All posts by Akhila Kolisetty

Akhila Kolisetty serves as a Development Advisor of Justice for All Organization (JFAO), a non-profit that works to strengthen the rule of law and expand access to legal services for women and girls in Afghanistan. Starting in fall 2012, she is also a student at Harvard Law School, and aspires to a career in human rights and development, with a focus on community-based legal services and women's rights. In the past, she's studied legal empowerment at the grassroots level with BRAC in Bangladesh, worked with a civil rights law firm in Washington D.C., and counseled South Asian immigrant survivors of domestic violence. She graduated from Northwestern University in 2010, where she studied at the London School of Economics and wrote an honours thesis on transitional justice in Rwanda and Sierra Leone. This is a cross post from her blog.

What makes an effective non-profit?

In my time working with non-profits and international aid organizations over the years, I’ve noticed certain qualities that make non-profits particularly effective – ultimately for the beneficiaries of the work being done, but also for staff members and volunteers. Of course, since non-profits range so widely in the issues they address, I recognize that it’s difficult to generalize. However, here are some qualities I have observed – particularly in organizations that do direct service work, or that work directly with marginalized groups and communities anywhere in the world:

A non-hierarchical structure

Some of the best organizations I’ve worked with have adopted a more non-hierarchical structure; everyone is welcome to have a voice, to express their opinions, and to take on responsibilities according to their skills and talents. This type of open structure gives everyone a say, rather than just the top management, and I believe is in line with social justice efforts. Certainly, some structure is necessary for any organization. However, even a large organization can retain the philosophy of valuing every employee – from the Executive Director down to the lowest intern on the career ladder. A non-hierarchical structure means that employees and even interns feel that their ideas and contributions are valued by the organization, and feel they are welcomed to do more than what their job position might call for. Employees are able to work with creativity and a spirit of innovation, no matter their place in the organization.

Lead by and for clients and beneficiaries

Organizations that serve particular marginalized groups or communities should ultimately be lead by members of those communities, local leaders, and people who have experienced struggles themselves. Organizations aiming to support Afghan women should be led by Afghan women. Non-profits striving to provide services for survivors of domestic and gender-based violence should have their leadership composed of those who are survivors themselves. Groups serving the incarcerated should be led by those who have been through the criminal justice system themselves, while NGOs addressing health disparities should certainly employ many who have struggled with access to healthcare themselves.

Those who are oppressed, who have faced poverty, violence or discrimination themselves should be the ones to lead organizations that are ultimately striving to help their communities. This is a fundamental concept that many social entrepreneurs and non-profit Executive Directors do not fully embrace, quite understandably because it would mean putting many of those from more privileged background out of work. But in my opinion, organizations that are not led by those who have struggled may not be the best at serving the needs of their communities. We all need to collectively recognize this, even if it means questioning our own roles as leaders – rather than allies – in this work.

Has a clear, inspirational vision

To succeed, any non-profit organization must have a clear vision and mission. A vision allows the organization to clearly define its role and its future direction. A mission defines the specific way it hopes to achieve that vision – through specific types of programs or initiatives. A non-profit that has a defined ‘theory of change’ – how it hopes to make change actually happen –  is more likely to be successful. Without sticking to a model or theory of change, non-profits will not have any sense of where they are going or how to get there. A structured ‘model’ helps organizations to set up programs appropriately, as well as to say ‘no’ to foundations, donors or collaborators who seek to influence programs in a different direction. Some organizations are inclined to agree to every opportunity or every grant that comes their way, without deep and sustained thought as to whether a particular type of project or grant intervention actually resonates with the non-profit’s model, theory of change, or broader vision.

Willing to ‘do whatever it takes’

Non-profits are, obviously, in the business of doing good. But surprisingly, many of them are afraid to rock the boat and take risks. Many organizations are happy to get funding and keep their programs going, without a desire to really challenge the broader structures in society that allow injustices to continue. They are addressing the symptoms, but not the causes of injustice, discrimination, inequality, and exploitation. There is a fear of failure – of alienating funders and donors and of attracting negative attention – if risks are taken. But those NGO leaders who are willing to ‘do what it takes’ will think bigger and be willing to take risks if it means that they can bring change. And sometimes, those that are willing to think big, say what needs to be said, and do whatever it takes – even if it might be unpopular – are the people who will change and define history.

Diversified funding sources

Many non-profits, unfortunately, are heavily dependent on foundations for their annual budgets. However, foundations are likely to have restrictions on their funding, may try to steer your organization in a certain direction that is relevant to their own foundation priorities, or may even drop funding in any given year if their priorities shift. Non-profits need to diversify their funding, reduce dependence on large foundations, and ensure that larger portions of their budgets come from individual giving. Creative options for self-sustaining organizations – such as social business or profit-making projects – should also be explored. The more self-reliant an organization is, the more free it is to be accountable to its beneficiaries, to be flexible and change programs if they aren’t working, and to take risks.

Willingness to admit and address failure

In 2008, Engineers Without Borders Canada made splashes when it began publicity admitting its failures through an ‘Annual Failure Report.’ The organization went on to create AdmittingFailure.com, which encourages the development community to recognize and learn from, rather than hide away, its failures. My experience working at BRAC – the largest development NGO from the global South – taught me the importance of the capacity for self-criticism. BRAC has developed a relentless ethic for ‘learning’ and innovation, which frequently manifests itself in self-criticism. The organization constantly commissions reports by its Research and Evaluation Division (RED) to evaluate the effectiveness of their programs. A quick look at these reports reveals that they are often highly negative, almost relentlessly critical and filled with suggestions for change. The reports are available to the general public, but BRAC uses them internally to constantly improve their programs.

Organizations that are willing to admit failure are also most likely to be open to flexibility and change: they are willing to change course if a program isn’t working, and to drop some programs altogether if necessary. In the best case scenario, every employee is encouraged to provide honest feedback and criticism about what’s not working when it comes to the organization’s programs – and also encouraged to take steps to actually address those problems. Non-profits need to have the spirit of learning and self-criticism at all levels for things to actually change; senior managers need to be open to criticism and to admitting that things need to improve. Only then can non-profits best serve their communities as well as constantly innovate to do better work.

What are your thoughts? What are some defining qualities of effective non-profits?

This is a cross-post from Journeys towards Justice, Akhila Kolisetty’s own blog. Check it out here.