt a different structure whilst being constrained by agreements, behaviours, strategies and plans that favour a previous style of management.  I’m talking about some of the attempts to implement matrix management in NGOs.  Leaving aside the excellent example I’ve seen in Mozambique for a minute (because it isn’t the usual story), closer to home in the UK, I’ve witnessed NGOs try to introduce a matrix structure within a silo structure, or without changing behaviour or expectations within and outside the organisation.  This is madness and the result is teams of over worked people who have no idea who they are supposed to be reporting to on anything or indeed what they are responsible for.  Some of these organisations are too big to fail and as a result work-arounds are found to make the programmes work and deliver on the ground.  When that happens it does rather suggest that it doesn’t matter what happens in an office in the UK, projects will still always happen in spite of the organisation.

And this is the point really: why have over complicated structures that simply house people running endlessly on their own hamster wheel when there is little or a tenuous link between what they do and what needs to get done on the ground?

So here are some thoughts when you’re considering organisational change or even setting up a new organisation:

  • Refocus around your core long term objective.  Don’t stray from your mission, tempted by funding or opportunity
  • Use technical specialists to design and develop new products, services or programmes (but don’t let them run projects or programmes – they know all about stuff, not how to deliver it on the ground)
  • Make sure that your fundraisers and marketeers can sell the new ideas your technical specialists come up with (if they can’t the ideas either need refinement or dumping)
  • If you are going to accept restricted funding (and everyone does) make sure it fits with your core objective, not just your donor’s core objective
  • Get proper operations people to actually deliver the projects on the ground (after all, they know about logistics, scale, timing, delivery, completion)
In other words, implement a complete matrix management structure and stick to it.  Just because matrix management hasn’t been properly implemented in other NGOs doesn’t mean it won’t work.  It just means they didn’t implement it properly.
We talk endlessly about reforming aid, changing the way the humanitarian system works, increasing accountability in development.  Perhaps its time we started thinking about the organisation itself and whether the way we build our NGOs is part of the problem or the solution?

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