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How to start a successful NGO
Starting a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) (or "Non-Profit Organization").
Should you start an NGO?
The first question to look at long and hard is: When is it okay to start an NGO?
- Do you have a clear idea of how you'll measure success, or are you just assuming something good will result from your project?
- Do you have an identified funding source that does not involve applying for grants?
- Are you deeply familiar with the village you work in, and the theory and practice of the work you are doing? And one or two visits do not make you deeply familiar with a place.
- Is there no existing NGO who could do the same work in the same place? If you can commit to ongoing funding, even huge organizations can be willing to run little projects. You can actually go to Save the Children or Mercy Corps and say "I have $20,000 a year, can you support this specific school/clinic/agriculture center for that amount?" They may not be able to, but they will listen, especially if you want to work somewhere that doesn't get much attention or funding.
- Are you starting a new organization because of ego? Do you think it will be cool/exciting/glamorous/make your mother proud to be head of an NGO? Do you actually know enough to do this well or are you just convinced in your heart you'll do a better job because you are special?
If you feel comfortable with the answers to these questions, you can be pretty sure that your organization is value-added and not just noise.
You'll notice that there is nothing in there about overhead. People have a problem with overhead costs because they feel that it makes money donated have less impact. But inexperience and mistakes also erode a program's effectiveness. A skilled organization that spends 15% of the money it raises on accounting, budget transparency, and experienced headquarters oversight may well have just as much impact for every donor dollar as a no-overhead group who ends up doing training that has no impact on actual behavior, or buying supplies that are wrong for the situation.
What makes a new NGO succeed?
1. Highly targeted mission. If you have the skill set to identify a very specific goal, you are likely to have the expertise to do your work well. And this means very specific. Something along the lines of "supply used lab equipment to labs around the world that request it" or "provide vaccines and health care providers to one small village." In addition, a very specific goal gives you a solid fundraising angle. Community development for one small village is too general.
2. A cool name. If only this was a joke. Groups with cool names like Nothing but Nets (which has as a bonus an obvious sports tie-in) or a rhyming name like Unite for Sight – which sound catchy and immediately explain the organization's goal – are far more likely to find support. It's easier to raise funds, hire good staff, get grants and find high-profile supporters when everyone can easily remember who you are and what you do.
3. And, of course, a funding model which does not involve getting government funding or foundation grants. To repeat, it is very hard to get government funding. USAID and the other government donors usually identify a problem and then give grants or contracts to solve that problem. Big grants. Generally over $500,000. They don't have the time to manage the kind of $30K grant you probably need for start-up. And foundations like to work with partners who have a long track record; they are rarely interested in funding the new guys. So, if you want to succeed, have a fundraising plan. (Here's a hint – a cool name and a highly specific goal will help.)
A few example illustrate the value of the name and goal:
- Cambodia 4 Kids - a pretty good name and a specific goal of providing school uniforms to Cambodian kids.
- Change.org. Blogger Alanna Shaikh writes "Change.org is full of amazing people with a big social entrepreneurship ideas. We're seeing huge numbers of people on the site every month. But I suspect that an awful lot of our success is due to the fact that the name Change.org is easy to understand and sticks in your head with the tenacity of a Britney Spears song." (Emphasis added.)
Notes and references
- What makes a new NGO succeed?, Blood and Milk, January 7th, 2009.
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