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Save the NGO

Oct 15 2012 07:00 * Mandi Smallhorne

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SUNDAY afternoon: table’s set in the garden, umbrella up, I’ve even made scones for tea with my friend who works in a non-governmental organisation.

The minutes tick by with no sign of her; eventually I start phoning her cell, which is permanently engaged. My husband raises an eyebrow in query.

“You know what it’s like,” I say. “It’ll be a crisis: an old lady - or someone dying of Aids - or an abused child.”

Half an hour later, my phone rings.

“I’m so, so sorry...”

“What happened?”

As I listen, I catch my husband’s eye across the room and mouth the words: “It’s a child.” He nods and mouths back: “Of course.”

I don't nobody who works as hard as people in NGOs. They often work weekends, nights, public holidays, on call de facto their entire lives.

They deal with the worst fall-out of our society: child abuse, sexual violence, starvation, burn injuries, cruelty to animals, species extinction, desperate poverty and more.

Many are on anti-depressants (some on more than one at the same time); the idea of giving up crosses their minds regularly, only to be dismissed. They fight red tape, uncaring, incompetent, corrupt or uncaring officials, public apathy, prejudice and tradition.

They are experts in law and all other arcane topics relevant to their fields. But if they get paid at all, they take home less than the average public sector teacher (and heaven knows that’s not much).

Money is always an issue: as the present hard times bite deeper, less funding is available. Fewer individuals have disposable cash, international donor organisations and companies have pulled in their horns.

But not completely. There’s the triple bottom line to consider: profit, people, planet.

So companies look around for something to fix the "other" bottom lines, the social and environmental ones, and they approach an NGO. 

“I would like to introduce myself as the corporate responsibility (CR) manager for XYZ.  CR is a core value which we encourage our employees to embrace.”

But there’s a problem here, an imbalance of power: the company has the money and resources - and that can and sometimes does lead to unwitting exploitation.

I once listened to my friend agree to jump through hoops for a fundraising event, proposed by an executive with links to entertainment.

Turned out my friend had to do everything but actually perform: find and book a venue, sort out ticketing and phone Ian von Memerty (whom she didn’t know) to ask him to MC.

Events organisation is not one of her many skills, and was a helluva waste of time that could have been better spent saving lives.

The power imbalance can also make people behave in ways they don’t even realise are disrespectful. For instance, a company said they’d paint an NGO’s premises.

They arrived with PR photographer in tow, painted for a day, then packed up, leaving their detritus and an unfinished job behind.

Weeks later, emails finally triggered a response: “Sorry, been out of the country, we’ll finish up soon.” I’m fairly sure lovely photos had been promptly sent out with a press release about the company’s commitment to social responsibility.

Would this company have treated any other business in this cavalier fashion? Never. But just because an organisation is non-profit-making, somehow it can be treated with immense disrespect.

This is nonsense. The embattled NGO sector is not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have that plugs the enormous gap in delivery.

Instead of mining it for easy-peasy PR opportunities, corporates - and wealthy individuals - should consider their contributions as a kind of fee or toll they pay for social services which (slightly) ease massive tensions in a deeply unequal nation, and heal bleeding wounds that would otherwise become inflamed and infect all of us.

If you’re going to do it at all, do it right:

Be respectful

If you can’t meet commitments you’ve made, explain why timeously. Work with the NGO’s schedule or other demands, rather than forcing them to bend to your needs. Their constraints are often much tighter than yours.

Be considerate

Don’t call after hours or ask for meetings over weekends.

Oh, and if you want to pick their brains (as a film company recently did to one tiny but very knowledgeable NGO), for heaven’s sake acknowledge the worth of that info either through a generous donation or a decent airing of the issues they care about.

Just because it’s not monetised doesn’t mean it has no value.

Lead from the top

... but make sure the bottom understands fully and buys in to what you do.  If you show real respect for the NGO at upper and middle management level, they will return the compliment.

Do it for the right reasons

Remember what former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said? “Good leadership means doing the right thing when no one's watching.”

Choose the cause, not because there are photogenic children or wildlife involved, but because it will have a long-term and meaningful impact.

Embed yourself in the cause and the community, and the result will be a lasting and genuine appreciation fo the kind that cannot be paid for.

Do it

If the experienced NGOs and people were to disappear - as they’re in real danger of doing - the loss do more than hurt the triple bottom line; it would domino out to harm our whole society in incalculable ways.

- Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

 

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mandi smallhorne  |  rhino poaching  |  ngo
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