What Can Be Learned from NGOs About Solving Hard Problems and Leading Change

by Oct 11, 2018Community & Culture

To progress and accomplish goals, NGOs must find ways to encourage and support team work and stakeholder engagement.

Over the past two years, we at Beniva have increased our focus on community engagement. We have worked with local and international non-profits and NGOs doing great work in their communities. Last spring, one of our partners had the opportunity to work with an NGO in Cambodia. Through these past two years of experience, we have had a chance to discuss and support various projects, evaluate support models and actively participate in various strategy discussions and reviews. But it was the real world experience of riding on trucks with third-world kids to primary school, getting bit by fire-ants working in a field, meeting and speaking with parents who had trafficked their children out of the desperation caused by poverty, and speaking at length with NGO owners about the challenges they face in engaging with stakeholders that held the real lessons. Through this on-the-ground, highly challenging and thought-provoking experience, one quickly gets a sense of the scale, complexity, and magnitude of the problems NGOs are working to address. 

Over many a coffee (or local brew), we had the opportunity to learn about engagements with local governments, law enforcement, and sponsor donors. It has been an eye-opening journey into an intense, challenging, and enriching world – one that we fully intend to continue to lend our support to. 

Upon reflection, what was both unexpected and somewhat thought-provoking is what companies and their teams can learn from NGOs. NGOs exist to tackle large problems. To do this, they must deal with a multitude of stakeholders, funding models, logistical, legal and political complexities. Although most business teams and leaders will not be tackling issues with the same level of social impact, they still face daunting challenges of their own right. Pressure to increase productivity and grow the business while reducing costs is increasing (especially with the omnipresent influence and role of digital technology). Additionally, social consciousness continues to expand, demanding greater accountability of organizations and leadership.

Insight #1: Manage stakeholders well and stay focused on your objectives.

Leaders of NGOs have a particular mission. To bring about change. To improve society. To make sure that today’s efforts will endure tomorrow. 

The ultimate goal is sustainability, which when achieved, allows the work to continue. Leaders with a transformation mandate may feel similar pressure. An inability to bring about change and sustained improvement is the definition of failed transformation. To accomplish this, a critical first step is getting stakeholders aligned and maintaining their engagement through the project. 

The NGO stakeholder network is involved. For example, UNICEF, along with many of the world’s governments, monitor and audit many NGOs. Activist donors and volunteers may want control over NGO mission and working processes. Well-meaning tourists arrive, whose intentions may be admirable, but they could be ill-equipped or prepared for the work at hand. In addition to managing this complex stakeholder network, there is sizable paperwork, legal and project coordination requirements. For the benevolent individuals within the NGO, this can be distracting, if not overwhelming. Of particular concern are some global government stakeholders, whom, if not managed well, can discourage the NGO mandate and prevent further progress. 

Business transformation leaders experience a similarly broad and attention seeking set of stakeholders. Pressures put on by Boards or Chief Officers, an often-contentious mix of transformation stakeholders, vendors selling products and solutions, well-wishers, people seeking employment, customers; a lot of time can be spent cultivating, nurturing, defending, and generally interacting with your broad and diverse set of stakeholders. 

Remember: What Is Your Primary Goal?

Remember your primary goal in this complex stakeholder web. It is too easy to lose focus, as there are only so many hours in the day and there are too many people clamoring for your attention. Consider that an NGO that spends an extra 15 minutes helping out a young one with their school work every day is more likely to have a far greater downstream impact on the world than spending 15 minutes with a non-donating, sight-seeing tourist.  

Similarly, you too will need to balance the need to interact with stakeholders and “get your story out,” where you genuinely need to secure buy-in for your transformation plan, with actually progressing your transformation agenda and keeping your eye on the ball with your team. Leadership teams in NGOs or Businesses need to be kept on focus, on track, on-message and marching orderly.

Removing your eye from the actual delivery of outcomes and benefits to focus too much on stakeholder relations management will undermine the transformation agenda entrusted to a leader.

Insight #2: Big problems are worth solving. But require practical steps.

Last spring, we had the opportunity to support an NGO focused on assisting families in arguably one of the most horrifying situations, child trafficking. Consider the breadth of this challenge. 

Families in dire poverty, a position where selling a child for $200USD into a “work trade” is considered the only option to keep their family surviving for the next year. Older children will often volunteer themselves into situations as a reflection of strongly ingrained hierarchical values, which instilled from a young age, place high importance on the family above the value of the individual. It is worth noting this as it reflects the challenging influence of culture on people and group behaviours. Exacerbating the issue is the fact that jurisdictions and their support systems (police, government agencies, etc.) have limited resources and often are prone to corruption themselves.

So now consider this: You’re an NGO and your challenge is – how do I work against the above? Overwhelming, right? It quickly becomes far too much for most of us to even consider.

These are the types of scenarios facing NGOs daily. It would be understandable to allow a feeling of futility to settle in and do nothing – and indeed, that is the common psychological response. Instead, NGOs look for opportunities. They consistently plan and adapt. They leverage relationships and understanding of the circumstances to their advantage. This includes partnerships locally, on the ground – where the real work happens. The result is that they can determine a path forward, allowing small wins and progress. Progress that creates inspiration and support, leading to sustainability. 

