A solution for the poor performance of civil society organisations

By Juanita Pardesi

NGOS in South Africa often have and wonderful ideas about how to help other people but sometimes can’t help themselves. Skilful Spaces which offers skills development programmes for children aged 5-17 years, was one such NGO that needed assistance in setting up a proper structure and a system, and got that aid from Seriti Institute.

“Before Seriti, I never had systems in place to run my organisation properly. With Seriti, I got support in setting up a board, understanding the logistics of running different skills development programmes and help with setting up a finance system,” says Nthabiseng Sekhobela of Skilful Spaces.

This is an example of how the organisations at the coalface of development of South Africa’s marginalised communities can be helped to manage projects successfully, something that cannot be taken for granted. Civil society organisations (CSOs) often suffer from poor project planning and management skills, and weakness in building partnerships.

Community development is vital to reduce unemployment, marginalisation, and inequality in South Africa. CSOs are often the link between the government or private sector funder of an initiative and the beneficiaries.

Seriti piloted South Africa’s successful public employment programme, the Community Work Programme and acted as an implementing agent for the programme, playing a key role in scaling up the CWP between 2009 and 2018, managing over 65 000 participants and a budget of more than R1.2 billion. The CWP now provides two days of work every week for more than a quarter of a million people.

Our experience within communities, from different perspectives, including that of funding organisations, has shown us that organisations implementing projects to increase social and economic opportunities, particularly in rural areas, struggle to maintain robust project management standards, learn from practice, and comply with funder reporting and compliance requirements.

CSOs find it hard to achieve the impact that government agencies or private funders want. Limited funding means these organisations may toil to find a balance between doing their best to deliver results with inadequate capacity and bringing in expensive consultants to help improve their processes and systems. They may limp along or finally close.

Implementing CSO intermediaries such as non-governmental, non-profit or community-based organisations tend to be small, with limited resources, both financial and human.

To help solve implementation capability problems and overcome the difficulties CSOs have to surmount, to sustain and evolve their work, Seriti has designed the Seriti Solutions Exchange (SSE). The exchange provides implementing CSOs with support to strengthen their contributions to the communities they work with and serve, using a hybrid approach that draws on the experience and best-practice tools used in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.

For example, the exchange could identify measurable indicators for inputs and outputs to develop and refine the organisation’s monitoring and evaluation framework. The exchange also offers skills training on improved project and financial management and reporting.

The SSE works in partnership with implementing CSOs to identify specific difficulties across three broad areas: programme and project management; organisation-level operations and management; and more technical areas that cover either of these.

The SSE aims to enable implementing agents to properly manage projects and programmes for which they are responsible. The ultimate goal is to systemically improve how implementing CSOs function and engage with one another. We want to strengthen the whole non-profit sector and not just to support a few organisations.

This means going beyond the important work of helping participants operate and grow their organisation. The focus needs to be on changing the status quo; finding ways to empower organisations to think differently, to draw down resources and forge partnerships across its ecosystem and to always consider issues of sustainability.

The SSE also aims to provide a network through which CSOs speak with one voice on priority issues. This should translate into improved impact for the final beneficiaries.

In sum then the exchange has four results in mind:

  • Supporting specific implementing CSOs in a narrowly targeted manner to solve priority problems.
  • Capturing, writing up and disseminating lessons learned and innovative practices, leading to cumulative learning and positive feedback across the CSO network.
  • Encouraging civil society dialogue and raising the collective voice of the dispossessed and marginalised.
  • Increasing evidence-based understanding of the CSO sector.

Seriti is undertaking a self-funded proof of concept of the SSE. This testing phase started with an open call inviting potential beneficiary organisations to apply for an in-kind funded package of support services to be provided through the SSE. We received a total of 105 applications.

Analysing the applications has already given us insights into the sector and its needs. For example, it is clear that support is needed mainly in project management, finance, and operations, irrespective of the annual turnover of the organisation.

Most organisations do not raise the need for monitoring and evaluation (M&E) until they reach a higher level of turnover, for example R10-million. This suggests that the SSE could help most CSOs by showing how important it is to prioritise these kinds of systems from the start. Several organisations have asked for support in social media and marketing, and we have conceptualised a low-cost support strategy, as Seriti has strong in-house expertise in this area. For some CSOs, we are putting together a more comprehensive package of support than others, as organisational contexts vary.

In a nutshell some organisations need support in a wider number of areas, while others have a clear sense of the one or two priority areas they need support in e.g. social media and marketing. Also more comprehensive support would combine several approaches e.g. mentorship for the leader of the organisation; technical support on systems design and implementation; and a training workshop for the team implementing and managing the system.

Seriti is now looking for funding to fully develop the exchange, which will mean greater reach so there is support for more implementing CSOs. In turn, this evidence-based demonstration of what can be achieved if non-profits are aided through process facilitation and skills transfer may unlock social investment finance in this area. This will make the non-profit sector more effective in implementing projects for maximum impact and support the rationale for the continued existence of networks of support.

If South Africa is to solve its interlocking problems of poverty, inequality and unemployment, civil society has to work more effectively and efficiently, and the exchange promises to help this crucial change.

Juanita Pardesi is CEO of Seriti Institute