11 September 2010 ~ 0 Comments

When NGOs are incentivized to keep themselves in business

Last week I wrote a blog post complaining about volunteer sending organizations trying to “sell” their 17 year old volunteers to NGO organizations.  I then got a very well written response from 16 year old Naya Herman who is considering volunteering abroad and so I decided to answer her two questions in two new blog posts. Here is the first of two posts.

Let’s start with the question about aid organizations “keeping themselves in business”.  Unfortunately, there are way more cases than I would like to see of NGO’s being a way for people to make money and sustain their lifestyles rather than focus on actually doing good (the recent case of an NGO “working” in Cambodia and founded by a NYer which was revealed to have paid the founder and his travel expenses for years but yet had spent no money in Cambodia is one example) – but that is not really what I was talking about.  People clearly choosing corrupt actions using an NGO as a farce is indeed something we see here, but I am also referring to organizations, much like PEPY, who started out small and then started to grow.  At a point, like we are at now with PEPY with our 35 local staff, you grow to a stage where you have many staff members and the cost to keep them employed as well as your office costs, etc, becomes substantial.  If you lose funding, it is then not only your programs that might stop, but people might lose their jobs, so what you sometimes see in those situations is that the NGO scrambles for funding.  Sometimes they take on work that is outside the scope of their mission or skills in order to get funding to stay afloat, or sometimes they focus less on program improvements while focusing more on bringing funds for overhead.

Organizations should be working themselves out of a job, right?  If their stated mission is to ensure that all children in their county have access to health education, they should be working towards a day when they are no longer needed.  If there comes a point where the goals become to difficult to achieve or the focus of the mission is actually achieved, it is rare to see an NGO call it a day, fire all of their employees, and shut down. They instead move on to something new, yes, it could be in large part to continue to do good in new areas, but it typically is also in large part to keep their own organization going.

In the case of these middle-men volunteer sending organizations I was writing about (some of them being non-profit and some for-profit, though in reality it does not matter how you are registered as you can do great work and poor work on either side of the legal bridge), when THEY have employees and overhead, especially if there overhead is in more expensive parts of the world in which to do business (as many of them are), then they have a LOT of incentive to “sell” these trips. They NEED to sell these gap year service programs in order to make enough money to pay themselves, and some of them, it seems to me, are more concerned with selling a product to make a profit than they are with matching skills with needs, properly vetting NGO partners, ensuring that the community partners are properly benefiting from the relationships, etc.

Does that make sense?