Building Professionalism in NGOs/NPOs: Key Issues for Capacity Building

Hari Srinivas
Concept Note Series E-140. June 2022.

With increasing importance being paid to the local level as the forefront of action in the development of a city or a nation itself, attention is now turning to local stakeholders within the larger civil society and the roles and capacities that they posses to take up this role, not only in highlighting the local level, but in incorporating the local implications of global developmental processes.

This document looks at the issue of building professionalism in non-governmental organizations or non-profit organizations (NGOs/NPOs), and outlines some of the key issues involved in building their capacities. The term NGOs/NPOs (definitions are explored in detail below) is used throughout this paper to cover the broad range of organizations that are working at the local level and with local communities in various aspects of development. The terms 'NGO' and 'NPO' are used interchangeably in this paper.

The issues covered here are summarized from extensive surveys and interviews made with members of the Climate Action Network (CAN). CAN is a global network of NGOs that are working on various climate change issues at the local, regional, national and global levels. The paper has also benefited by numerous discussions that took place on the Internet, on mailing lists and discussion forums, related to NGOs/NPOs.

Understanding the Boundaries of an NGO/NPO

It is quite important to first understand the meaning of an NGO/NPO, when attempting to understand and build capacity.

Simply put, an NGO/NPO is (a) formally or informally organized around shared purposes; (b) nongovernmental, and so not part of the state apparatus; (c) self-governing, rather than externally controlled; and (d) voluntary both in the sense of being non-compulsory and in the sense of voluntary involvement in their governance or operations.

But the diversity of NGOs/NPOs strains any simple definition. They include many groups and institutions that are entirely or largely independent of government and that have primarily humanitarian or cooperative rather than commercial objectives. They are private agencies in industrial countries that support international development; indigenous groups organized regionally or nationally; and member-groups in villages. NGOs/NPOs include charitable and religious associations that mobilize private funds for development, distribute food and family planning services and promote community organization. They also include independent cooperatives, community associations, water-user societies, women's groups and pastoral associations. Citizen Groups that raise awareness and influence policy are also NGOs/NPOs (World Bank 1990)

NGO/NPO types can be understood by their orientation and level of operation (Cousins, 1991). By orientation, NGOs/NPOs can be charitable, service, participatory or empowering.

  • Charitable Orientation often involves a top-down paternalistic effort with little participation by the "beneficiaries". It includes NGOs/NPOs with activities directed toward meeting the needs of the poor -distribution of food, clothing or medicine; provision of housing, transport, schools etc. Such NGOs/NPOs may also undertake relief activities during a natural or man-made disaster.

  • Service Orientation includes NGOs/NPOs with activities such as the provision of health, family planning or education services in which the programme is designed by the NGOs/NPOs and people are expected to participate in its implementation and in receiving the service.

  • Participatory Orientation is characterized by self-help projects where local people are involved particularly in the implementation of a project by contributing cash, tools, land, materials, labour etc. In the classical community development project, participation begins with the need definition and continues into the planning and implementation stages. Cooperatives often have a participatory orientation.

  • Empowering Orientation is where the aim is to help poor people develop a clearer understanding of the social, political and economic factors affecting their lives, and to strengthen their awareness of their own potential power to control their lives. Sometimes, these groups develop spontaneously aroud a problem or an issue, at other times outside workers from NGOs play a facilitating role in their development. In any case, there is maximum involvement of the people with NGOs acting as facilitators.

NGOs/NPOs types based on the level of operation include those that are community-based, city-wide, national and international.

  • Community-based Organizations (CBOs) arise out of people's own initiatives. These can include sports clubs, women's organizations, neighbourhood organizations, religious or educational organizations. There are a large variety of these, some supported by NGOs, national or international NGOs, or bilateral or international agencies, and others independent of outside help. Some are devoted to rising the consciousness of the urban poor or helping them to understand their rights in gaining access to needed services while others are involved in providing such services.

  • Citywide Organizations include organizations such as the Rotary or lion's Club, chambers of commerce and industry, coalitions of business, ethnic or educational groups and associations of community organizations. Some exist for other purposes, and become involved in helping the poor as one of many activities, while others are created for the specific purpose of helping the poor.

  • National NGOs include organizations such as the Red Cross, YMCAs/YWCAs, professional organizations etc. Some of these have state and city branches and assist local NGOs.

  • International NGOs range from secular agencies such as Redda Barna and Save the Children organizations, OXFAM, CARE, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations to religiously motivated groups. Their activities vary from mainly funding local NGOs, institutions and projects, to implementing the projects themselves.

