The INGO modus-operandi: Hyper-supermarket, Department store, or Boutique? – Part 2

The first blog in this series of three (3) concluded that the INGO, at least in the East-Africa region, mostly operates like a hyper-supermarket. A hyper-supermarket, with all the territorial and diverse product range characteristics of this private sector giant. It is also apparent in the first blog that the hyper-supermarket is associated with consumerism. I dread thinking that since the INGO operates like a hyper-supermarket, consumerism and its vices become part of it.  Could it be that some of the flak the INGO takes for lacking effectiveness despite all its resources, is down to the hyper-supermarket modus operandi and its ills?

This, the second in a three series blog discussing whether the INGO is a hyper-supermarket, department store or boutique, explores the alternative to a hyper-supermarket modus-operandi for the INGO. It is appropriate to make it clear at this stage that we are discussing, INGO operations in the East-Africa region. However, I am sure application of content in this blog is possible beyond this particular region.

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Boutique and its product focus Pix Credit:123rf

Alternatives to the hyper-supermarket modus-operandi and why

The alternatives, if we follow the rubric from the first blog, is the department store or boutique. I want to straight away voice my strong opinion that the department store modus-operandi is a smoke-screen by the INGO, under pressure from its critics, to show more subject focus and depth. The difference between a hyper-supermarket and department store is not the principle but scope. A department store harbours multiple products and services keeping to the hyper-supermarket principle of a one-stop shop. It only differs from the hyper-supermarket in scope, as it will not serve as big a territory and present a wide product range.

The orthodox INGO, under pressure to show tangible evidence of value-for-money (VFM) in its program, is starting to accept that big is not always better. Yes, the INGO has found it very hard to cut size big-bang style. So as a transition to ‘small is not that bad’ thinking, the INGO has reduced size from hyper to department store like operations. As I write above, this is not good enough, or I think.

Effective-decision-making drives high-impact and quality programming, and is difficult to achieve when running giant and complex organisations. We should always keep it at the back of our mind that decisions made, plus how and where, influence the effectiveness and value creation of an organisation. Giant and complex structures are not very helpful to this cause. Come to think of it, I have not seen many INGO’s conducting decision audits.

In addition, this worldly entity called the INGO has found it increasingly difficult to fund overhead costs associated with a hyper-supermarket and department store like operation. INGO donors are in this love-hate relationship with anything over-head. The immediate consequence of the latter is chronic overhead deficits as donors shall allow to cover costs related to ‘pure’ programming work, but only a small percentage of administrative cost. The latter has left the INGO with no option but to consider reducing its size from a hyper-supermarket to the departmental store and hopefully soon, even smaller. Look, we have to show the industry that we are listening to feedback given to us.

You may have sensed from my submission earlier in this blog, that I believe the departmental store modus-operandi is still not effective enough. It is not the alternative to the hyper-supermarket modus-operandi. In my opinion, the departmental store is a different brand of the same drug molecule – it is like having Paracetamol and Panadol in different milligrams.

The effective modus operandi for the INGO:

It is about time the INGO started to make those bold decisions about its modus-operandi regardless of the need to cast its revenue/donor net wide. For those of you not fully in the know, when the net is cast wide by the INGO, the super-market ‘cash-till’ has some coins coming in for any day, rain or shine. We can conclude that casting the net wide in the context of this blog-series, is the equivalent of the hyper-supermarket market/department store modus operandi. In all fairness, both to orthodox, but especially new-generation INGO’s, some have made the so-called bold decision/s on how they want to operate, plus to choose clear and single focus areas.

It is my opinion that the INGO has no choice but to operate like a boutique. The INGO cannot continue like a jack of all trades and master of none. I suppose, it is fair to ask the question: what is the cost of the INGO operating like a boutique? For those of you familiar with INGO speak, this would mean focusing on one sector of work i.e. HEALTH, EDUCATION, Economic development, etc. If this were the way to go, INGOs could not then fall back to the mantra ‘Poverty is multifaceted’ (and it is indeed) and that in order to impact it, the INGO is like a jack of all trades – No!!!!

In becoming a boutique, the INGO script changes to: focus on the one area the INGO has superior core competence in, invest in systems required to perform at the very top including research and analysis. In order to address the dynamics related to the ‘multifaceted’ nature of poverty, the INGO should join a community of practice and have other peer INGOs impact the sectors that it cannot.

The value in a boutique-like focus:

  1. Depth in one area of work and the expertise that comes with that
  2. Doing very well, things INGOs ‘sing’ they want done, to reincarnate themselves: evidence-based work; effective monitoring and oversight; research and analysis etc
  3. A deserved break from value-for-money ‘fights’ with donors and industry observers
  4. Much more affordable and viable operating units, especially back in East Africa
  5. Becoming authoritative conveners and facilitators of development subject matter
  6. Become genuine and not make-shift-experts that feed into the needs of Northern fiscal regimes
  7. If the INGO wants to turn into a fountain of development knowledge in East Africa, as I think it should, an acknowledgement that it cannot do work in all sectors it has ever programmed in, is important. Otherwise, the ‘exporter of knowledge’ mandate may remain elusive for a long-time

An INGO worker myself, I know the seismic shift the boutique-like modus-operandi may cause to INGO operations. Change in: size, leadership-skills, ways of working, staff skills both in East-Africa and INGO headquarters, revenue-effects, paralysis, just not knowing what to do next, fear of death, etc. There is a whole organisational political-economy analysis that needs getting into here. I am no expert in that, but that is not reason enough for me running away from what I know is required change

……..and, by the way, I should ask an even bigger and critical question, well aware of the tragedy in Nepal now. Can this boutique-like INGO address the mandatory emergency & humanitarian response needs expected of any INGO? I think yes, and the answer is in a 4th-generation entity I wrote about in one of my blogs back in February 2015

Like I ended the first blog in this series, I shall this one:

It is no longer about ‘does it work for the INGO?’ but ‘what can work even better for the INGO?’

Could there be a case for going beyond the boutique? Well, look out next week, for the 3rd and last blog in the series.



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