For example, rather than tackling the seemingly overwhelming challenges inherent in dealing with state corruption’s role in trafficking, tangible programs could be established working against the root cause of poverty through a Micro-Loans business and market that as broadly and effectively as possible reduces or replaces parents’ reliance on trafficking income. In other cases, playing the supporting role proves effective. Facilitating and supporting personnel involved in carrying out rescues of children in these situations and focusing on rehabilitation. 

Complexity itself can be the enemy. Transformation complexity will most often cause even the best-intentioned of us to stop in our tracks, becoming overwhelmed. The work can feel so heavy, so busy, that it can feel like no progress is being made. Ask anyone who has been through a large-scale failed business transformation and they will agree. The level of complexity of some systems (people, process, digital technology, culture, competitors, stakeholders, small ‘p’ politics, industry trends) is remarkable.  One string is attached to 30 other strings, and who knows but that even with best of intentions, you pull string ‘A’ and bad event ‘X’ happens.

What Can Leaders Tasked With A Transformation Agenda Do?

The key is to find options. The practical first steps that can be taken to gain support, initiate a project, get a quick-win, anything that can build momentum. There will undoubtedly be great inertia. (Culture can be a major cause of inertia, as can misalignment of accountability and objectives). Recognize that there are options. If possible, move past the initial feelings of being overwhelmed, assess options and develop a reasonable plan. Progress will result.

We could describe an approach to tackling transformative challenges above illustrated above as:

  1. Articulate the current state challenges as accurately as you can
    • Don’t shy away from all of its terrible and unnerving elements and subelements
    • Write it down, or at least get it written down by someone else that you think will be very accurate and very fair
    • List all of the problems (or “opportunities”, if you prefer business speak)
    • Do your best to accept and own that as the reality you’ve inherited
  2. Start option analysis
    • Which items do you need to tackle first?
    • Wat are the priorities for your company’s leadership team?
    • Which items cannot drop?
    • Which ones do you stand a reasonable chance of fixing?
  3. Develop a real world plan. Articulate it well. 
    • Put real thought into a plan to get from A to B for each sub-challenge you have decided needs to be tackled now as part of your initial scope.
  4. Deliver and keep adding more scope
    • Once you tackle 2 or 3 things well (transformation leaders never have the luxury of having just one thing to worry about), broaden the agenda and take on the additional scope of challenges as possible.

Insight #3: Engage in emotional strength training

There are interesting psychological factors at play in our brains when we think of giving or helping out. For example, if any person hears the story of one individual who has a terrible life story and feels that they could help that individual – the amount of empathy you feel for that one person can generally be quite high and, in turn, motivating to action. But an NGO representative may then tell the same person a story about two people who have the worst life story you have ever heard. Then, a story of 20 people. What happens? All of us, due to psychological factors beyond our general comprehension, feel less empathy overall, the larger the population size becomes.  As humans, we don’t seem to care as much for a collective as we do for one individual.  

Why is that? Our brain and psyche can’t handle the emotional weight.  At first we try to lift it, we may begin to think about the problem but usually, that time spent lifting is short.  We quickly give up holding that weight and set it aside because it’s too much to ponder.

How does this relate to Business Transformation?

It would be negligent of us do not consider the emotional burden that transformation executives take on if they take their responsibility seriously at all.  

Consider the scope of challenges: organizational operating models, staff turn-over, leadership team high-grading, cost transformation, the need for a new leader to establish effective working relationships with their diverse stakeholder set (prioritized, of course) all while running the day to day team and ensuring production, service levels or general operations continue unabated and useful. The scope of work often requires significant time, energy, and emotional demands. One has to be able to operate at a pace that far exceeds the standard emotional energy output of a usual nine-to-five job (think Elon Musk).  And the relatable challenge to pondering the plight of one poor soul versus twenty is, you literally can’t just think about one of these things at a time. You have to be able to mentally pick up the entire burden of scope involved in The Transformation or risk substantial failure across the board.  

Those interested in being a truly transformational leader must consider the emotional toll that will be paid and engage in emotional weight-lifting to prepare for the challenge ahead. It’s too hard on a person’s health to change from at a speed of 50mph over the past few years of a career to then ramp up to 120mph overnight. More leaders operating below a transformational capacity should self-identify and either opt-out or make a specific career plan to build up to the workload and demands that accepting a transformation role requires.  Start taking on more and more responsibility. Improve your efficiency so that what used to take an hour to do, you can now get done in 20 minutes. Improve your ability to juggle and keep straight multiple concurrent, exceptionally complex work streams.    

Consider too that emotional health is impacted by our ‘whole-self’. Physical and mental health routines are rising tides that raise all boats relative your emotional capacity to lead an effective transformation. Good habits will enable a transformation leader to lift more and more emotional weight and not collapse under the pressure.

Transformation is not for the faint of heart. Or the unprepared. Transformational leaders need to engage in emotional weightlifting to improve their capability to lift all the demands that are placed on their shoulders. 


There are many more observations to be shared between NGO and Business Transformation leaders. For the sake of brevity, we’ll consider revisiting this topic with additional ideas garnered at a later time. 

One thing remains sure to us… Whether in the world of NGOs or Corporate towers, true transformation requires tremendous leadership, planning, emotional strength, and efficiency. And for those fundamentally changing their respective societies and world around them, we cannot commend and encourage them enough in their journey.  

Contact us today to see how we can help your company.

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