Young association supports work of development NGOs

InsideNGO, a membership association lobbying on behalf of nonprofits and other organizations, conducted a workshop on the USAID rules and regulations at Nairobi's Safari Hotel in October 2008. Here, participants pose for a group photo. Photo by: Libby Spader/InsideNGO.

Mentioning international development and humanitarian work often conjures romanticized images of globe-trotting aid workers managing a refugee camp in central Africa, researching vaccines for rare diseases, or providing microloans to rural farmers. But without the less glamorous “back office” tasks - managing employee benefits, complying with donor contracting rules and writing grants, for instance - programs in the field could not function.

InsideNGO was created last year by a merger of the Personnel Co-op and Association of Private Volunteer Organization Financial Managers to, in its own words, improve “operational excellence for global impact.” It seeks to help non-governmental organizations and others better manage “back office” functions by showing how they relate to each other and may be combined.

“There were so many issues that cut across functions - how do we work well with finance and grants teams and vice versa,” said Marie McNamee, director of human resources at InsideNGO, when asked why the organization addresses human resource, finance and contracting issues.

These functions are also “not just back office [tasks] but are connected to what we are all about,” said Eric Walker, chairman of InsideNGO, at the organization’s annual meeting, held this past October in Washington, D.C.

InsideNGO membership currently stands at more than 250 nonprofits and a handful of for-profit companies that are mainly based in the United States, with programs in over 100 countries. Members are a blend of environmental, microfinance, health, community development and human rights groups with annual budgets ranging from $10 million to more than $100 million.

The association itself is headquartered in Westport, Conn., with an additional office in Washington, D.C., which is hosted by association member Save the Children. It is run by Alison Smith, who has been advocating for better management practices in the international NGO community for the past 20 years, along with seven full-time staff, as well as part-time and volunteer contributors.

A member-driven agenda

Association members have access to online resources, surveys and events such as forums, workshops and the annual conference; fees are based on an organization’s budget. The model is based on the principle that “everyone pitches in and contributes,” said Mike Walsh, director of programs, finance, grants, and contract, and a former U.S. Agency for International Development officer.

Issue-specific workshops and trainings currently make up InsideNGO’s largest revenue source. These programs are conducted at the organization’s headquarters or in the field, including in Accra, Cairo, Nairobi, Seattle and Washington. Some of the most in-demand topics include USAID rules and regulations, and managing indirect costs, but InsideNGO also offers training on more niche subjects such as subcontracting in Ethiopia.

These workshops give an opportunity for development practitioners to share experience and best practices with their peers. Everyone can sign up for a workshop; InsideNGO members pay discounted rates. The cost of attending a workshop varies, depending on its location and length.

The workshops are focused on “real issues that people are dealing with,” according to Walsh, and are tailored to an “adult learning environment” that is participatory and not just lecture-driven. They are led by industry professionals that are well-versed in a particular topic, such as former USAID contract auditors.

So far, the feedback has been positive.

“I am also delighted, and surprised, when I am at an airport and someone comes up to me and says that they attended a training I was in and how useful it was,” said Keith Edwards, director of compliance at EngenderHealth and an InsideNGO trainer and board member. “And one person said she is now considered an expert on USAID requirements at her organization.”

InsideNGO also operates an online listserve, which allows users to find referrals or answers to country-specific questions that have already been addressed by their peers. The listserve will eventually be transformed into a full online platform with a directory, local job postings, and lessons learned from the field that could provide real-time solutions in crisis situations. Walsh described it as “an Angie’s List” for the development community, referring to the popular Web site for finding home improvement contractors in the United States.

InsideNGO also gathers NGO managers for issue-specific round-table sessions to exchange ideas on topics such as human resources management or the monitoring and evaluation of projects. Attendance to these types of events is free for members.

Additionally, InsideNGO conducts surveys on subjects such as benchmarking salary and benefits for international development and relief NGOs.

A new NGO lobbying force

InsideNGO is also gearing up to conduct advocacy work for its membership community on contracting guidelines and donor agency branding requirements.

One contentious issue the group is focusing on is how USAID grantees in conflict-prone countries must screen their local staff and subcontractors for possible links to terrorist or criminal organizations.

InsideNGO argues that the current screening pilot program can be intrusive and break the trust between its members and locals. In partnership with InterAction, it will be advocating for a “better system” to vet local hires and subcontractors while maintaining privacy and trust.

The association receives no funding from governments but does work with agencies such as the U.S. Department of State and USAID, which provide representatives to speak at InsideNGO events.

Fast facts

  • Name: InsideNGO

  • Founded: 2008

  • Type: Nonprofit association

  • Mission: To “strengthen the operational and management capacity of the international development and relief non-profit community in the pursuit of global development.”

  • Headquarters: Westport, Conn.

  • Annual budget: $2 million

  • Membership fees: Based on an organization’s budget

             - $750 per year for organizations with under $10 million             - $1,000 if between $10 million and $99 million             - $1,250 if over $100 million in resources.

  • Executive Director: Alison Smith

  • Full-time of employees: 7

  • Opportunities:

About the author

  • Oliver Subasinghe

    Oliver joined Devex in late 2008 as an international development correspondent and researcher. He previously served as a microfinance fellow for Kiva in Kenya and Uganda. During his tenure, he worked with Kiva’s field partners to improve their operations and governance. Oliver holds a master's in business from the College of William & Mary.