Book Review by Sumati Nagrath, BusinessWorld
24 Oct 2008
It is one of india’s many contradictions: despite its vibrant civil society and impressive line-up of celebrity activists, the country’s not-for-profit sector finds itself in the middle of a severe credibility crisis. It is burdened by stereotypes that have been built over the years, and not all of them are without substance.
One of the most popular perceptions about the Indian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) — the key drivers of the not-for-profit sector — is that most are mom-and-pop outfits, where the emphasis is more on the cult of personality rather than due process and institutionalisation. Others believe that many individuals use NGOs simply as means of making money.
In what is perhaps one of the most scathing criticisms of the NGOs, activist and author Arundhati Roy accuses them of adhering to, and even advancing, an agenda that is funding- related, and often not in tune with the actual needs or demands of the communities within which they work. While admitting the admirable work done by several small organisations across the country, Roy, in an article a few years ago, decried what she termed as the “NGO-isation of resistance”, identifying it as a “hazard facing mass movements”. She also mentioned the “fake NGOs set up to siphon off grant money or as tax dodges”, and that NGOs were given as dowry in states such as Bihar. Today, the average person views those who operate or work for NGOs with a degree of suspicion, and is wary of parting with his money or time — a fact that is hugely detrimental for the development of a more inclusive and equitable society.
And even as small, fledgling and truly committed organisations try and fight for respectability and trust amid all this muck, their work is often debilitated by bad management practices, which include raising and managing funds; hiring, training and deploying staff; resource disbursement; communication and marketing; putting in place transparency and accountability measures; and awareness building.
In Doing Good Well, Willie Cheng brings together his rather impressive management consultancy expertise and experience in the volunteer sector to raise pertinent questions and provide answers to help those who want to build credible and sustainable not-for-profit organisations. He asks, “Why does a deserving charity struggle to make ends meet while another which squanders money, thrive?” And finds that this is because there is a structural disconnect between revenue and expenses in the non-profit world. He poses yet another fundamental question, “Would you use volunteers if it actually cost more than hiring paid skilled staff?” And finds that the correct answer is, “Yes, if engagement with the community is crucial”.
Willie Cheng is a former partner of Accenture. Prior to his retirement in 2003, he was the Country Managing Director for Singapore and Managing Partner of its communication and high tech practice in Asia. Today, he spends the larger part of his time with non-profit groups. He was formerly Chairman of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre, where he started applying his management consulting to non-profit work.
The book — divided into five main sections: Sector, Structure and Governance; Nonprofit Management; Giving; Social Innovation; and Doing Good Well? — is an attempt by Cheng to put his experience to good use and help those who have the best intention, vision and desire but falter when it comes to putting the very same into action. Through the use of case studies, he shows how management principles with respect to human resources, financial processes, ethics, etc., are applicable to the charity sector as they are to the for-profit sectors. At the same time, he is mindful of the issues unique to this particular sector, such as the concept of giving (informed-giving as well as donations by the elite), the importance of bridging the divide between the rich and the poor, and the importance of encouraging social entrepreneurship.
With a good use of examples and anecdotes, he deconstructs the running of a charitable organisation both in strategic and operational terms. Also, Cheng addresses almost all aspects of the not-for-profit sector, and in a style that is accessible to all — policymakers, philanthropists, private sector, those who run and operate various charities or NGOs, those who volunteer and those who benefit from such organisations. According to several experts, the Indian non-governmental sector has routinely failed to exploit the huge potential for raising funds and recruiting volunteers from its vast citizenry. People in India give money and time, but they do so primarily for either familial or religious causes. Maybe somewhere in Cheng’s book is the seed of an idea of how to change this.
The original article may also be accessed here.
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