Is it the end for non-governmental organisations (NGOs)? What will it take for charities to survive? The answer may lie in those that know their work the best: their staff.
Having spent the last three years training more than 1,000 humanitarian, community development, human rights and environmental justice professionals across Asia and the Pacific with United Edge, I’ve been struck by two things that might help to shed light on the future of non-profits.
The first is how easy it is for charities and movements to contribute to the very problems we are claiming to solve. While working in Palestine a number of years ago with Save the Children, one of the world’s leading child rights organisations, I found myself questioning the disconnect between “talking the talk” and “walking the walk”. The charity actively fights for the rights of all children, including the right to be free from child labour, and I remember the shock one day when I realised that their corporate sponsors included Mattel, Disney and C&A -- all of whom have been exposed for benefiting from child labour. For one part of your organisation to be fighting against injustice and another to be actively improving the image of rights-violating companies shows not only a lack of integrity but also a massive lack of foresight.
Of course, Save the Children is not unique among NGOs on the subject of questionable corporate partnerships, and such dissonance is usually not viewed as alarming. On a local level, staff have told us that they are not encouraged to ask too many questions about how their organisation functions -- at times, quite the opposite. Many child rights organisations that we have worked with over the past three years, for example, have admitted that they wouldn’t think twice about where their new staff T-shirts are coming from or, by extension, whether children were exploited in producing them.
We’ve worked with some major conservation organisations that actively campaign against deforestation and then go on to serve animal products during events with their team, partners and communities, despite the fact that the animal industry is by far the biggest driver of deforestation worldwide. And the list could go on….
The conversations about contributing to some of the world’s biggest problems simply aren’t happening within many non-profits. How can an organisation be working for one particular goal and then act in a completely opposing way?
We all know, as individuals, being consistent and putting our beliefs into action isn’t always easy. We understand that we should be exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet, and yet most people would prefer Netflix to a run and pizza to a salad. Even when someone realizes that smoking is killing them or that plastic bags are killing the oceans, it doesn’t automatically translate into action (1). Change can be hard.
But because change is hard, does that mean we shouldn’t be demanding it? Don't social and environmental institutions have a responsibility to act? I believe so. And if we fail to do so, our very importance becomes obsolete. As those tasked with leading the evolution of our societies, we must explicitly demand true integrity and the alignment of our stated values not only in the projects we run but also in how we function as a reflection of society.
This is particularly important because organisations and companies have far more influence than individuals, and as such, their impact is more far-reaching. As an environmentalist and believer in global justice, I’ve been vegan since 2001 in an effort to practice what I preach. Nineteen years of veganism has definitely had some positive impact on the planet and those around me. However, last year, a non-vegetarian friend accomplished something that outstretches my personal impact. He convinced his entire university department in New York to become 100% plant-based for environmental and ethical reasons. Every person eating at the department canteen every day for the foreseeable future would be part of the impact of his one move. Changing the system will always create more long-term change than individual acts alone.
As part of civil society, we (NGOs, social enterprises, movements, etc.) must recognize our position as that part of society that exists to create a more just and equal world. It’s therefore our innate duty as institutions to lead the way -- and not just through our projects but through the way we organize ourselves, respond to power, and the choices we make. Being made up of many individuals, we are far more than the sum of our parts. We are able to shift society from simple individual actions towards systemic policy change, but only if we are fearless.
As a sector, if we were to put our values (e.g. human rights, justice, environmental guardianship, etc.) into action, we’d truly become a beacon of light for society. At United Edge, we call this integrity Everyday Activism. Every time an organisation leads by example they are contributing to shifting society towards a tipping point that embeds certain changes and actions into our now globalized culture.
One organisation taking this seriously, at least in one area, is UNICEF, the UN agency mandated to protect all children, everywhere. In most places in the world, childcare falls to mothers, often on top of other responsibilities like earning a living, managing household tasks, and taking care of other family members. The idea that childcare is something intrinsically female enforces unhealthy and unethical beliefs and practices that lead to a reality in which woman and girls globally contribute 12.5 billion hours of unpaid and unrecognized care work every single day. UNICEF knows that every child deserves the best start to life and that every parent has a responsibility (and right) to contribute to this.
Last month, UNICEF’s UK office announced that all staff who become new parents, regardless of gender or sexual orientation (and including adoptive parents) are entitled to the same generous leave package. Considering that statutory leave in the UK for fathers is currently just two weeks, a 52-week leave package for both caregivers is literally leading the way. It sends out a very strong message that childcare and family tasks are for everyone, not only women -- a message that will surely inspire other organisations to follow.
For many years, Restless Development, the youth-led development agency, has been committed to ensuring equity in their salaries globally. Their global salary scale and efforts to tackle the gender pay gap mean that they manage to address issues of transparency, gender, nationality (and the institutionalized racism that comes along with citizenship), which many traditional NGOs are still struggling with.
For some organisations, the journey towards “leading by example” has begun, but in the majority of cases, it’s too little, too late. Occasionally, NGOs create policies and practices that better align with justice and equality, not because of some internal reflection but because their failings have led to pressure to do so: the safeguarding crisis in 2018 that began with Oxfam and affected the whole sector began in this way (2). Many organisations have now put much better policies in place, but it’s a shame that the shift came from a fear of losing reputation (and the attached funding), rather than a reflection on justice. (3)
Talk of policies and practices to one side, the thing is, we are living in a time of crisis. The sixth mass extinction of life on this planet is already well underway. The climate breakdown has begun. We don’t have time to wait for organisations to decide to do something. We have to create it, and we have to demand it.
