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What is the evolving face of the NGO leader of the future

| Dec. 21, 2022

The business landscape for an NGO is a tough one with the current economic climate, not to mention the constraints of everyday operational conditions. So why go into the sector as a business leader or in general? How do digital business, diverse culture and the experience of the leaders involved effect the landscape? We’ve brought this topic to a handful of our global experts who shared their insights into why people take this career path and where these types of organizations are headed going forward.

According to Malcolm Duncan (Kestria Australia), the question of why is a key one: ‘Historically, people who have gone into this sector have come from corporate life, typically at the tail end of their careers but also as a career choice. I think often we've seen that the main motivation is to make other people's lives better which is sometimes even driven by faith or a perceived injustice they see and NGO can correct. But whatever the reason they go in, they bring with them skills that are going to help that organization marshal resources and people, and building resilience within an organization to help others is a pretty strong motivation.

There are enormous complexities in the not-for-profit world that need to be considered. But the first one for any executive coming from the corporate world is that they're normally going to have to take a pay cut. Are they prepared and able to do that? Secondly, they need to prove their commitment to the space as there's no point going into an area where you're not going to add much value. My suggestion for anyone from the corporate world, who wants to get into a not-for-profit is to join a not-for-profit board, learn the governance and rhythms of how they operate, and understand some of the important dynamics that are going to drive their future. Another aspect is what skills are required in not-for-profits such as digital transformation skills, fundraising skills. Because you receive a lot of government funding, government policy plays a very big part in your future destiny. There's a lot of research that's worth doing in advance to make sure you're aware of the landscape you're entering.’

Per Tracy Dawson (Kestria South Africa), there are multiple widespread benefits to entering the NGO environment. ‘The transition from a corporate to a not-for-profit environment is something that is certainly attractive to our clients who like to see good, strong evidence of commercial acumen and business leadership. But you need to be aware that you're going to need to learn an entirely new language, the language of the donor environment. You should also be prepared for an increased burden of evidence. Donors require regular detailed impact reporting and funding is fundamentally contingent on results. This also means that as a not-for-profit leader, you may be subjected to a limited contract period, incumbent on whether you've managed to raise or extend funding for your organization. And there's no hiding the fact that this outcome sits squarely on the shoulders of the organization's leader.

Often underestimated in the not-for-profit sector is the value of a quality network of relationships and the influence that they can engender. Our clients are trying to solve the world's most pressing problems, and nobody can do that alone. Digital tools have enabled and increased the amount of collaboration and partnership that not-for-profits are able to achieve. Another advantage to joining the not-for-profit sector is that it connects you to a global community of purpose. There are tremendously rewarding relationships to be made, because while you may be in different organizations, you're all seeking to solve the same problems. Ultimately this can be incredibly empowering and satisfying.’

Gary Saenger (Kestria USA: Saenger Associates)  believes NGO’s are essential for business:  ‘It takes a community to raise a family, and it takes a community to make us what we are to be safe to be secure. Careers in NGO are not dissimilar to that of the for-profit world, whether you're thinking about this at the beginning of your career, or generally using this as a focus for where you want to perform your job search. Depending on where your strengths lie be it in finance, IT, or marketing, all can be leveraged to make a real difference in a non-profit that you believe in and I think believing in it and having the passion for it is essential. 

You may also be in the latter part of your business career and want to have a second career. The question of where and how you can make a difference comes even more to the fore. And you're all in, it's not just about the paycheck. But if you're looking for where your leadership skills, your management skills to introduce a new aspect for an agency, there are hundreds of options out there to both make a difference and further your career.’

So how does one achieve success once they make the move to an NGO? Per Patrick Westerburger (Kestria Netherlands), digital business and marketing knowledge are at the core: ‘When we look at Western Europe, we see an increasing number of corporate leaders interested to move to not-for-profit. What we see also happening is the increase in social enterprises,  companies that in one way or another want to contribute to a better world. Their founders have a passion and mission they would like to share with the rest of the world. More and more people from various generations are interested to join these social enterprises that bring added value to the planet.

Working for non for profit coming from the corporate world means that you bring your professional experience to a different kind of organization. But these organizations also work in a very competitive world. If we look for example at a part of fundraising for non-for-profit organizations, the marketing and PR costs are restricted because sponsors for such organizations are very much aware that most of the money should go to the ‘post’. So leaders who join such companies need to be very passionate, and knowledgeable about developing and executing marketing and fundraising strategies in a very competitive environment. This means strong knowledge of marketing and what’s happening in the digital world, knowing exactly what ‘various teams’ need. And also making sure that sponsors are not only attracted for a one-time donation, but for repetitive donations.’

So what is the evolving face of the NGO leader of the future? It would appear to be no different from any organization. This area needs people who are ready for the continuing business transformation going on in the not-for-profit and NGO landscapes. This includes: 

  • being digitally savvy, 
  • understanding change management, 
  • being financially dep to running an organization as well as leading and motivating the people within it, 
  • the ability to deal with and work with external stakeholders. 

All of these things make for a successful leader in a not-for-profit or NGO organization. As always, we at Kestria stand ready to help you with our consultants in the Asia Pacific, EMEA and the Americas, with a deep appreciation and demonstrated experience in the lively and fast-developing not-for-profit and NGO landscape.

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