10 things to consider before starting an international NGO

I’ve decided to start sharing some of my experiences in this field, as there is much advice that I think that I would have benefited from before I started, and the internet is an amazing place where you don’t quite know who your writing reach, and what the impact could be. My knowledge in international charity work is certainly incomplete, and my experiences constantly growing; in fact, I’m sure I’d be writing a very different article a year ago, or in a year’s time. I’ve have had to learn quickly from my mistakes. Please do feel free to add any comments or reflections below, or to contact me at contact@readingspots.org. 

1. Start with WHY

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To make use of the now famous slogan/book by Simon Sinek, I think that this idea is particularly relevant to charity work. You need to have a really clear idea of what your motivations are for starting an international NGO. Once you have established a clear list of your motivations, I would take some time to question and slightly adjust each one in turn. These motivations will be what drives your initiative from start to finish, and motivate people throughout your organisation, so they need to be secure. Sinek argues that ‘people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you are doing it’ – those ‘buying into’ your charity through donating or supporting will be buying into your ‘why’ and not just your ‘what’; certainly, I have found that it is the story and motivations behind Reading Spots that have made people support us, not just the ‘how’ of the library and the books. I would also consider whether anyone else is already doing what you are doing, and whether it might be better to work for them, or at least alongside them. I would complete a review of charities already working in the field; if someone is not doing what you are doing, I would also question why that might be, as there might be a reason. I initially did try to work within the remits of another charity, but they eventually recommended that I set up a separate NGO, due the fact that my ideas had a slightly different focus to their own.

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on my ‘why’ for Reading Spots recently – I’ve noticed that the ‘why’ is the stability within the strategy of the charity, whilst the ‘what’ and ‘how’ can constantly change. My ‘why’ was a desire to make a difference to the opportunities that young people have to advance their own education, even at a young age. I saw that many extremely determined young people (and adults) wanted further knowledge to advance their understanding, but had no access to the simple tools of books. I’m also incredibly interested in global citizenship education and charitable ethics, and therefore the other ‘why’ for the project was to try to offer an informed voice in the field of development education to enable pupils to develop skills in critical analysis and empathy in relation to global issues and action for change. Reading Spots was ultimately founded on the ‘why’ that it is simply unjust that pupils with the same abilities and desires can have such vastly different educational resources and opportunities, and seeks to do something about it.

 2. Do you have enough education or knowledge in the field?

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I’d very much recommend constantly and actively extending your theoretical education in the field as far as possible. This can obviously involve reading as widely as possible on the internet, as well is in written publications and books, but I have found myself that the material out there on key issues in international development is not particularly easy to find. For a bit of background information on the broader debates, I’ve found two accessible text books a vital starting point: 80/20 Development in An Unequal World, and The Ethics of Global Poverty: An Introduction by Scott Wisor. The websites of major charities such as Oxfam are also worth looking through for their advice and resources, and there are numerous articles available online. Most people who run small charities are usually quite happy to offer advice if you contact them – talking to as many people as possible is hugely eye-opening.

I would very much recommend (if you can afford the cost, and have the time) studying an MA in International Development and Education. The Institution of Eduction at UCL offers an excellent course, which allows you to complete it entirely online from anywhere in the world. They also allow you to do a ‘mixed mode’ entry, which I am completing, which has enabled me to complete some units online, and some in person. I have opted to do this over a two year period (starting last year), though you have the option to do the course at an even slower pace. This course has really made my understanding and enthusiasm for the development of education ‘come alive’: my eyes have been truly opened to the critical debates in the field which informs my practice in the field at every moment. I have taken a combination of units in the development of education, and in development education, and enjoy considering how the two different fields might fit together via school partnerships. This year, I am fortunate enough to have been given time by my school to live in Ghana, and plan to complete several ethnographic studies, living in communities where we have Reading Spots, to explore literacy and reading as a social practice. Clearly, it would have been better to do this before I started; however, I am continuously trying to improve my knowledge as the project goes on, and this consistently feeds into how we manage our projects.