Developmental Inputs provided by NGOs/NPOs

The activities and actions of the NGOs/NPOs surveyed were as diverse as the types they belonged to. Among the wide variety of inputs that NGOs/NPOs provide, the following six can be identified as the key competencies/roles that enable them to deliver the inputs:

Development and Operation of Infrastructure
Community-based organizations and cooperatives acquire, subdivide and develop land, construct housing, provide infrastructure and operate and maintain infrastructure such as wells or public toilets and solid waste collection services. They also develop building material supply centres and other community-based economic enterprises. In many cases, they utilize technical assistance or advice from governmental agencies or higher-level organizations.
Supporting Innovation, Demonstration and Pilot Projects
NGOs/NPOs have the advantage of selecting particular places for innovative projects and specify in advance the length of time that they will be supporting the project - overcoming some of the shortcomings that governments face in this respect. NGOs/NPOs also implement pilots for larger government projects by virtue of their ability to act more quickly than the government bureaucracy.
Facilitating Communication
NGOs/NPOs use interpersonal methods of communication, and study the right entry points whereby they gain the trust of the community they seek to benefit. They also have a good idea of the feasibility of the projects they take up. The significance of this role to the government is that NGOs/NPOs communicate to the policy-making levels of government, information about the lives, capabilities, attitudes and cultural characteristics of people at the local level.

NGOs/NPOs also facilitate communication upward from people to the government and downward from the government to the people. Communication upward involves informing government about what local people are thinking, doing and feeling while communication downward involves informing local people about what the government is planning and doing. NGOs/NPOs are also in a unique position to share information horizontally, networking between other organizations doing similar work.

Technical Assistance and Training
Training institutions and NGOs/NPOs develop technical assistance and training capacities and use this to assist both community-based groups and local governments.
Research, Monitoring and Evaluation
Innovative activities of NGOs/NPOs are carefully documented and shared - effective participatory monitoring therefore permits the sharing of results with the target communities as well as with project staff and other partners.
Advocacy for and with the Poor
In some cases, NGOs/NPOs become spokespersons or ombudsmen for the poor and attempt to influence government policies and programmes on their behalf. This is done through a variety of means ranging from demonstration and pilot projects to participation in public forums and the formulation of government policy and plans, to publicizing research results and case studies of the poor. Thus NGOs/NPOs play roles from advocates for the poor to implementers of government programmes; from agitators and critics to partners and advisors; from sponsors of pilot projects to mediators.

Scaling up and Linking NGOs/NPOs to Governmental Action

One of the key issues involved in building professionalism and capacities in NGOs/NPOs is to scale up their activities and actions, and enhancing their integration with governmental action and public sector activities.

The survey responses indicate a number of barriers in this process of scaling up and integration. Some of the barriers mentioned are summarized below.

The input of financial and human resources in pilot projects of governments or of NGOs/NPOs is often too high to be widely replicable within existing resources. A single standard 'package' does not have enough flexibility to be adapted to a wide variety of specific local institutions and cultural contexts.

Often NGOs/NPOs have initiated projects with no or low involvement of government agencies and thus they have not had to deal with the real-life constraints of government bureaucracy. This has also led to less credibility.

Insufficient community involvement in all the stages of a project or activity has resulted, in some cases, to inadequate appropriateness, cost-effectiveness, coverage, and continuity. Sometimes the NGOs/NPOs are in too much of a hurry to establish a large program and to go to replicate nationally. In many cases, Government officials are often skeptical or suspicious of NGOs/NPOs adversely affecting partnerships between them.

To remove these barriers and scale up the activities of NGOs/NPOs it is important to get the attention of policymakers and convince them of the usefulness, practicality, affordability and replicability of the project's approach. Scaling up calls for different kinds of managerial capacities, which will be less personal and informal at the top. This also means that selection and maintenance of staff with requisite attitudes, skills and motivation is equally critical.

Training a sufficiently large cadre of field workers and project officers for participatory projects will ensure that while the project is implemented effectively, lessons learnt are also recorded for replication. Scaling up particularly depends on the maintenance of an emphasis on participatory process, rather than the result alone. Broader governance issues also play an important role, such as maintenance of accountability to the people at the grass roots by all levels of planners and administrators.

The Shift Towards Professionalism in NGOs/NPOs

Professionalism in NGOs/NPOs is a process that starts from within the organization, geared towards building credibility, transparency and accountability - and ultimately trust with the constituency and partners that they work with.

The survey responses illustrated three key approaches that NGOs/NPOs took to build professionalism within the organization.

  • Publicizing their activities/programmes:
    Through a variety of activities (for example, press campaigns, information dissemination, media products, as well as non-formal activities such as street dramas, newsletters, bulletins), NGOs/NPOs inform the broader community and civil society of their activities and programmes, and in the process building awareness of the issues that they advocate.

  • Interacting with other organizations/groups:
    NGOs/NPOs intensively interact with a wide variety of formal and informal groups through campaigns, community group meetings, forums/workshops, site visits, interviews, etc. that enable them to network and leverage their activities and resources

  • Build Support and collate resources:
    Networking for information collation and dissemination remain the core of NGOs/NPOs activities. Through internships, training and skill development, and other formal and informal processes, NGOs/NPOs build support for their activities and programmes as well as collate necessary resources (financial and informational) to facilitate implementation.

