Saving the World 101: How to Start Your Own NGO

Written by  Wendy Glauser June 19, 2009

Anyone with a hammer and a shovel can start an international non-governmental organization, but you'll need more than just good intentions to make it work.

Many young people who start up non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in developing countries think money and enthusiasm are all it takes to combat the issues that come with poverty. But problems like hunger, illiteracy and child labour are complex and deep-rooted, and the effort to address them brings with it a whole other set of challenges.

Veteran development workers shed some light on the right—and wrong—ways to go about starting an NGO.

DON'T see your beneficiaries simply as recipients

Since the input of community members is what makes a project successful, you should look at the people you're trying to help as partners.

"They'll give as much to you as you do to them. It's a two-way street," explains Rupen Das, Program Coordinator at Humber College's International Project Management Program in Toronto.

A foreign NGO shouldn't impose an idea on its beneficiaries; instead, it should help its beneficiaries implement their own solutions. You need to find out what skills community members already have, what skills they want to improve on, and what materials are required. "If it's a rice-growing area and you provide them with wheat, what are they going to do with it?" Das asks.

A foreign NGO shouldn't impose an idea on its beneficiaries; instead, it should help its beneficiaries implement their own solutions.

Of course, finding answers to these initial questions isn't as easy as photocopying surveys. When you first meet members of the community, power dynamics are hugely at play. They'll worry about pleasing you rather than being honest. Once they realize that you're committed to the people and to the area, they'll start to talk more freely. Cam Sylvester, program director for the Global Stewardship Program at Capilano College in B.C., explains, "If you don't create a real partnership, people in the community are going to feel like it's improper to say no to you. They're going to say yes no matter what."

Related: The Business End of the Shovel

DO figure out how your NGO is going to measure results

No matter what it is you plan to do—free up women's time from domestic duties, find jobs for street kids or increase agricultural production—you need to come up with a concrete method of measuring your success before you begin. Donors, after all, demand results. If your goal is to reduce the time women spend on domestic chores, how will you know if you're having an impact? Will you, for example, measure the number of hours women spent cooking or gathering water before your project started and one year after its implementation?

If you don't first determine what you'll use as a barometer, you can get caught up in the day-to-day operations of the NGO and lose track of your initial goal. You'll start to gauge success by measuring the number of women at your training session, for example, instead of asking the bigger picture questions. Are the women incorporating the training in their lives? Is it improving their financial situation?

"The goal of development work is to bring about change, so you need to measure the change itself, not the activities," explains Sylvester.

DON'T start your own NGO without working for other ones first

Running an NGO isn't easy. The initial fundraising campaigns might be a blast, but the stresses of money-related decisions—how much will go to overhead, how much will go to the community, whose pleas you listen to and whose you turn down—can make you wish you never raised it.

As the director of an NGO, you'll need to know how to balance a budget, how to manage volunteers and how to write funding proposals, all the while remaining accountable to your board and your donors. "When you work for an organization, you learn how NGOs function, how money is used," explains Das. "That way, when you start on your own, you're not trying to reinvent the wheel."

Various skills are required to run an organization, and it's important that you have a variety of experience. Before you tackle the top job, you should work for more than one organization and get exposure to the different sectors of a non-profit, including fieldwork and administration.

Related: International Volunteering: State of the Nation 

DO surround yourself with experts

Ian Smillie—arguably Canada's development industry guru, with 30 years of aid work under his belt—knows how difficult development work can be. "If we knew how to create jobs, end poverty, and do something about HIV/AIDS then we would have done it already. But these are complex issues," he says.

And complex issues require expert solutions—which is why Smillie decries the "amateurism" he sees creeping into the development industry. After the 2004 Asian tsunami, for example, Smillie said that hundreds of small-scale organizations, with little or no experience in disaster relief, headed to the Asian subcontinent. "What makes them that think they're equipped to do it?" he asks. "Why didn't they go through established organizations like the Red Cross or Oxfam?"

According to Sylvester, the "volunteerism" that is associated with development work can often lead people to overlook the fact that the industry requires expertise and professionalism. As an NGO director, you'll want to manage a team of experts. You'll need someone overseas, likely a local, who understands the culture better than you, you'll need people who can communicate with donors, the media, and partner organizations in the field, and you'll need experts in the area you're focusing on, whether it's agriculture or water management. Overall, as Das puts it, "Make sure you have people who can advise you well, people who have more experience than you do."

DON'T come up with a proposal without doing extensive research

Say you've decided to help former child soldiers express their experiences in war by building an art studio for them. But after spending a few weeks hanging out with the children, you realize that they're already expressing themselves through music. All of a sudden, those easels and paintbrushes need to be traded in for drums, guitars and mixing equipment. If you live in a community and hang out with the locals before you hammer out a funding proposal, you're less likely to run in to this sort of problem.

But researching a community goes beyond getting to know those who need your help, you'll also need to meet those who are already providing services in the community. Find out what other NGOs are doing in the area, what local groups are doing, and ask yourself whether you should start a new initiative or support one that's already begun. "You want to look for the gaps in the services that are being provided and figure out where you can fit in," Das explains.

As a young person, you can bring a fresh perspective, a creative outlook and a renewed sense of vigour to the development industry. You're likely used to living on a modest budget, you can adapt easily to a new environment and you're open-minded—all characteristics that will help you tremendously whether you're working for an NGO or starting your own. Another bonus? You're less likely to be entering a community with pre-conceived ideas about what people need.

As long as you remember to research your project thoroughly, keep sight of your goals and absorb all you can from those around you, there's no telling what you can achieve.

Related: Developing an International Internship Workplan

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Published in Work Abroad

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