Can NGOs increase mission ROI with private-sector-style management training?

More than ever, donors are taking a businesslike view of humanitarian work.  Where donors once favored block grants, 81% of major donor financing now takes the form of contracts with specific, measurable goals and deliverables.  

This trend has led many nonprofits and NGOs to hire private sector executives, in hopes that these leaders can improve efficiency by introducing business-style management strategies.  However, the high salaries required for nonprofits to attract high-performing executives often meet with disapproval from donors and the public.

Another way for NGOs and nonprofits to benefit from private sector style management is to train existing staff on essential management skills.  Having developed management and leadership training programs for both major corporations and NGOs/nonprofits, we offer the following recommendations for nonprofits looking to purchase or develop a management training program:

  • Make sure the training accounts for differences between organizational cultures.  Management experts often divide organizational cultures into four types: “hierarchical” cultures that focus on adherence to process, “entrepreneurial” cultures that favor small teams and room for adaptation/innovation, “consensus” cultures that prioritize large group decision-making and “market” cultures that value success (however the organization defines it) above all else.  

    Most management training is written for a “hierarchical” or “market” culture, however most nonprofits gravitate towards “consensus” or – in the case of highly decentralized NGOs – “entrepreneurial” cultures.  Each of these cultures have different rules for decision-making and accountability and require different leadership styles.

    So, if your management training program assumes a strict hierarchy with the global CEO on top, when in reality program teams might be more accountable to donors or their local country director, the training will likely create more problems in your organization than it solves.

  • Keep it skills-based and practical.  If you’re an international NGO, odds are most people in your organization have PhDs in public health, international law, child psychology or another subject related to your mission.  Most of them probably don’t have time to go back to university for a business degree.

    For that reason, make sure your management training focuses on skills/application, explains concepts in plain language and offers opportunities to practice applying them in realistic situations that reflect the specifics of your mission, and staff members’ day-to-day work.

  • Integrate new management approaches into your standard operating procedures.  Instead of asking managers to figure out how training applies to their projects, incorporate the new management approaches into your standard operating procedures.  For example, if your training tells managers to have regular meetings with team members to ensure alignment on goals, then include those meetings as a line item in your standard project planning tools.  This assumes, of course, that your organization has a set of documented standard operating procedures… if not, that is a topic for another article entirely.

If your organization is dealing with these issues, or any other learning-related challenges, please contact Sonata Learning.

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Emil Heidkamp is the founder and senior learning strategist at Sonata Learning.  He works with NGOs, corporations and government agencies to implement training and knowledge management initiatives impacting thousands of learners in over 50 countries.