Smaller, younger NGOs to Davos: We have a few tips too

“Wow! Are all the panels that contentious?” asked a Davos first timer as he retrieved his parka on his way to the next session. Delighted about by the richness of the debate I just heard at the Davos Open Forum, I smiled to myself: NGO accountability is far from a dull subject — and I have something to say about it.

Wednesday morning the Davos Open Forum kicked off its 11th edition with a panel featuring a fine selection of civil society power-thinkers, including Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth, and GreenPeace’s Kumi Naidoo. Tasked with teasing out the ever-complicated question of NGO accountability, the panel agreed that the general principle was important, but couldn’t reach consensus on how the principle should be applied, and who should be accountable to whom and why. The session left me with brain candy to consider for days. In reflecting on the panel’s impasses, and my own value-added, one question emerged as most intriguing: What can the sector learn about accountability from smaller, younger NGOs?

Having experienced the growth of a start-up non-profit from its early beginnings, I can attest that every minute of our working life is precious because our human resources are scarce. In the early days, when founders split their time between 990 tax forms and envelope stuffing for holiday appeals, how do we make time for accountability? While we are accountable to our donors and grant bodies by spending their contributions wisely on programs, are we truly accountable to our beneficiaries — those whom we aim to serve.

In the case of Asylum Access, we aim to better the lives of refugees in developing countries whose rights are violated. How are we accountable to them? Asylum Access has been thoughtful about this question since its doors opened in 2007, and it has paid off.

Our size allows for leadership to hear and learn from our client base. Because we are smaller, we don’t need elaborate knowledge management systems to ensure we hear from refugees loud and often. Country Directors open office doors face straight to our waiting rooms, staff shares meals with community interpreters and we stand side by side with refugee leaders in advocacy initiatives. As we continue to grow, we are aware of the challenge of maintaining this dialogue space. This openness doesn’t necessarily have to be a function of size — larger NGOs can certainly ensure more accountability by making more opportunities for unstructured interaction between leadership and beneficiaries.

Soliciting feedback — good and bad — from clients is a must. The choice to use the term “client” represents our dedication to accountability. The refugees we represent are not indebted to us or owe us gratitude; we agree to help them in a particular way and they are entitled to hold us to that agreement. If a client is not satisfied with her service, she is entitled to ask us to do better. From our very first one-room office, we placed our complaints form and inbox prominently at the front of our intake desk. We are also piloting satisfaction surveys. In doing so, we give refugees the ability to provide feedback during any part of the process. This sends the message that we are not only concerned with final impact product, but also about the process — are we respectful and empowering to our clients when we work towards finding solutions for them? Do we give them the choice to disagree or terminate our services? An accountability culture is easily scalable — we have learned that easy, clear transparent protocols work. If the complaining takes more than one step, clients are less likely to offer their feedback.

To be sure, the structure and history of larger, established NGOs are not to be overlooked. They have opened paths and established best practices that many smaller NGOs draw upon when developing their own systems. Yet, smaller and younger shouldn’t connote less accountable or less effective; on the contrary, organizations in their earlier stages of growth, like Asylum Access’s stripped down accountability methods, also have lessons to share in helping us stay true to our mission.

Michelle Arevalo-Carpenter is a Global Shaper from the Geneva Hub. She is the Overseas Operations Director at Asylum Access, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to making refugee rights a reality in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Born and raised in Ecuador, she is also the founder and former Country Director of Asylum Access Ecuador.

This post appeared in the Huffington Post 

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