Around the world, there are countless non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in areas like sustainable development, humanitarian relief, human rights advocacy, and more. Like any organization, an NGO needs qualified managers to lead teams and ensure the group’s long-term success. In this article, we’ll discuss the responsibilities of NGO managers, the types of NGO management positions, and how to be an effective manager.
As leaders in an NGO, managers have responsibilities like developing an organization’s vision and goals, strategizing and analyzing risks, working with teams to ensure cohesion and good communication, ensuring well-being of staff and building relationships with stakeholders.
What do NGO managers do?
NGO managers aren’t too different from managers in any organization. Their specific responsibilities vary based on the department they work in and the organization’s overall purpose, but here are six tasks you can expect from this role:
Vision planning and goal-setting
Vision planning and goal-setting are closely tied as they both involve an organization’s beliefs, purpose, and strategies. Vision planning is typically a long-term process that all members of an organization participate in. An organization’s vision is an umbrella of beliefs uniting to create a cohesive mission. As an example, Amnesty International UK’s “Vision, Mission, and Values” page includes the statement: “Our vision is a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.”
As leaders, NGO managers play an essential role in guiding the vision-planning process. A manager should be ready to return to the organization’s vision as needed, especially during challenging times such as transitions of power. Goal-setting is a more frequent occurrence and involves both long and short-term goals and projects, which managers are responsible for developing and monitoring.
Strategy and risk analysis
NGO managers aren’t only involved in the vision/goal development for an organization. They’re a vital part of the strategy and risk analysis, as well. That means seeing the big picture and putting the pieces together to form that picture. Visualization skills, analytical skills, and leadership are all essential skills. Often, a manager is more geared toward vision planning and goal setting than detailed strategy development (or vice versa), but they understand their weaknesses and build a team that fills in the gaps. Organizations may also identify which skills they want for a particular management role. If an organization already has excellent visionary leaders on board, they will likely look for more detail-oriented, analytical managerial job candidates for balance.
Managers also need good risk analysis as NGOs – like any organization – face several risks. Depending on the work an NGO does, it can face political risks, physical risks, environmental risks, technology risks, and so on. A manager needs to understand all these risks and develop monitoring-and-evaluation processes. Risk assessment and analysis is a specific job, but all managers need some skills in this area to succeed.
Budgets and resource distribution
All NGOs need good money management. In some ways, financial management is even more important for NGOs than other types of organizations as most run on tight budgets and need to comply with specific regulations. Many NGOs have finance managers, but all managers within an NGO need to have some budget management and resource distribution skills. They should understand their NGO’s overall budget, the department budget, salaries, and more. Many managers (outside of finance managers) don’t have budgeting skills, so developing in this area can help with job opportunities.
Budgeting is basically saying, “Here’s how much money we have to work with,” while resource distribution also asks, “What is the best use for that money?” Resource distribution also involves personnel, like employees and volunteers, and identifying where they will be the most productive. Depending on the NGO’s purpose and specific managerial role, resource distribution could involve physical supplies like medical kits, food, and more.
Team motivation and communication
Managers lead teams of people. The size varies depending on the role, department, and organization, but motivation is always essential. A manager needs to encourage their team, celebrate their successes, and help them through challenging times. When employees feel like their manager has their back and wants them to do well, productivity and innovation increase. The NGO will also have better employee retention, which is important for an organization’s long-term success. According to The Balance Careers, great managers motivate employees by providing opportunities for professional development, showing appreciation, and prioritizing a safe, inclusive, and respectful workplace culture.
NGO managers are also responsible for setting the tone for good communication. Honesty, respect, and timing are all vital pieces of a good communication style. The best managers model good communication, seek feedback from employees, help facilitate conversations, and help navigate conflicts. As a leader, managers can’t just say, “My door is always open” and then sit back. Appraisals (also known as performance reviews) are an excellent way to build good communication. During an appraisal, which is typically held once a year, a manager should discuss an employee’s performance and areas where they want to improve. When an employee has a good relationship with their manager, they’ll feel comfortable explaining what they need, how they evaluate their own work, and where they see their career going.
NGO managers need to build relationships with their team members, ensure their well-being and provide adequate support, but they also should connect with other managers and NGO leaders outside their organization. The NGO world is a close-knit system, so staying in close contact with managers and employees from other organizations is important. A manager should be committed to learning about their field and what other organizations and their managers are doing. Relationship-building can mean participating in events like conferences, maintaining a database of contacts, and checking in with colleagues around the world.
