A lesson for British charities from Ugandan NGOs

I said a little while ago that working for an NGO in Uganda is not so different from working in the voluntary sector in Britain, and I think it’s time I elaborated. The notion that public services can be provided by charities and other organizations on behalf of the state is one that has occupied my mind ever since I first worked in the voluntary sector back in 2009, and my Ugandan experience has made me reflect on it some more. If you’re not interested in social policy, you might want to give this a post a miss, or at least skip to the end where I say what I think we can learn from Uganda.

First of all, let me be clear what I mean by the voluntary sector. Those of you who don’t spend your spare time (or working life) reading about social policy could be forgiven for thinking that the voluntary sector is full of volunteers, or somehow doesn’t cost money. This is not the case. The best way I can define the voluntary sector is to say that it is distinct from the public sector, which is made up of state institutions, and the private sector, which comprises profit-making enterprises. It refers mostly to charities and social enterprises that provide services on behalf of local authorities. (Hopefully those of you who spend more of your working life or spare time reading about social policy than I do will forgive my imperfect definition.) Perhaps a better term to use is ‘the third sector’, as it avoids confusion with volunteering organizations.

To give an example of how this works, a local authority that has a legal duty to provide housing for homeless people can either provide and manage that housing itself or it can commission the service from the private or third sectors, meaning that it pays someone else to do it. This means that a contract is signed by the local authority commissioners and third sector provider agreeing the standards expected of the service and the amount that will be paid, which may vary according to whether certain targets are met. Typically, the service is monitored by collecting statistical information on a quarterly basis as well as periodic inspection or audit. After an agreed period, usually a few years, the service will go out to tender again so that other organizations can put in rival bids that compete on performance and/or cost. Although the providers are often charities, therefore, the services they provide are funded by public money from the local authority (or other state institution) while both staff and managers are professional people with normal contracts of employment.

That is probably more than enough background, so let me get to the point. I have worked in three charities in the British third sector and I have noticed a few common issues:

1)    The management of the organization always seem to be trying to restructure or alter employment terms so that the charity becomes or remains competitive, which frustrates staff because it means constantly having to defend their terms and conditions of employment. It is a common complaint from staff that the charity is committed in writing to being a caring and good-natured organization when it comes to service delivery, but it does not have the same caring attitude towards its staff.

2)    The charity struggles to have a strong and meaningful sense of identity. In order to be successful in a competitive market of services, it needs a brand. When it bids for new contracts, or to keep existing services, it is helpful if the commissioners recognize the brand and appreciate that the organization is competent, reliable, and committed to the right values. The thing is, most good staff in public services – be they social workers, health workers, advice workers or support staff – are committed to their profession and to serving the community, but it doesn’t much matter to them which logo appears on their stationery. This often leads to the blanket warning that “if we don’t win this contract we could all lose our jobs”, but this is only partly true. Many employees could be transferred over to the new service and simply managed by a different third sector organization, many are on temporary or agency contracts anyway, and some would be entitled to redundancy payments. What the ideology of competitive markets fails to recognize is that not everybody is motivated by competition. Charities can be forced to compete, but staff have a choice whether they want to be a part of that game.

3)    Monitoring is a mammoth task. Collecting the statistical data about every single person using a service requires full-time staff and often expensive IT systems, and they also take up the time of front-line staff who would rather be providing a front-line service.

4)    There can be a tension when organizations campaign and fundraise whilst also providing state-funded services. Personally, I am not always clear whether donors understand that many of the (often excellent) services provided by a charity are actually funded by public money, and the donations may be used for some other (perhaps equally worthwhile) purpose. If a council-funded supported housing charity is able to fund a bursary scheme for its residents through charitable donations, for example, that is fantastic for its residents. But do those individual donors know that their donations will be spent on bus fares and calculators rather than hot meals and shelter? Have they made the link between the government’s abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and the increasing need for teenage bursaries? The need to appease commissioners can also impact a charity’s ability to campaign. How much can you rock the boat when advocating for the legal rights of service users if you are challenging the same institutions on which you depend for funding?

5)    There is a shortage of trustees to provide good governance to third sector organizations. (Trustees are actually volunteers in most cases.)

6)    To me, it seems that sometimes providers become bigger than the commissioners, which challenges the basic arguments for the marketization of public services which are that it will increase competition and innovation and involve the community in service delivery. Small community groups (perhaps truly voluntary) will be unable to compete with national organizations that have public relations teams, dedicated monitoring officers, their own outsourced IT systems and ‘diverse funding streams’. The best way to succeed is to come up with a service and then sell it ‘off the shelf’ to as many local authorities as possible. Innovation is risky – better to play it safe.

None of that has stopped me from working in the third sector – I actually do enjoy the personal flexibility (although completely understand why someone with a mortgage and dependent children might feel differently) and in spite of the challenges I have outlined most people are still committed to providing the best services they can for their community. What surprised me was that when I flew over to the other side of the world and started working for a development NGO, it felt like I had been here before.

Some of the staff meetings here were almost identical to those I had experienced in London:

“We need to improve the way we capture information on our services.”

“Can someone come up with a spreadsheet for that?”

“We don’t have time to do all our home visits because of all the reports due in by the end of the month!”

“There is another organization that has just started providing a similar service nearby.”

“Staff need to be more flexible if we are to meet our targets.”

“The families we support aren’t getting their legal entitlements.”

“We need our board of trustees to take more interest in our strategic direction.”

“Can anyone help me with this funding application?”

Rather than charities, Uganda is populated by community-based Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that are commissioned by foreign governments or international NGOs to provide services to the vulnerable. Foreign aid is generally channelled directly to these local NGOs rather than through the government for political reasons (both due to a fear of wastage or corruption and due to disagreements over human rights). These NGOs are staffed by people who want to do good in their community, but they may struggle to get behind a brand identity that makes them competitive. They find it difficult to capture the statistical information required by funders and don’t have the infrastructure for fancy computer systems. Same challenges, different continent.

However, I do think I have learned one valuable lesson from Uganda that I can take back with me to the UK. In London, my various employers have tended to talk about their ‘competitors’, but here people tend to talk about ‘partners’. Organizations appear much more willing to work in partnership to deliver services, to specialize in certain areas and work alongside others without feeling threatened. It really feels like NGOs are working together towards a common cause rather than competing in a marketplace, and community forums and network meetings are common. I am not a fan of all aspects of the organizational culture here in Uganda, but I think that this idea of partnership over competition is a shining example to third sector organizations struggling with their own little identity crises over in the UK.

I’m sure it happens already in some cases, but I hope that in future British third sector service providers can meet together formally, both to agree how they can support one another and to use their collective weight to lobby public institutions for the benefit of their communities.

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1 Response to A lesson for British charities from Ugandan NGOs

  1. David W says:

    Competition can be good, but as you say, too much is lose-lose for all parties. Reminds me of two pubs in Malvern which decided to specialize on their respective strengths: lots of real ale and no live music in one, despite regular requests; live music in the other. That said, the one specializing in live music went out of business! ;0)

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