The Double Standards Facing NGOs

Recently, I have been forced to reflect on my experiences as a development NGO (non-governmental organisation) volunteer. I have been a volunteer at Oaktree for four years now. With the organisation, I have had some of my most wholesome and passionate moments. To organisations such as Oaktree, I am very grateful.

The NGO-volunteer work ethic is an acquired taste; long-hours, low-budget but transfixed on colossal dreams. It’s a job that demands resilience, put to trial by wigged governments whom slam down their gavels on cold stone. At this time of year, my colleagues and I are confronted with a familiar quiet anxiety in our collective moral stomachs: foreign aid will be cut, and Australians don’t care.

In light of the new Sustainable Development Goals[1], and their call for greater partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society, we need to start looking at the psychology of charity. NGOs such as Oaktree and World Vision always seem to be the ones rallying against the big issue of poverty, but they stand so small against them, in long and dark shadows. It’s a David and Goliath battle, but Goliath has eight arms and David is without his sling and staff.

If extreme poverty is to be tackled, we need to be less harsh on NGOs, and allow them to work through their growing pains. Currently, we don’t afford NGOs the same standards as other institutions. For profit-based businesses, and not-for-profits, there are two very different rulebooks.

What am I talking about?

Let’s think about investment within businesses. If I wanted to run an event for an NGO I am involved in, or sponsor an advertisement on Facebook to improve outreach, or purchase a new data system, I would be very heavily scrutinised for this spending. I would be asked to justify every dollar, followed with the very familiar battle cry ‘Why isn’t my donation going to those in need overseas?’

While I appreciate the sentiment of this reaction – one which has at its inception a concern for the cause – the psychology behind it fundamentally slows the greater movement trying to end extreme poverty.

Why?

Because if NGOs are not able to invest in their own size and infrastructure, how are we expected to be prolific enough to tackle the big issues? A small NGO which uses 80% of its revenue for projects directly related to its cause will still have less money to use for eradicating global poverty than a large NGO which uses 50%. The percentage of a donation which goes directly to a project is far less relevant than the efficacy of the organisation as a whole.

What I don’t understand is if a large, for-profit business is to invest hundreds into marketing, into products that are harmful to people and communities, we don’t bat an eyelid. It’s conceived as normal. It doesn’t warrant criticism. We have a visceral reaction to non-profits investing in themselves, which doesn’t extend to for-profit enterprises.

If we are to live in a world free of fear and want, we need the vision and work of NGOs. But for NGOs to be a viable force, we need to start challenging how we conceptualise their function. In a world where foreign aid continues to be reduced, NGOs need to be able to build themselves up. An ambitious, expanding, and successful NGO which is allowed to invest in itself and grow will always be better than a hobbled, perennially small but fiscally pure one. It’s time that our donations and views reflected that.

This is an adaption of a speech given to VGen. Cameron Allan is an Oaktree Community Ambassador.