Why strategic planning is a futile exercise for most NGOs

Many local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) employ strategic management processes with the hope of turning around the fortunes and aligning the way they do business in anticipation of improving their efficacy.

Guest Columnist Themba Munsaka

This article critically examines the process of strategic management formulation within the sector. Suffice to say that most NGOs only started focusing on strategic management as a management technique in the last 20 years.

The major challenge faced by these organisations is that it is difficult to measure the output of their services they offer.

The concept of strategic management is mostly applicable to organisations that are client or market-focused.

Most NGOs, however, are not client-oriented, but resource-focused (unfortunately incorrect).

Most NGOs spend the first quarter of each year focusing on strategic management planning and it would be critical for serious fund managers to have an informed and reasoned opinion.
There are several constraints that affect NGO behaviour in formulating and indeed adopting the strategic management techniques and concepts in full and these include, but not limited to the following:

Weak clients’ influence

In most cases, the NGO may enjoy monopoly in a particular thematic area and strong ties with all stakeholders excluding the beneficiaries of the service that they provide.

The nature of the NGO service in Zimbabwe is particularly that there are no contributions from the clients as they are the beneficiaries in the set-up.

The beneficiary has little or no say in the goings on at the institution. The NGO management can wily nily chose to neglect the concerns of their clients because the latter is weak.


Output is hard to measure.

Most NGOs provide services to their benefiting communities and it is difficult to measure accurately the output of their service. International NGOs have resorted to measuring output through indicators.

An indicator may show how many people have been reached through the outreach meeting as an example and yet, the number of people reached is not the end in itself, but this is also depended on whether or not the message has been received and accepted.

This is largely caused by the multi-faced and confusing objectives that are meant to address the needs of their several donors. Inevitably, each funder has a particular thematic area of their focus, in trying to lure every prospective donor, the civil society end up with several and ambiguous objectives.

Strong employee activism

It’s a fact that in order to be employed in an NGO, one has to prove to what extent they can be able to throw a stone!
Most of the employees are activists, from the political milieu, students’ rights movement and a few purely apolitical professionals.

First and foremost, these activists are loyal to their ideology, which is bigger and transcends organisational geography.

This allegiance will undermine their allegiance to the organisation that employs them.

Interference from donors and government

Every investor in any project wants to influence the set-up of the institution. Donors always want to influence the goings on and in most cases prescribe how things should be run.

The board and the secretariat become ineffective to manage their organisation. They follow the demands of the donor so that they may continue receiving grants.

The government also prescribes how the NGOs should be run, sources of funding, the agendas of the funding organisations and what objectives not to follow.

The above characteristics give rise to complications to strategy formulation. These complications prevent reasoned strategic planning.

  •  Confusing programming objectives leads to internal politics and misplaced goals

Vague objectives and tilted concerns over resources gives managers leeway to protect self acquired fiefdoms and interests for personal gain.

The needs and concerns of their clients are totally disregarded in pursuant of the needs of the donor. Boards of Trustees are not selected on the basis of their skills and talent, but rather on their political affiliation and whether they can be used as a tramp cards to attract more resources.

The board disassociates itself from the critical goal of goal setting and strategy formulation and cedes it to the secretariat.

  •  Professionalism simplifies detailed planning, but reinforces inflexibility

In NGOs where professionals play an important role, there is the inflexibility to adapt to change as the organisation becomes entrenched in red tape.
Such organisations fail to notice the dynamism of events and fail to fully align their activities to the fly-by market needs.

  •  Planning shifts from results to resources

Most NGOs provide services that are hard to measure as such they focus more on resources which are easy to measure.
Goal displacement is more evident and pronounced.

  •  Goal conflicts interferes with reasoned planning

Divergent goals are evident as NGOs lack single clear-cut performance criterion and this is more pronounced where there are more donors whose objectives are to be met. A donor who may not agree with a narrow objective may cancel a grant.

The next instalment will focus on the practical steps that a serious fund manager can take to effectively realise the benefits of strategic management processes in an NGO set up.

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2 Comments

  1. Ehh ma NGO ,,

  2. Rejoice Ngwenya

    I definitely do not agree with you, Temba Munsaka. The term ‘futile exercise’ seems to contradict your conclusion ‘benefits of strategic management processes in an NGO set up’. Before I comment, let me wait to read your next offering. Frankly speaking, with the onslaught that NGOs have had to bear over the past thirty years, they certainly would NOT survive without Strategic Planning.

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