When bigger isn’t always better

A nurse working for a local NGO teaches a group about the benefits of family planning in Malawi. The smallness of an NGO can be an advantage, writes Steve Tibbett. Photo by: Lindsay Mgbor / Department for International Development / CC BY-NC-ND

When, in working for various large international nongovernmental organizations, I raise the question: “Why do you want to get so much bigger?” The incredulous answer is, quite often: “Because we believe in what we are doing, and we want to grow so we can do more of it.” There is an internal and understandable logic to this position but it isn’t always thought through and a changing context is leading to pause for thought.

The “bigger is always better” response is locked into a “service delivery” mindset where, the more good-quality interventions you deliver, the more good you can do. It applies best (but not always) if you are a profit-seeking business and need to expand to take market share or increase production to match demand. However, if you are a nonprofit interested in social change and transforming structures and systems, it doesn’t always make sense.

First, there is no underlying growth imperative for nonprofits: NGOs don’t need to get bigger in order to survive. They can happily exist at pretty much any size as long as they have a sustainable source of income to cover costs and achieve objectives. There aren’t usually shareholders demanding a bigger return on investment, or banks insisting you pay them back with interest.

Secondly, they aren’t operating in a competitive environment. Social change agents like NGOs should prioritize working with other organizations and movements if they are serious about social change and advocacy. Although fundraising is highly competitive in the sector, the need to work with other NGOs to deliver change and to foster cooperation with others with complementary skills and goals is arguably more important. That is not say that NGOs shouldn’t market their ideas, efficacy and uniqueness, but that it needs to reflect the delicate nature of working in alliances with others and focusing on long-term change rather than short-term interventions.

Third, the smallness of an NGO can be an advantage. NGOs differ from the big U.N. agencies and donors because they are potentially more agile, trialing new techniques and aren’t weighed down by bureaucracy and internal rules. NGOs can have a niche and sometimes that niche can be a way of working or style and approach or a sector or issue they cover or specialize in. Some of the smaller, midsize or niche NGOs are among the most effective.

Fourthly there is also a danger that — when NGOs market themselves heavily — this can lead to a culture of overclaiming and misselling. No doubt, most NGOs do important and often groundbreaking work, but these interventions are hard to sell, and it is always easier to tap into emotion rather than logic when you are marketing a proposition and selling a vision. It’s understandable to try to push the eye-catching thing to the fore, but overselling what you do is likely — in the long run — to degrade your brand.

Finally, in working with partners and coalitions, brandishing your brand can get in the way. Marketing imperatives sometimes mean that NGOs get up the noses of social movements and advocacy networks they are working with, especially in developing countries, but also in the North and on the global stage.

Of course there may be an optimum size for any organization and that size may imply that growth is necessary. But in reality, growth is often locked in. There are a number of key drivers for the marketing thinking and aggressive growth strategies in NGOs that preclude the thought, “Do we really need to be much bigger?”

For one, the people that NGOs recruit to do their fundraising and marketing often come from a corporate background. They are schooled in branding and marketing for big companies and products and see no other option but to push for bigger brand recognition and go aggressively for growth.

And NGO marketing teams don’t exist in a bubble —they are connected to, and service, the prevailing marketing culture. The way that brands are sold and promoted is not just something that is associated with private companies, in the way it was perhaps 30 years ago or more. Branding and marketing is something that everyone does now: governments, academic institutions, celebrities and politicians all have their own brands and marketing strategies. Marketing is second nature and NGOs are not immune.

NGOs have also adopted aggressive and often inappropriate business planning models for their organizational planning processes. It is not uncommon to find these plans and strategies advocating a doubling of income for an NGO over a strategic period of five or six year years. These strategies and models are seldom questioned, and they are sometimes bolstered and pushed by NGO board members who quite often come from business backgrounds themselves and see no obvious downsides to growth and heavy marketing strategies.

Overarching this trend is a narrative that getting bigger amounts to an achievement, perhaps the key achievement, of any NGO director’s tenure. A new CEO is held to account on his or her ability to “grow the organization.” And who would go into an interview for being the head of any organization and say, “My aim is to take the organization to a place where we are about the same size in five years’ time”? But nevertheless this space needs to be — and is beginning to be — opened up and the discussion had within the NGOs themselves.

NGOs’ advocacy staff is one potential questioning voice. Although rarely a potent enough force to influence these types of discussion, advocacy departments are more important than they used to be. They could start to challenge the fundamental arguments about the direction of NGO growth strategies by pointing out the downsides for the changes they are seeking. NGOs’ boards and senior staff should be asking the question: What are we trying to achieve and how can we do that with others and through changing governments and institutions rather than trying to do it ourselves?

There are many examples of marketing imperatives trumping advocacy objectives, and alliances and coalitions are sometimes threatened because large NGOs want to protect their brands. Given that social change increasingly happens within and through alliances and coalitions, it is important that NGOs think through the effects of aggressive use of brands and not sharing (the often meager) media space.

Monitoring and evaluation staffers, although arguably less influential than their advocacy colleagues, also have something to say about the growth of growth and the spread of the “bigger the better” culture. They can usefully raise issues of effectiveness and impact in organizations that are aiming for complex changes in policy and practice, and they can start to challenge the orthodoxy that whatever you claim in a fundraising drive doesn’t have to reflect the actual work going on.

What is ultimately needed is a debate in the sector, and it has started. The largest players, with their boards and senior staff, have had challenges to their growth mantra in recent years. The obvious one is the economic climate, where fundraising has struggled and NGOs have had to rethink their reliance on growth. Future fundraising growth is now as likely to come in Brazil and India as in the United States and the United Kingdom. And the value-for-money agenda, although insidious in many ways, has caused NGOs to rethink their priorities in some places, and not always in a useful way. But these are outside constraints. NGOs are clever and robust enough to debate the future of growth and the effects of aggressive marketing themselves, and take ownership and control of it.

Marketing and fundraising will always be a big part of the NGO armory and we need the skills of marketing people to help the sector present itself to the world. Civil society needs to continue to grow and thrive. But the larger NGOs need to think more carefully about the long-term effects of a culture that, at times, threatens to compromise their own effectiveness and their relationships with others. They should note the thoughts of U.S. anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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About the author

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    Steve Tibbett

    Steve is an advocacy, research and campaigning specialist based in London who focuses on strategy and evaluation. He previously served as director of policy and campaigns for two prominent NGOs and has worked on global trade, worker’s rights, tax havens, food security, corporate accountability, finance and aid. He was a member of the Make Poverty History campaign coordination team and has published widely on international development and campaigning. Steve's writing for Devex focuses on civil society's role in foreign assistance. His views don't necessarily reflect those of Devex.