The other day I was standing in front of my microwave, waiting for my food to warm up.  I cranked up the microwave to two minutes, then stood waiting.  Halfway through, it dawned on me, ‘I don’t even like my food piping hot – why do I punch in two minutes every time?’  I pressed ‘stop’, removed my food to find it to be at just the perfect temperature and for the first time I ate it just the way I like it – pleasantly warm, with no waiting period between extraction and eating.

Why, I wondered, have I been overheating my food all these years – did someone tell me it has to be piping hot? Was I just copying what I had seen others do? I had never stopped to think how I could adapt my actions to suit what worked best for me.  How many minutes of my life had I wasted standing around waiting for food to become so hot I could not eat it? If I had read the manual, I would have seen there are infinite variations of timing and power. I  could have done things a whole lot differently.

Which brings me to this week’s point (have you considered); why are so many NGO and NPO proposals clones of one another; are the NGOs and NGOs themselves identical? Have they no strengths or unique propositions of their own that will make them stand out?  Out of the over 16 000 registered NGOs and NPOs surely yours can stand out and be noticed  – the question is why are are you not or perhaps you are?  Nonetheless, let’s dive into this week’s topic and see how you can benefit from this overview titled: Beyond The Frame – Why What I Know May Not Work for Me?…

Like my microwave, NGOs and NPOs have an infinite number of ‘settings’ that they ought to be exploiting. Landscapes, communities, programmes, time periods, areas of expertise, strengths, challenges and a raft of other specifics vary from organisation to organisation. We need to switch off ‘automatic’, think a little more carefully about our uniqueness and highlight what only we can offer.

Having worked as a CSI practitioner and in the industry for some time now, I know the average funding proposal like the back of my hand.  Most go something like this:


‘We believe that all children deserve a chance to develop into stable and productive individuals that will contribute to the economy.’


‘We are committed to providing quality skills training and seeing the upliftment of unemployed youth across the South Africa.’


‘We aim to make a real and beneficial difference in the lives of our youth and women.’

Now try to think if you have written something like this, read something like this or even heard something like this recently.  These are three random extracts from three random organisation from who we receive info. I have seen a number similar to these.

Just imagine you’re a CSI manager, with money at your disposal and decisions to make. You go through 20 of these proposals a day, each one looking and sounding the same, except for minor details.  The proposal concerned with environmental matters speaks a similar language to the one concerned with animal welfare; the one that cares for paralysed children sounds just like the one that offers services to the aged.  We know the intent of the programmes or project – having a hugely positive effect, but year after year there they are, requesting money for basics. There is little that is innovative or business-like, and nothing that would suggest a positive, ‘can-do’ spirit of helping oneself.

This is the challenge and here’s how we might address it
Most of the people working in CSI and NGOs are either HR trained or project management trained. They have not studied business and know little about setting up, running and growing an organisation.  The NGOs which strike it lucky and receive funding once or twice sometimes think they must be doing something right, so they stick to the formula, tweaking and rehashing proposals and knocking on the same door year after year.

Then the CSI manager behind that door leaves, and everything is disastrous – funding dries up, there’s no long-term plan and they’re thrown into turmoil. Who will help us now?

It is so often the case that when a new CSI manager takes the reins, he or she looks afresh at the proposals.  They’re under no obligation to continue what the departed CSI manager started with you. The new manager wants to impress his new boss, showing that his decisions are strategic and rational, and that company money will not be poured into a sinkhole.

We have seen this scenario so many times; a CSI manager leaves, and suddenly the dependent NGO or NPO is cut off from their lifeblood and left floundering. Neither the NGO nor the CSI manager considered an exit strategy, or the possibility of tying the funding organisation to the programme for at least 12 months after a CSI manager leaves. This is but one area where proposals let their makers down.

So what are the solutions?

Think further than the present
Starbucks sells a snack bar called ‘Two Moms in the Raw’.  Great name – it’s a product that is bound to pique interest. Shari Leidich and her mom Marsha founded this small health food company after Shari was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and a naturopath advised her to start a raw food diet; she found most of the products on sale unappetising, so decided to make her own.  Soon, friends and family were requesting so many of her amazing snacks that she turned them into a business.  Four years later, Two Moms in The Raw had revenues of more than ZAR14 million per year.  Shari Leidich had a niche product,  she thought big, and she reaped the rewards.  Now she is not begging and she is not dying.

Hire the expertise you need
You’re unlikely to be good at everything.  Charlotte Mtetwa, 88, founder of Phaphamani (wake up) Home Based Care Centre in Kabokweni, is a gifted and compassionate nurse who knew her  areas of strength and grew her HIV/Aids care centre through shrewd hiring.

She is also a superb organiser. With 70 paid volunteer caregivers and a staff component of ten qualified nurses, she knew when she had reached a tipping point and needed specialised expertise. She hired a young accountant, who eventually became national director for the organisation.  Ms Mtetwa retired over three years ago, yet the centre is going strong – just last year Lottery paid for another bakkie, the Japanese Embassy donated two mobile clinics straight from Japan, and the Mpumalanga Department of Health now partners with the centre to conduct the outreach component of their work. What happened? When Ms Mtetwa realised the organisation’s needs were growing beyond her scope of expertise,  she hired a young and forward-looking individual to oversee the business side and manage the finances of the NGO.  A German publication estimated Phaphamani Home Based Care Centre to be worth $1 million – that is, around ZAR14 million.

What can we learn? First of all, recognise your strengths and exploit those.  Then start wresting your organisation out of ‘helper’ mode and into business mode. Here is one sample of an NGO business model:  a business-like structure for an NGO would comprise three sections: production, business and marketing. Production, of course, is a business term, and in an NGO would be better known as advocacy work or outreach. It’s the core function of your organisation, but it is not the only  leg on which your organisation stands. If you’re all advocacy and outreach, no business and marketing, you’re unlikely to remain standing for long.

Business, marketing and outreach – the NGO’s triad for survival

So when Ms Mtetwa removed herself as leader and made herself project director, she was divesting herself of responsibility for the entire triad and placing herself at the helm of the sphere she knew best. Others were hired to run the business and do the marketing. The result was that the NGO grew from strength to strength even through the Great Recession.  Today Phaphamani Home Based Care Centre employs over 50 volunteers who are paid between ZAR1300 – ZAR1500, qualified Nurses paid at standard nurses employment rates and other executive teams that oversee the business side of this organisation.  Phaphamani Home Based Care Centre will be celebrating 25 years in NGO business in 2019, and it is said that Charlotte is looking at starting an Old Age Home – now that she is approaching 90 years of age.

A successful NGO is a tripod, each leg supporting the whole and none independent of the others. A tripod model makes for sustainability.

Do you see these three legs in your NGO or NPO? Is one dominating at the expense of the others?  Consider what you can do to strengthen the weaker legs, and how the three may work harmoniously under a common, driving ethos. Your core work is still the reason you exist, but without financial controls, a regular income, accountability to business systems and a constant presence in the market place (which may include becoming known to funders), it cannot survive the rough economic seas ahead.