Networking and relationship-building present more opportunities for shared strategies, project partnerships, and even funding. But aren’t NGOs competing against each other? It often plays out this way, but for the benefit of those NGOs are trying to serve, NGOs – especially smaller ones – should adopt more collaborative strategies. Managers can play a big role in establishing a collaborative network.
Duty of care
NGO work can be dangerous and stressful. The 2018 Worldwide Risk Index surveyed 533 global risk managers at multinational organizations like banks, government agencies, international schools, and NGOs, giving us an idea of what challenges face NGO employees. While only 16% of all respondents said they’d experienced a major political violence event, 27% of NGOs said they had. Kidnap and ransom was the 2nd largest concern, while for overall respondents, the concern ranked 7th. Humanitarian aid organizations ranked natural disasters as the top concern. These risks affect mental health. In 2012, a survey found that of 212 humanitarian workers at 19 NGOs, 11.8% and 19.4% reported anxiety and depression respectively post-deployment compared to just 3.8% and 10.4% pre-deployment.
While NGO work and resources target the populations the organization is serving, NGO employees need attention, too. Managers need to fulfill what’s known as a “duty of care.” This refers to an NGO’s responsibility to protect the safety and health of its employees. NGO managers play an important role in activities such as writing and reviewing safety and communication policies, developing risk management plans, providing training for high-risk areas and scenarios, and more.
Interested in learning more about NGO management? Here’s a list of top-rated courses.
Types of NGO management jobs
NGO managers work in many departments at an NGO, so their specific responsibilities can vary. Here are five examples of jobs within this field:
Project managers plan and oversee projects at an NGO from start to finish. They prepare budgets, distribute resources, communicate with stakeholders, monitor progress, and make sure the project aligns with the organization’s visions and goals. To be a project manager, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree in whatever area your NGO focuses on, as well as experience in that field. Project managers need good leadership, communication, problem-solving, and analytical skills.
What’s the difference between a project manager and a program manager? According to Betterteam, program managers coordinate between multiple projects and work closely with project managers. While project managers have objectives limited to a specific’s project’s lifespan, program managers have broader responsibilities and goals. A program is essentially a collection of projects. To be a program manager, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree, though many organizations ask for a master’s degree. Experience is vital; it’s not an entry-level job. You’ll need to demonstrate project management experience, as well as experience managing teams, working with stakeholders, and developing budgets.
Most NGOs are at least partially funded by grants from places like the government, foundations, and private companies. A grants manager’s job is to secure them. Their responsibilities include writing proposals, organizing portfolios, and ensuring the organization meets the application, renewal, and reporting criteria for grants. Grants managers usually have at least a bachelor’s degree in journalism, public relations, or a related field, as well as prior experience as a grant writer. Many organizations prefer their managers to have master’s degrees or at least significant grant-writing experience.
Human resource manager
A human resource manager has responsibilities like employee recruitment, staff training, staff development, and workplace policy oversight. As an essential part of an NGO’s administrative side, they help ensure a healthy workplace culture and good communication between managers and employees. That means helping to resolve conflict, develop policies, and ensure the workforce is as productive and unified as possible. HR managers will need at least a bachelor’s degree in human resources, business, or a related field, as well as experience in an HR department. NGOs will look for applicants with strong communication and organizational skills.
At an NGO, finance managers are in charge of all the organization’s finances. Their job is to develop both short-term and long-term budgets, monitor the organization’s cash flow, and produce financial reports. They manage the finance team, so they are often not responsible for the more day-to-day financial work. Instead, their focus is on the bigger picture, like determining risk when an NGO wants to expand, develop a new program, or make some other major change. You will need at least a bachelor’s degree in finance, accounting, or a related field, though you’ll get more job opportunities and a higher salary with an MBA or graduate degree. At least a few years of experience in a finance department is also required, as well as proficiency with financial software.
How to be an effective NGO manager
As we learned in this article, NGO managers have a lot of responsibilities. The specific tasks vary depending on the department you’re working in (a day in the life of a project manager can look quite different compared to a finance manager’s work day), but every effective manager needs certain skills. A typical job description may require the following:
- A deep understanding of the NGO’s vision and goals
- Strong written and verbal communication skills
- Excellent team management skills
- Excellent planning and analytical skills
- Strong adaptability and problem-solving skills
- Strong conflict management skills
- Good negotiation and diplomacy skills
- Good budgeting and fundraising skills
Curious about working at an NGO? Here’s our quick guide on NGO jobs.