NGOs should only do one thing

As a rule (with VERY few exceptions), NGOs should do one thing, one activity and do it well. Most household NGO names do the opposite, but many great NGOs out there both large and small do one thing very well and have enormous impact.

The Against Malaria Foundation distribute mosquito nets. GiveDirectly give cash transfers to the poorest people. Doctors without borders provide quality medical care in unstable areas. They do one thing, do it again and again, and do it well. On the other hand, most big NGOs do a large range of unrelated activities and usually don’t do many of them well. Here’s a couple of screenshots NGO web pages, where they outline their large range of unrelated activities.

So why should an NGO avoid doing so many activities? Why shouldn’t an NGO mix in some education projects, drilling boreholes and agricultural trainings? To be Effective, NGOs should display the 3 Es Expertise, Experience and Efficiency – and unfortunately these 3 Es are impossible to achieve over a wide range of activities. And to add the icing on the cake the Evidence backs up the theory that the best NGOs only do……. one thing.

  • Expertise: Any organization that does a wide range of activities will at best be a jack of all trades and master of none. NGO workers here in Northern Uganda constantly work in areas where they have no formal training – they try hard but are not experts. In the morning an NGO worker with a general degree in development studies might train people how to run a savings and loans group, while in the afternoon they run a focus group on domestic abuse. The next day they try and teach poor farmers the best way to plant maize. These NGO workers are experts at no part of their daily job. They are neither accountants nor counsellors nor agriculturalists, but they are forced do an average job in all those areas. NGOs do hire experts (often temporarily) to assist and run their programs, but this is far from universal.

I’m a doctor, and once attended a “training” on malaria partially run by a guy with a degree in public administration. It was terrible, the poor guy tried hard, but how could someone with no expertise expect to teach medical professionals? We wouldn’t tolerate this in developed countries, why do we tolerate it in Uganda? An NGO can’t maintain expertise in a range of unrelated fields

  • Experience: You trust Macdonalds (maybe) to make you a burger because they’ve made billions of them and have built a reputation. Whatever we think about Macdonalds, they are experts at making cheap burgers. Lionel Messi is the best football player (maybe) in the world not just because he has talent, but because he has played football for over 20,000 hours. He has a wealth of experience at doing one thing well. Macdonalds isn’t about to start up a hairdressing chain, and neither is Messi going to start playing professional tennis.

The same goes with NGOs. I trust Doctors without Borders to provide top quality medical care in conflict situations because their operation is run by experts who have experience doing it many times before. Doing the same thing over and over again is the only way to gain real mastery. To learn what works and what doesn’t, to become more efficient, to become the best. This doesn’t mean that an NGO shouldn’t change and adapt gradually all the time and even branch out to related activities, but it does mean that the same NGO shouldn’t do a spattering of wildly different things, like mediate land conflicts today and teach sewing tomorrow.

  • Efficiency: When you aren’t an expert at what you are doing and you don’t have a lot of experience, you waste your donors’ time and money – your work is inefficient. You set up projects and perform activities slowly and inefficiently. A recent 5 year multi million dollar project here supported health centers to deliver high quality maternal health – a noble goal. Unfortunately the project took over a year to set up and only actually supported health centers for 2.5 years – half the total project time. The project was doomed to be inefficient from the start, because the organization running the multi-miilion dollar project wasn’t an expert healthcare provider. They had to start from scratch, build a team, hire experts, consult consultants before even getting started.

Healthcare initiatives should only be run by healthcare focused organisation which already provide quality healthcare. Education initiatives should be run by education focused NGOs which which already provide quality education support.  When the Against Malaria Foundation” distribute mosquito nets, they don’t waste months and millions of dollars planning and developing the project. What they do isn’t a project at all, it’s their regular work They have distributed nets times before countless times. They know what to do, know the challenges they will face and how to overcome them. They have expertise and experience, which makes them efficient and they don’t waste stacks of generously donated cash.

  • Evidence: The highest rated NGOs do only one thing. If you aren’t convinced by these arguments, then look at the evidence. I love the adage “An ounce of evidence is worth more than a pound of theory”. Givewell are the biggest organization that looks at which charities are the most cost effective* – charities that do the most good for each dollar they spend. ALL NINE of their top charities , and ALL NINE of their standout charities , do only one thing, and do it well. That’s right, all 18 charities which made their cut, do one thing, do it again and again, and do it well. Keep in mind though that Givewell only rate large NGOs, so many small organisations may also be highly cost effective, but don’t meet their size threshold for assessment.

So when the pitfalls of doing many things badly are so clear, why do most of the most of the biggest NGOs do exactly the opposite? Why do they continue to do many different activities poorly and inefficiently, wasting lots of money?

  1. NGOs follow the money. One major reason NGOs do many different activities, is to chase funding. Every year, the mood of major funders like USAID and DFID changes. One year a funder might give 10 million dollars to agriculture projects, but the next year 5 million to  healthcare projects and 5 million to climate change. To access all of these pots of money, your NGO has to have activities in all of these areas. You need an agriculture project AND a healthcare project AND a climate change project. Right now in Northern Uganda, money had been flooding in for agriculture and climate change mitigation, so NGOs (large and small) scramble to design projects to access that cash even if they have no expertise or experience in the are. On the other hand If your NGO specializes in only one activity, you limit the money you can access. Unfortunately, doing a whole lot of activities badly can be a better way to raise money than doing one very well.  
  •  “Holistic help” is a better fundraising story than doing one “boring” activity. Stories can be dangerous. Saying “We bought Filder a school uniform, gave her food ever day and paid all her school fees, now she hopes to become a doctor” makes a better story than “we handed out deworming pills to 10,000 school children”. Even though handing out the deworming pills might actually be a better way to spending money helping more Filders become doctors.

    Stories that show you’re helping the whole person, or even the whole community bringing about “holistic change” sound wonderful and attract funding, but as charity evaluator Givewell showed with their assessment, holistic approaches don’t work as well as focused ones. You’ll help childrens’ education more by deworming 1000 schoolkids, rather then buying 10 kids a uniform, books and pens. You’ll improve childrens’ health more by giving out 200 malaria nets, then by providing 10 kids with a “holistic” combination of health talks, nutritious food and vegetable seeds. The story isn’t as good, and it goes against our instincts, but we should beware the dangerous “holistic” narrative.

So where should I give my money?
My message is simple. Give to NGOs who do one thing, and do it well. This means staying away from many household NGO names. Most big charities have fallen deep into the pattern of doing a wide range of activities, and are horribly ineffective and inefficient. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should only give to the large “Givewell” charities however. There are many other smaller organisations, for example here in Gulu Uganda our own OneDay Health (blatent plug) which provides remote healthcare in remote areas, and a fantastic literacy NGO Read4life that have proven they know how to help kids read, and could use your support

What if my NGO already does many activities?
If you’re still doing a wide range different activities, the time to start changing is now. Figure out what you are really good at and focus on that. Work on shifting from an organization that does an average job at 10 things, to an organization that does great job at one (or at least a few) activities.

As always, am super keen to hear your feedback and have a conversation in the comments, on facebook, or through e-mail (which you can findin the “contact” section of the blog”

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3 Responses to NGOs should only do one thing

  1. Sharyn Laing says:

    Nick this is brilliant. I especially like the comments about experience. Essential for efficiency.

  2. Ted Colwell says:

    This is great information since we in the States are bombarded with requests for donations to a multitude of NGO’s. Thank you for sharing.

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