The Capability for Survival:
Capacity lessons from the workings of NGOs


These insights are derived from the general experience of working with NGOs in South Asia and India in particular. Some derive specifically from a DFID funded project of the Charities Aid Foundation India (CAFI) which had capacity development as its explicitly stated purpose. This project, called 404 (in deference to its accounting code), covered 5 activist NGO networks in 5 states of India working on different issues under the broad rubric of advocating for peoples’ rights over natural resources.

The piece is meant to be a collection of general – freewheeling – set of observations on what ‘capabilities’ distinguish successful NGOs. It avoids the contested territory of ‘definitions’ of success e.g. size v/s numbers; service delivery v/s general empowermen;, impact v/s funding available etc., and seeks to find some easily discernable ‘bullets’ that characterize NGOs that are certified ‘good’ or ‘successful’ in the court of public perception.

This piece also does not go into the complexity of context. In reality, context plays a huge role which is outside the remit of this piece. E.g. would the ‘Grameen Model’ of micro-credit work in a country less densely populated than Bangladesh?

Finally, this piece is based on drawing broad generalizations. So, for every instance cited, there is likely to be an exception in a different setting. It is meant to be a set of pointers based on observations and cannot claim to be a rigorously researched piece.


1. The capability for survival

One of the fundamental capabilities that distinguish successful NGOs is the capability for survival. An NGO that is worrying about next month’s rent will rarely be able to fulfill its mission effectively. Or at least, there is likely to be a large and significant distraction in its focus.

Interestingly, ‘survival’ has an inwardly directed connotation over and above the usual ‘responsibility to target group’ connotation. This inward direction is at two levels:

a) at the level of the leader, it means the ability to keep building the institution and executing programs through quality staff, systems, hardware and therefore, predictable and sustained funding.

b) at the level of the staff, it is the concern with having a job and keeping it (NGO activists too have children’s school fees, house rents, petrol bills for the motorcycle etc. despite most donors’ apathy to such issues). This is of course tied to (a) above, and so, it means an NGO that is not able to fulfill (a), will see a certain degree of out-migration of staff – including usually, the best ones first. More powerfully, what it means in the reverse, is that a leader that is able to provide (a), usually commands unquestioning subservience, both in programmatic as well as hierarchical terms. In countries where numbers of job seekers exceed numbers of jobs, (usually most developing countries), security of tenure overrides intellectual or moral judgment.

2. The capability for being perceived as legitimate

A successful NGO must have some credibility/legitimacy with the constituency that it serves. This often means providing hope in an atmosphere of general gloom and cynicism. This legitimacy comes from demonstrating capability/leadership in a number of areas e.g. intellectual capability (PRIA), capability for effecting empowerment (Ekta Parishad) including, capability in rhetoric against a status quo, capability of ensuring funding (PRIA, PREM, VHAI) and so on. Internally, the capability of imagery (my leader travels overseas, meets many important people, knows many donors on first name terms etc.) cannot be underestimated.

3. Capability of political neutrality

Part of the legitimacy question above derives from the capability for walking the balancing line of maintaining equidistance from political parties of every hue while engaging in work that is essentially political in nature. This must however enjoin the caveat that this seems to be the case mostly in India (where public scrutiny of neutrality is arguably higher) and almost all of the rest of South Asia is an exception to this.

    In India, the Ford Foundation went through a long and detailed process of finding a host institution for a center for budget analysis that it wanted to initiate. It finally settled on a well-known NGO in Gujarat – DISHA –headed by a widely respected leader, Madhav Mistry. Subsequently, Mr. Mistry contested, and won, an election on a Congress Party ticket that made him a member of the Indian Parliament. The Ford Foundation – broadly reflecting the concern for political neutrality – immediately moved the center for budget analysis to another NGO.