It is in the process of an NGOs/NPOs' dialogue with communities that offers the greatest scope of increasing its professionalism and reach. Traditional approaches and roles towards development has been that of charity and relief. There is a clear need to move away from this 'reactive' role to one that is more interactive and proactive. There has been a gradual shift/move of NGOs/NPOs away from 'reactive' roles defined by relief and charity to that of more 'interactive' roles, which have emphasized communication as a tool for intervention. A further extension has been to 'proactive' roles of consultation, with information being a key resource in the process of support, documentation and dissemination. The three roles are elaborated further in the following paragraphs.

The Social Welfare Role is where the majority of the actions are related to relief and charity. NGOs/NPOs in this role can be seen as initiating internally initiated programmes and projects. Major secondary actors who would support the NGOs/NPOs in this role include international donor agencies and other charity institutions.

The Mediatory Role of NGOs/NPOs emphasizes the importance of communication as a skill for development and social action. NGOs/NPOs in this role can be seen as participating or taking up external programmes and projects. Major secondary actors include government agencies and other formal institutions.

The Consultative Role of NGOs/NPOs emphasizes the criticality of support, documentation and dissemination of information and expertise that it can provide. NGOs/NPOs in this role can be seen as primarily working in collaborative programmes. Local experts/professionals/resource persons play major secondary roles here.

All three roles of social welfare, mediation, and consultation, in fact, go together as three facets of the same approach towards building professionalism and empowerment of NGOs/NPOs. In fact, organizational independence and operational self-sustainability of NGOs/NPOs can be achieved by an emphasis on their mediation and consultation roles, but without disregarding their social welfare role.

Leveraging the Capacities of NGOs/NPOs

The true creativity of a NGOs/NPOs lies in their ability to create networks of information, innovation and interaction which enables themselves as well as the constituency that they work with, to communicate, to share and to receive, effecting positive social change in the long run.

NGOs/NPOs networks are key to leveraging their capacities. As mentioned in the opening paragraphs, the survey respondents belong to the Climate Action Network (CAN), which provides ample evidence for the viability of NGOs/NPOs networks in leveraging and building capacities.

The survey responses have shown that NGOs/NPOs networks bring people together locally and globally, and focus attention on key issues for discussion, deliberation and consensus. It helps organize communication and information relevant to a community's needs and problems, in a prompt manner. It includes the involvement, support and participation of a broad base of citizens, including community activists, leaders, sponsors and other concerned individuals. Many of these networks include in its functioning, the concerns of low-income groups, women and minorities - who otherwise find it difficult to voice their problems and needs. Such networks are highly consistent with the importance that is placed on grass-roots innovations, which solve problems and satisfy needs of the local community, and instill/strengthen a sense of ownership and belonging to its members. Networks are therefore vibrant forces capable of building on the knowledge they have accumulated, and adapt to a rapidly changing world and community needs.

As the inventory in the Appendix shows, universities, and educational and training institutions have recognized the growing importance of NGOs/NPOs role, and the need to build their capacity.


In this age of increased localization, in face of the diametrically opposite trend of globalization, it will be NGOs/NPOs that will provide the key catalyzing force to foster the localization. It is clear that they work directly at the local level in (mostly) developing countries, rather than the national or sub-regional levels. They usually work with local, community-based groups to jointly implement programmes and projects. Most of the projects have direct capacity building objectives directed at the end-user or target group. Most also work in a cost effective manner, making best and maximum use of the financial resources available.

But the activities and projects of NGOs/NPOs do have some barriers. Many of their activities have limited replicability, and are too small and localized to have important regional or national impact. Many projects are not designed with sufficient concern for how activities will be sustained in the long run. Even some professionally staffed NGOs are poorly managed, have only rudimentary accounting systems, and sometimes initiate infrastructure projects with inadequate technical analysis. Limited managerial and technical capacity is a critical concern for most NGOs/NPOs. Development projects often are implemented individually, outside the framework of a broader programming strategy for a region or sector, and with little regard even to other NGOs' activities. Some NGOs combine development concerns with political or religious objectives that limit the extent to which the donors can work with them.

All this points to an urgent need for comprehensive and broad capacity building targeted at NGOs/NPOs. Building professionalism in NGOs/NPOs has benefits both internally and externally and a comprehensive framework programme needs to be put in place that takes advantages of the resources available with different stakeholders at the local level (Local governments, universities, businesses and industry etc.), and stronger partnerships and involvement in all stages of implementation of a project or programme.


Cousins William, "Non-Governmental Initiatives" in ADB, The Urban Poor and Basic Infrastructure Services in Asia and the Pacific". Asian Development Bank, Manila, 1991

World Bank "How the World Bank works with Non-Governmental Organizations" The World Bank, 1990

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