At United Edge, we have unwavering stances that affect every aspect of our work, from the food we serve during training events to our team structures and from how we travel to the partnerships we build along the way. They cover how our work should and shouldn't impact people, the planet, animals, politics, the economy and culture -- when we’ll be silent and when we’ll speak up. There’s no acceptable reason why any organisation shouldn’t be making bold statements and brave measures on all issues related to social and environmental justice.
We don’t have time to just focus on our thematic or geographic areas any more. Whether your organisation works on gender-based violence, animal welfare, or mental health, you have a responsibility to act against the climate crisis. Recycling is no longer enough. You need to find out the best ways of cutting carbon emissions and act decisively and bravely. You may be working on conservation, malnutrition in rural communities or supporting children affected by conflict, but you still have a responsibility to dismantle patriarchal notions and empower women and girls in all parts of society. No matter your expertise, you should be trying to actively dismantle a broken economic system that destroys the planet while continuing to benefit the rich and powerful for short-term (and short-sighted) gain over long-term survival. Our previous assumptions about the benefits of a growth-economy are long dead - and we must now lead the evolution towards viable alternative models.
In other words, we need to do what our governments have so far been unable to do about some of our most pressing issues. If we expect action from them, let’s begin it with us.
We’ve been told for years that change starts with ourselves, but the idea of starting with oneself is not merely for individuals. It is for organisations too. And whether it’s easy or not, our mandate tasks civil society with leading the way for global change. The only question that remains then, is how? And this brings me to my second observation from working with those doing the hard work...
The second thing that has really blown my mind these last few years is the simple fact that there is such a huge number of people willingly working long days, living apart from their families and working over weekends to deliver life-changing programmes to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. The commitment and passion shown by these amazing agents of change are nothing short of inspiring.
Particularly in these dark times, amid growing concern for the planet and society, knowing that these people are out there, going above and beyond their already-crammed job descriptions, sparks a ray of hope. Not only are these individuals extraordinarily hard-working, surviving despite the working conditions, meagre benefits and persistent deadlines, but they also regularly continue their work for a more just world in their spare time.
I think of Sheila, originally from the Philippines, who works full-time in Cambodia for two different NGOs and still finds time to volunteer as a climate change trainer, mentor and animal rights activist. I think of three incredible women in Papua New Guinea who, as well as working on a gender justice programme with Oxfam, manage to spend almost all of their other time supporting victims of gender-based violence -- to the point where even during one of the evenings at the training where we met them, they were called upon to intervene in an incident at their hotel. I think of the group of young refugees in Jakarta who not only run their own incredible organisations focused on providing support to the forgotten refugees in Indonesia but spend almost all of their free-time supporting refugee communities and educating the ignorant about their situation. (Side-note: why are the marginalized always tasked with educating the privileged?)
These people - those we work with - are our true power, not the often outdated, neo-colonial institutions we work for. They are changing the world every day. They are pushing the boundaries. And yet they receive very little attention or recognition from the societies that they are working so hard to improve. At the same time, based on hearing from over 1,000 change-makers at our trainings, they feel stuck in a system they know is broken, with little hope of changing it.
Donor requirements, internal targets and ever-interested head offices mean that there is little space to discuss how we are running our organisations. This has to change. Many people we work with have no idea about the drivers of climate change, the effects of the patriarchy or the failings of the free market. They don’t have the time to find out. We must create space for these discussions, for very tangible learning opportunities, and for ongoing supported exploration of issues related to social and environmental justice. Many people who join our events -- people who often work in human rights -- don’t even know what rights they have themselves. We need to invest in them and allow our teams to be the driving force behind organisational change.
Rather than waiting for something bad to happen or for public interest to peak, let’s look inwards and speak to our teams, and most importantly, to those affected by our programmes. Let’s listen to the issues they face and then, as well as designing projects to address them, let’s take a look inwards and start to tackle the same issues internally. Let’s pay extra attention to young people, those who will be left as the guardians of this planet long after our short-term gains have disappeared. Let’s hear what they want us to do now, to create a future worthy of them.
If management, head offices and donors would only take a step back and listen, I have no doubt that the effectiveness of programmes would go through the roof, and at the same time, public trust in the third sector would reach an all-time high because more than anything, people want us to practice what we preach.
These are times when we desperately need civil society, but only a civil society that is challenging us to look beyond the confines of our comfort zone to a future that is worth fighting for. We need civil society to show us that change is possible not through their programmes but through what they demonstrate in the way they approach the burning issues of our time.
Bulky, business-like charities with little interest in broader issues are dinosaurs. Their time on this earth is done. Becoming organisations that reflect, listen, actively learn and ultimately, act where it matters, is the only way NGOs will survive.
Our choice is to become amazing. Or to become extinct.
United Edge runs vision-challenging trainings for social and environmental justice workers from around the world and has developed the Justice Based Approach, a lens to support change-makers to ensure that they are constantly and consistently working towards justice and seeking more holistic solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. For more information see www.unitededge.net/events
(1) On oceanic plastic it's worth noting that people tend to act more when it comes to household plastic than they do about the real cause of most of the plastic in the ocean - the fishing industry.
(2) In 2018, a report was published by The Times in which Oxfam was accused of covering up an investigation into the hiring of sex workers by staff working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The response and eventual investigation that followed led to a response from many INGOs to tighten their safeguarding mechanisms.
(3) One thing to note in this particular case is the fact that the NGOs in question were scrutinized far more than a private company would ever have been, reflecting perhaps the fact that the public look to the third sector for leadership. At the time, I felt it was extremely unfair than a charity would be placed on some sort of moral pedestal and held more to account than a corporation, but I’m starting to better understand what non-profits represent to the public.