    Contrast this with the following facts: The head of the Aga Khan Foundation in Pakistan is a politically well-connected figure. This adds to – not diminishes – his legitimacy (see capability above – my leader is an important man). The political affiliations of well-known Nepali and Sri Lankan NGO leaders are well-known. Two of Bangladesh’s largest non-profits, have sympathies for the two main political parties respectively. It is interesting to see these affiliations play out in statements made by NGO leaders in the Bangladeshi press and the subtle jockeying between these two organizations in the media. The ultimate spectacle is the playing out of political affiliations in the elections to the umbrella body of NGOs in Bangladesh – ADAB. It also has implications for the kinds of noises – pro- or anti-government – that come out of the premier umbrella network of NGOs in Bangladesh in a given year.

4. Capability for innovation under adversity - the key informal innovation

Most successful programs/institutions demonstrate this capability at some stage in their organizational life cycle. The key informal innovation is usually a methodological or process one involving novelty in the extent to which it ‘tweaks’ an existing (and accepted) paradigm – including sometimes, turning it on its head.

    e.g. Grameen Bank’s innovation of lending on the guarantee of peer pressure rather than on material collateral. The Bangladesh, Thailand, India examples of using religious leaders to spread successful contraception messages. The Brazilian Bolsa Escola innovation of paying mothers the subsidy for education rather than the schooling system etc.
This also has implications for the legitimacy of the leader. Often, the leader is the one that his staff will turn to when faced with an intractable problem. This pressure/inspiration has often led to path-breaking, locally appropriate innovation – sometimes with globally acclaimed results.

5. Capability of delivering on donor and (national) statutory requirements

Successful NGOs are characterized by an amazing degree of capability in their administrative structures. Donors demand multiple reporting requirements. Different parts of a donor agency have different reporting requirements e.g. a program officer of ‘x’ Foundation will demand a narrative report stressing program impact. The grants administrator of ‘x’ will want the filling of the complex grant utilization form. And the department of accounts will want its own report. And then, different donors have different reporting formats, different methodologies of monitoring, and different formats for written reports.
    Let us say an NGO, ‘N’ has a 10,000 USD grant from donor D1, 30,000 USD from donor D2 and 50,000 USD from donor D3. D1 wants six-monthly reports. The reports have to come in RBM formats specified by D1. So overwhelming are these formats for small NGOs that D1 maintains a full-time RBM officer for its small grants program, who occasionally descends on ‘N’ to administer the RBM. Then the program officer who actually made the grant will descend at least once. Then the director may chose to come to N. Then a mission from headquarters may be visiting and N may have been chosen as an NGO to showcase.

    D2 wants annual reports. These have to be in log frame format. Then D2 will frequently have partners’ meetings – to which N has to go. Then there will be a visit from the South Asia Program officer; Then a visit from the India director; Then a visit by the South Asia team leader from headquarters...and so on!

    D3 sends a ‘mission’ to N. This is not unlike World Bank missions where groups of accountants, program officers, gender experts and others descend on a remote NGO, stay at the local large hotel and wash up on N’s doorstep every morning, laptop and all. With every D3 grant comes a customized accounting package. The accountants go through books, ledgers entry by entry to see that compliance with D3’s reporting format has been maintained. This can go on for a week, sometimes more.

    Of its combined 90,000 USD grant, N will not be allowed to use more than 9000 (or 10 %) for administration and overheads. This will include the salary of the accountant, the administrator, Executive Director and program officers.
    All this is further complicated by ‘evaluation’ visits when donor staff and consultants will descend and evaluate a particular program.

The above is indicative of some of the demands that donors alone make. N may have funding from more than 3 donors. N may also have a grant from a government department like the Department of Women and Child Development. This involves another reporting nightmare. And frequent trips to the headquarters to have grant tranches released.

Then N has to comply with statutory requirements under Indian law. This includes preparing and filing an audited balance sheet; a form to the Finance ministry for grant utilization (from all sources irrespective of source) to keep grants from being treated as ‘income’ (and therefore attracting income tax); and a disclosure to the Home ministry indicating amount, source and end-use of all funds of foreign origin. Each of these is a complex exercise.

