5 Common Mistakes when NGOs start strategizing

October 21, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been having similar conversations in several places over the last couple of weeks, which usually triggers a post. People send me a draft strategy document and say ‘what do you think?’ I take a deep breath and launch in. Half an hour later they look a bit shell-shocked, but (these are NGOs after all), always say what a useful conversation it’s been……

So to save everyone some time on the next occasion someone does this, here are 5 common mistakes that I often point out:

1. Putting yourselves at the Centre of Everything

Activists gotta activate. After a cursory ‘context analysis’ (at best), we’re into ‘what can/should we do?’ That self-centrism means we have only a limited understanding of (or interest in) how the system is (or could be) changing without us. That’s problematic for several reasons – swimming against the tide is different to swimming with it (should we arguing for good stuff when the tide of change is in our favour, or trying to stop bad stuff happening in a political downturn?). In the absence of a decent understanding of how the system is evolving, and where change is more/less likely to occur, it’s much easier for people to default to their preferred topics/methods, even if they make little sense given the context.

What I stress these days in the importance of distinguishing between a Theory of Change and a Theory of Action – that creates a useful intellectual distinction that keeps you focussed on the external world for a bit longer before diving into your planning.

2. Thinking you’re more important than you really are

In a lot of the arenas where we are trying to bring about change, INGOs are minor players compared to the big hitters – national and local governments, corporations, trades unions, faith groups, grassroots mass movements. But often INGOs think they’re big, and so if Climate Change/racism/gender is critical, that’s what they should be working on. But just jumping on an already overcrowded bandwagon may not be the best use of your limited resources – why not identify the gaps, either by topic, or by method (eg INGOs seem to be good at getting people to talk to each other – ‘convening and brokering’) and start there? For the economists and fellow travellers out there, time to identify our political/organizational comparative advantage…..

3. Doing all the thinking up front

Our context analyses, strategy papers, theories of change etc just get longer and longer, and always seem to come at the start of the process. That sort of makes sense, in that it’s part of deciding what you want to work on and how. But it’s also daft, because one thing you can be sure of is that you will learn much more about the system once you start trying to change it. So better to spread the investment in reflection and analysis across the whole period – start with a ‘best guess’ and push off from the shore. Then have specific moments when everyone can stand back and decide what is/isn’t working and what needs to be dropped/changed/expanded (often with a facilitator, as this kind of discussion can be difficult). I’m a big fan of the Harvard ‘Searchframe’ or the ‘strategy testing’ process developed by The Asia Foundation – they both build in a process of reflection and adaptation without tipping over into permanent ‘analysis paralysis’.

4. Looking for a map, not a compass

Hardly anyone will read the big long strategy document once it’s been signed off. Sorry. Organizations and people within them take decisions on a daily basis based on ‘fast thinking’ – rules of thumb. Often these are implicit, lurking behind the arguments over strategy like a spectre at the feast (I think people’s divergent and unexamined rules of thumb go a long way to explaining internal disagreements in many organizations). So it may be worth spending some time identifying and discussing them, although that too carries risks.

5. Letting doubts and preferences about your identity rule your head

Most of us (I’ve long since given up) want to be cool, or at least in the presence of coolness. That unacknowledged fact probably influences strategy discussions more than we realize. I’ve been banging on for years about how people in early retirement make great activists – they have time, resources, contacts and experience of any number of institutions we want to influence. But they’re old. Instead, every strategy says that youth campaigning is the way to go, even though many youth activists lack those same assets (time, resources etc). Not either-or, of course (and I apologise for channelling my inner Victor Meldrew). But in any case, let me ask – do you think youth movements are sitting around waiting for the INGOs to show up and lead/convene them? Thought not.

And here’s my thoughts on a similar cluster of conversations from 3 years ago (relieved to find I’m not just saying the same thing).

October 21, 2020
Duncan Green