Mission Drifting


There are many issues faced by start-up NGOs, none more so than funding. Without funding the work fails before it even begins. Access to funding is difficult for such organisations, the bigger, well established ones have their pick of the litter because of what they bring to the table. Simply put a donor will ask a smaller NGO “What can YOU bring to the table?” Besides their ability to commit all of their resources and knowhow to delivering projects there isn’t much else. That being said, an option to secure funding is to mission drift. This is a basic guide on the type of questions a start-up NGO needs to answer to prevent (or embrace) mission drift. By mission drift, I mean the adaptation of an NGO’s purpose, goals and culture to facilitate the carrot being dangled before them, donor money. As an NGO Director this means rethinking the ethos of your organisation and deciding whether “just to get us started” securing this agreement is worthwhile.

“There are many immediate benefits when entering donor agreements, having funds to deliver impact being the most important but a deeper evaluation is essential before going ahead.”

Does securing this money facilitate what I initially set out to achieve by setting up this NGO?

Ultimately when a start-up NGO enters an agreement with a donor (be it large or small), the above question should be recited over and over.

Those entering agreements (typically with larger donors), quickly discover that their capacity cannot cope with additional expectations. Donors can dictate the terms of the agreement, which twists of the arm of an NGO that bit more. This results in additional requests for funding from other donors creating a tapestry of interconnecting agreements which need to be managed effectively to prevent a house of cards type situation. Donors enter these agreements believing they’re a cost-effective way to demonstrate how they invest the funds. This places further pressure on an NGO to achieve the donor’s desired results at minimal cost, resulting in increased accountability from the very beginning of an NGO’s existence.

There are many immediate benefits when entering donor agreements, having funds to deliver impact being the most important but a deeper evaluation is essential before going ahead. Considering the following questions is one way to go about this, particularly to gauge a better understanding of the agreement:

  • “Will we be able to help a specific target group (e.g. women farmers, children with disability) or will that need to take a back-step to facilitate what the donor wants?”
  • “Can we deliver what is expected of us by entering this agreement?”
  • “What will deviating away from our purpose do for our brand?”
  • “Is donor legitimacy at the expense of organisational sovereignty worth it?”

By self-assessing, start-up NGOs can visualise what happens and get an idea of how the funds will impact the scope of the organisation. The stars may align, and entering an agreement could be the best move for one start-up NGO by mission drifting, but there are too few successful examples of this being the case. As start-up NGOs are better positioned to get creative about funding, one would suggest having donor agreements as a back-seat option to other innovative models like crowd funding, social enterprise and partnerships. This way, start-ups maintain their independence and remain focused on working toward their mission.

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