There are also capabilities specific to leaders who lead successful NGOs, or those that have contributed to their success.

6. Capability of being ‘donor savvy’

A leader needs to have a reasonable level of contact with donors and an ‘equation’ with key staff in a donor agency. This ensures a level of comfort on both sides and it is not infrequent to find donors line up behind a leader because s/he meets certain requirements of ‘comfort’ even if the person is known to be say, autocratic or is not a team-builder.

7. Capability of mapping growth path

One very important capability that distinguishes leaders of successful NGOs is that they frequently have a very clear mental model of what the organization and its mission will look like throughout its life cycle. This allows for the leader to grow an NGO on a steady path as well as add modules as opportunities arise – to reap windfalls (see next point) – or simply to ride opportunities and grow the organization steadily. For example, in India, as the possibility of partnerships with the private sector arise, many NGO leaders are thinking in terms of strategic partnerships on specific programs that allow both, a testing of the waters, as well as funding opportunities. A number of NGOs on the 404 project have shown the flexibility of being open to partnership with the private sector although they have a long-standing ideological position of being opposed to private capital.

8. Capability of approaching the funding issue tactically

Donors have their own internal rules which make for very little support to grantees for institution building. Some donors will not fund beyond two years. Some will not fund infrastructure. Some will not fund a general support endowment. Yet, an NGO leader has little choice but to think in terms of buildings (to avoid recurring rents), telephones, steady salaries with increments (to retain competent staff), payment of provident funds (a common staff demand in a country with no state social safety net), travel accident insurance and so on. Then there is the need to demonstrate a possible career growth path to employees –again, with the aim of retaining the best.

All this implies that leaders need to be very tactical in searching out donors, spread funding among a number of donors to hedge risks, split costs among donors very carefully in a manner that will take care of the ‘unfundables’. Besides these capabilities, a leader has to have ‘good antennae’ that scan the environment, pick up signals for where the next big wave of funding will wash up and needs to find the niche for his/her NGO to play a role in that wave. So, for example, as rapid urbanization with its attendant problems is likely to attract more funding to that sector, many NGOs are beginning to think of urban focused programs in India.

9. Capability for acquiring trust - wide discretion - from donors

Successful leaders need to have the capability of convincing donors to give them a certain degree of flexibility with the end-use of funding. This could entail say, diversion of funds from a steady program to an emergency (say, floods), or committing resources to an activity that seems justifiably important though not part of the agreed plan between an NGO and its donor or other such discretion.
    A staff member on the 404 project fell ill with fever that was diagnosed as influenza by the local doctor in the small town where this NGO is located. After two weeks of medication, the man’s condition deteriorated to the point when he could no longer walk. Sensing something more complicated, the leader used project funds to personally take this staffer to a premier specialist hospital and have him diagnosed and treated for meningitis. This had a powerful impact on the morale of the organization and on programs – balancing out the cost to the project.
10. Capability of harmonizing group identities and aspirations

The highly stratified nature of Indian society reflects among the poor as well. The poor continue to have factional – caste, tribe, ethnic – identities that distract from their ideal primary focus i.e. to move out of poverty. It also creates competing interest groups among the poor that dilutes their advocacy capacity or capacity to demand rights.

The capability to manage disparate group ambitions and harmonize these under a general plan of moving out of poverty is a key requirement for a successful NGO.

Other traits also distinguish successful NGOs. Many are key drivers or members of networks or network like arrangements and this helps attain a spread that is otherwise difficult for individual NGOs to reach. The exception to this, of course are the large, corporation-like NGOs of Bangladesh which go it alone in nearly every district of the country. For Indian NGOs, blessed with only a fraction of the donor funding that their Bangladeshi counterparts enjoy, the use of networks has proven to be a strategic ‘force multiplier’ in obtaining broader wide reach.

Source: Niloy Banerjee, ECDPM

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