3. Do you have enough experience?

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I’d also suggest that it is incredibly important to gain experience in what you are doing before you ‘jump’ into any larger initiative. Even if you have incredibly good intentions and a clear plan in your mind, your project is certainly going to be more successful for the beneficiaries if you do all you can to extend your experience-base. This includes not only extending specific working knowledge of the area of work in question (e.g. libraries, schools, or KG education) but having a really extensive understanding of the country that you are working in. I would suggest spending some time in the country, preferably for at least a few months, volunteering for other organisations working in linked fields. You definitely need to have a clear understanding of how the field you are working within operates within the country – for example, if you want to set up a health centre, having knowledge of the government’s health insurance scheme (if it has one) is vital, otherwise people may not be able to use the health centre if it is not registered. Similarly, in supporting schools, I think it is important to have a clear understanding of the country’s curriculum.

I’m not entirely convinced that I did have enough experience before setting up the Reading Spots project, but I have done all that I can since to ensure that my knowledge is extended. Saying that, at the point of setting up the charity, I had been to Ghana 5 times, I had led a school partnership project in Ghana at my previous school, and I had been working in education for 4 years with a PGCE. However, once Francis, Paul and I decided upon the library-focused strategy, I spent a few weeks visiting the incredible libraries set up by Kathy Knowles in Accra (see www.osuchildrenslibraryfund.ca), and am now living in Ghana for a year. I am doing all I can to gain an in-depth understanding of the local and wider functioning of the country by talking to people in various cross-sections of society, and am also learning twi, one of Ghana’s dialects to improve my ability to communicate. I’ve also read the government’s English syllabus, so have quite a strong understanding of what pupils are being taught in schools – indeed, I found in interesting that the government had a whole section of the syllabus on ‘Use of the Library’, and yet the vast majority of schools in Ghana do not have a library. The syllabus suggests that teachers form their own library with magazine cut-outs.

4. Are the community members playing a central role in decision-making?

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This is absolutely vital. It is really important that you spend time discussing your project with the local community or communities before anything begins. I suggest having an informal discussion with both local community leaders and also people in a wide cross-section of society to ‘sound out’ any possible ideas before having any formal discussions, and understand the complex issues that feed into your ‘why’ and subsequent ‘how’. I’d also encourage you to talk to others leading charitable initiatives in the area, as their advice will be invaluable. Once your idea is growing in shape, it is then vital to have formal meetings with the beneficiaries of your project to discuss the idea with them. They should be encouraged to explain their own needs (and the all important ‘why’ behind those needs should always be found). It is important to form a local committee of some sort (whether you have employees or not) who represent different people in society – I’ve found that to ensure some sort of gender equality in Ghana, I’ve had to specify that I would like women to be on those committees. I’d also recommend that you find an ‘in-country’ manager early on, who can offer constantly advice. I was very fortunate to set up the idea for Reading Spots with Francis Yeboah, a Ghanaian who has offered remarkable voluntary support for the charity.

5. Have you fully considered the possible negative implications for your actions?

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In every single action, it is absolutely vital to consider what the possible negative implications for your actions may be. Seemingly insignificant choices can often have large-scale negative consequences for a community. I’ve learnt to think very carefully about what my role as a foreigner giving aid is, in itself, particularly in countries where there is a colonial history. The complexity of power relations can lead to reproduced inequalities and insecurities further than you might expect. Perhaps consider asking a few people in your committee to draw a map of all areas of importance in the local community, and ask them to talk through what the impact of your project would be on the wider community. I have learnt that sometimes supporting private schools and organisations does not necessarily have the entirely positive you might have first anticipated.

This post I wrote as part of a recent online course introducing pupils to key themes in international development explores the postcolonialist approach a little, but I’d recommend that you read some of the authors in the field (e.g. Andreotti).

6. Impact and Strategic Planning

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It is absolutely vital to think carefully about the impact of your actions. The fact that you are asking people for donations gives you a real responsibility for spending funds in an effective way. I’m a bit surprised that more demands in this regards are not placed upon charities by the UK Charity Commission. I would think carefully about the impact of constructing buildings, relative to supporting particular resources or pre-existing organisations. Whilst we do build some libraries, we try to do this at lost cost and often use pre-existing buildings – the issue is that in remote areas the buildings are not often well-constructed or available. However, I do often question the thousands and thousands of pounds spent on huge church constructions or the constructions of Junior High Schools/Primary Schools – many charities seem to rebuild schools at great cost without providing educational education resources or considering the impact of supporting the training of teachers. I have found a superb quality of education often existing the worst school buildings: I do not believe that a building alone has the power to transform a child’s education.

