Careers – How to start an NGO
Want to start your own non-governmental organisation? We’ve put together a failproof plan on strategies, tools, evaluations and other resources to start your own NGO.
If you want to set up a non-governmental organisation (NGO), charity or non-profit organisation (NPO), you need to ask if there’s really a need for it or if you’d be better off supporting an existing one, says Vicky Ferguson, director of Glad’s House, a project for street children. “I saw hundreds of youths between 16 and 20 on the street all day, stoned, and there was nothing for them. I asked around if there was a charity that helped them. Then a colleague said, ‘Why don’t we set up our own organisation?’”
The trajectory from dream to thriving NPO wasn’t easy, and Ferguson’s experience offers valuable lessons for anyone wanting to set up their own NGO. “We made a lot of mistakes through naivety. We believed what people said they would do for us. Don’t go it alone, collaboration is very important,” she adds. Thorough planning during the start-up process is crucial to develop an effective and professional organisation that’s able to meet the many challenges faced by the world today.
Here are useful steps on how to go about it:
THE BASIC STEPS
The difficulties of starting the process can be minimised by following a consistent series of steps and seeking advice when needed.
Penny Mpanza, director of the Let’s Build Our Country Fund (LBOC) says NGOs/NPOs are not for profit, so giving should be in your DNA otherwise you won’t last. “Have passion for whatever the cause you are standing for and give your heart and soul to it.”
STEP 1: TEST THE WATERS
Many new activists are ready to commit their lives to “the cause”. A few months down the line these enthusiastic newbies are gone. Be enthusiastic, but before starting your own NGO, consider joining one that does similar work for a while.
If starting your own NGO is right for you, the experience of working for an established one will only strengthen your resolve and direct your passion. Maybe you’ll find that NGOs are not your life calling after all. It’s best to learn that early on before making a big commitment.
STEP 2: MAKE AN ACTION PLAN
A plan of action is your chance to make an NGO effective, address any potential negative impacts and make sure your NGO will attract donors and volunteers.
Make sure you are able to follow through with what you start. Think hard about your action plan. Hard work’s important, but hard work without a good plan is a waste of time and money.
STEP 3: GET IN THE KNOW
Local knowledge is indispensable to every NGO. Even if you grew up in the city where you want to start an NGO, you’ll need to research and make contacts. Making solid local contacts and understanding the locals’ worldview is important if you want to work in a foreign culture. Good use of local knowledge can make an NGO effective. Without it, you may do more harm than good.
STEP 4: ASSESS YOUR NGO’S FINANCIAL NEEDS
Money, when it does come, usually requires great amounts of paperwork and sometimes has strings attached. The quality of the work an NGO does and the amount of its funding are often inversely related. That means the NGOs with less money do better work per hour and rand spent. The crucial point is to minimise your NGO’s need for money. That said, funds can be really helpful sometimes. Here’s how to get it. Filing for 501c (official non-profit) status is a pain and involves costly lawyer fees. Don’t waste your efforts there. Get an established NGO to accept you under its umbrella. Tax deductible donations and grants will go to them, and care of your NGO. Setting up this arrangement could be as easy as a 30-minute talk with your local peace centre. Now you’re ready to ask for money from businesses, grant foundations, and governments. A PayPal donate button is a quick and easy way to accept donations from visitors to your website. Every sponsor or donor gives money with an objective in mind. “It’s important to understand when we approach a potential sponsor – why is he donating? What advantages can they obtain? What PR mileage can they receive from the act?” advises Maxine Holman, MD of Flying for Life.
It’s equally important to maintain professionalism and build trust with the sponsor or donor. Tranparency, accountability and communication are integral parts of the NGO.
STEP 5: FIND BALANCE
Be realistic about how much time you want to give to your NGO. Taking on projects beyond your comfortable limits won’t yield much benefit in the long run. You are worth more to your NGO as a part-time activist for 5 to 20 years than letting your passion burn out in two years. Finding work/ personal life balance is key to success.