by Shai Abramson and Barry Camson
What will it take for NGO’s in Israel to survive and be successful in the globally competitive environment for NGO funding? This post pursues this question and reflects on issues in the development of civil society in Israel.
About ten or twelve years ago, Barry was working with a group whose focus was to help support the creation of civil society in Israel. At that time, there were not a large number of non-profits in Israel. There was little in the space between the private sector and government which we refer to as civil society. Israel was in the process of transforming from a society in which large social movements related to political parties, e.g. the Histadrut labor movement, established and maintained the social safety net in Israel. What was helpful in Israel was a democratic tradition which is one of the important requirements for a civil society sector. What was also helpful was a socialist, collectivist, religious philosophy that saw the well-being of each member of the society as the concern of everyone and of the society at large.
Now, a decade or so has passed and there are many NGO’s in Israel. Many are relatively small and focused. We might not be far off if we referred to these as “ma and pa” NGO’s.
We were thinking about what might be the next generation for NGO’s in Israel. How does civil society in Israel made up of a large number of “ma and pa” NGO’s transform to a sector of more developed and efficient NGO’s capable of competing for American and European funding with the far more sophisticated and efficient American and European NGO’s? In a sense, what can be seen in Israel right now might be with some poetic license an adaptation of Mao’s “let a thousand flowers bloom.” Now, that Israel has progressed to this current stage, what happens next?
From Shai’s perspective, the challenge here is that these “ma and pa” NGO’s may not have a sufficient foundation to survive in what is becoming a globally competitive environment for NGO funding. In a world of currently scarce resources, the NGO’s that are the most efficient and the ones with the better business models survive. From a Darwinian point of view, this can be seen as a weeding out of the modest performers in the civil society leading to the field being taken over by more efficient organizations.
Having spent a lot of time in the private sector, Barry believes that this is a realistic model where the better competitors replace or in many cases buy-out the weaker and redundant competitors. Generally, in the private sector one accepts that some firms may not survive. However, in the civil society sector, each NGO that does not survive represents one flower that does not bloom. Will this leave some sectors-demographics unattended to? Will those individuals who founded and ran these NGO’s find a new life in one of the successor organizations? Will these people just stop doing the work entirely? If they did, is this end state desirable?
We both agree that it may be all well and good for there to be a weeding out in the civil society sector. However, has there been enough attention given to supporting and guiding NGO’s so that each has the potential for surviving in this environment? What is being done in this regard?
Based on Shai’s work in Israel, there are a number of areas where the typical NGO can enhance its own chances for success. Some of these suggested actions are:
- Think strategically. Build a multi-year Plan of Action and stick to it.
- Develop a strong fundraising infrastructure. Make sure your executive director and board of directors understand and embrace their role in the financial sustainability of the organization. Ensure that your staff has the skills needed for effective marketing and donor relations. Set aside a dedicated budget for fundraising. Track and evaluate your fundraising efforts.
- Understand that donors are often the backbone of a vibrant nonprofit. Donors are not just open wallets. They provide vision, guidance and direction, as well as financial wellbeing. Take the time to develop close relations with your donors. Build loyalty and trust in an environment of transparency and professionalism.
- Don’t be afraid to be remembered. The competition is stiff. A nonprofit that wants to stand out from the crowd needs powerful branding that will inspire and compel to action not only donors, but staff, volunteers, and partners alike.
We are both very attracted to one last point which is:
- Think like a start-up. With an eye for economy of scale, consider whether the high-tech incubator model (where small businesses work in an open space with shared resources) might be a viable option for you and other like-minded nonprofits. The idea of a network is inherent to this.
Barry’s work with networks in both Israel and the United States impresses him that there is much to be gained in terms of the economy of scale that can be gained from a network There are some powerful models of incubators where best business practices, transparent cultures and collaborative ways of working are passed on to new organizations.
The key question to us is where does the typical “ma and pa” NGO start. Certainly, before an NGO is established, it is helpful for the founders to recognize that it takes more than having one’s heart in the right place. They need as much as any business to think out their business plan to figure out how to make their NGO viable in both the short and long term.
If an NGO is already in existence, then the founders must be able to step back and attend to these issues. A common obstacle here will be the lack of time on the part of a founder who is working more than full time to do the day-to-day work of the NGO. However, it is not the job of the director or founder to be doing the day to day work, especially as the NGO begins to grow. They must gravitate to the new role which we have described. They must convince the board to gravitate to a new and stronger role as well.
There will always be reasons not to attend to these matters. It may take the leader away from work that they love and a role to which they may have become accustomed. It may require attention to less interesting management details. It may require an unanticipated alteration in terms of how one defines oneself. These may be significant changes for the individual leader. We believe these changes can lead to greater organizational success and sustainability.
How one can respond to enhance their own NGO and Israeli civil society in general are important questions. We hope to talk more about this in future posts.
Shai Abramson is a philanthropic consultant in Jerusalem. She represents donors and foundations and, in parallel, advises nonprofit leaders how to better meet donor needs through improved communications, transparency, partnership and professionalism. She can be reached at Shai Abramson Strategic Consulting Ltd. or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barry Camson is an organization development consultant and trainer in Boston, MA. He has consulted to NGO’s in Israel, worked in economic development in Africa for USAID and consulted to a variety of organizations in the US. His current focus is the use of networks and the sharing of knowledge across organizations and cultures. He can be reached at BCamson@aol.com and blogs at barrycamson.com