Secondly, I’d draw up short-term, medium-term, and long-term aims for the charity. I have an ongoing document which I review every six months. I find that it is import to establish long-term aims in order to have clarity about what you are trying to achieve (linking back to the ‘why’). I find that the long-term aims often do shift a little as the charity progresses, but provide useful aims to work towards and helps you draw everything towards particular focal points. Someone also suggested to me that I thought carefully about the degree of commitment I wanted to offer the cause before I started, thinking about other time commitments in the process.

7. Self-sufficiency

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If you are a relatively small-scale NGO, I would personally try to consider ways in which you can try to make the project self-sufficient after creation, such that the project is not reliable on going external support. This is both due to securing the long term prosperity and impact of the project, and to ensure that the project has a high degree of local or national buy-in. However, this can be difficult when it is clear that small amounts given externally may be able to make significant change. For example, we still endeavour to ask all the communities that we work in to fund the salary of a librarian. However, in reality, this may mean that communities rely on volunteers rather than having a trained and expert individual. In Ghana, it is quite difficult to get District Assemblies to may the cost, and other charities suggest that the money does not always get paid on time.

8. Environmental Impact

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It is also vital that you consider what the impact of your project might be on the environment. We are currently looking at getting solar power for all our libraries. We are also looking at ways to build them using more sustainable building methods (although Ghanaian communities do not usually want this, and prefer using local building techniques using cement). We also hope the libraries can provide education (led by Ghanaians) about supporting the environment through recycling strategies and reducing plastic waste by reusing bags and bottles. Whatever your project is doing, there will be numerous ways to ensure that it is setting a good example in terms of environmental impact. This might attract new costs, but is a vital consideration.

9. Do you have enough people to support you?

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Depending on the scale of your initiative, you will need to bring other people with you in order to make it a success. I’d encourage you to consider finding people with slightly different interests and skills to you, and also to try and find someone who lives in the country that you are working in full time. In order to become a registered charity, you will need at least 2 (preferably 3 trustees) who will need to offer a high degree of commitment and meet regularly throughout the year. Of course, larger organisations have a large number of trustees and patrons. I’d suggest starting with 3 or 4 highly enthusiastic people, and then considering growing after a few years.

10. Be prepared to be your own spokesperson

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Lastly, someone once said to me that if you have a business, an idea, or a charity, that you have to be prepared to be the ‘spokesperson’ for that initiative. You have to have a really significant passion for what you are doing, such that you are constantly able to share the story of the ‘why’ behind what you are doing. You will find that you will have to do this with passion in numerous different circumstances – in formal talks, in informal discussions with friends, in meetings with prospective donors, and more widely. This should eventually become quite natural, and I often find that telling stories about individuals and outcomes often intrigues people, and they are usually curious to find out more.

However, being the drive behind a cause can be exhausting. In the process, you will find many people who will not be interested, who will be annoyed by you, or people who will question your devotion to the cause – all of this should be accepted and a calm recognition of differing life priorities and approaches is vital. However, if you are able to maintain a consistent calm enthusiasm for the project in spite of challenges faced, this resilience and commitment to a cause may serve to add further weight to other people’s interest. You will also feel pretty self-conscious at times, and you may not particularly enjoy having to ‘sell’ your own project or idea. Therefore, it is vital to have several people involved in the project, so that the ‘voice’ of the initiative is multi-dimensional. Returning to my first point, having an incredibly strong ‘why’ is the key to succeeding in this – if your ‘why’ is strong enough, and your strategy convincing enough, you will bring people with you. Certainly, the outcomes I observe in Ghana of thousands of children and adults now having the opportunity to read gives me the energy and enthusiasm to continue to drive the initiative.

Cat Davison, November, 2017


4 thoughts on 10 things to consider before starting an international NGO

  1. This information is really helpful God bless your good work sir I also want to start an NGO in Nigeria that aimed to democratizing educational opportunities for everyone child.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. It is really helpful and incredible. I look forward to setting up mine soonest.
      The information will guide me through mine. Gloria Sarauniya Usman.

  2. This information was incredibly useful to me. I’m just at a point where I’m upgrading my program into an NGO and was torn in between starting an INGO or just a national one.

    I’ve made up my mind.

    I would also like to reach out to you and ask if you’d be interested to work with my organization in Kenya. My ‘why’ is very much related to what you are doing but in the world of Film, focusing on knowledge transfer.

    If you’d be interested, then I can get to share with you what it is all about.

    Thank you for sharing.

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