Top 5 nonprofit issues in South Africa: sustainability, governance, voluntarism, and others

Gabrielle Ritchie | Director | The Change Room – 16th May 2017

As I was training my brain this morning by coming up with ten ideas (for anything at all, no limits, no judgement), I started thinking about all of the issues that continuously come up in running/ working in/ managing/ being on the board of an NPO in South Africa.  So I made a list of the Top Five nonprofit issues as one of my lists for the day.  Here they are:

  1. Sustainability: NPOs are constantly under pressure to become sustainable, but what does this really mean?  Does it mean self-sustaining?  And if so, what is the difference between a for-profit and a non-profit?  Or does it mean that an NPO is sustainably able to attract funding support and to generate income into the future.  I am going with the latter.  So stop telling NPOs they have to sustain themselves.  If you don’t qualify what you mean, then the premise makes no sense and it is just confusing and – in my opinion – rubbish.
  2. Volunteers: There are so many people out there with the skills, the time and the will to offer their support to NPOs.  Yet I am increasingly hearing of qualified professionals (never mind unqualified but willing people), well-qualified to offer support in (for example) accounting, marketing, report-writing, fundraising, HR management, strategy development, and other areas, who are being given something of a cold shoulder by organisations. But we know that NPOs are usually too under-capacitated even to manage volunteers.  Its a lose-lose and something needs to shift. I am going to focus on this issue in a future blog, since it warrants a discussion.
  3. Board Directors: in South Africa we promote the ethics of good governance in accordance with the Independent Code of NonProfit Governance for South African NonProfit Organisations – and we promote the international standards around avoiding conflict of interest at a board and staff level.  This is with particular reference to remuneration/ compensation for Board members’ time for Board business, and with regard to Board members tendering / pitching for work as providers/ suppliers in response to organisational needs.  What is not taken into account in our particular socio-economic structure is that Board members are often from within the NPO’s direct community, yet are unemployed and are usually in need of income.  To adhere to codes and ethics and good practice, do we simply not have unemployed people on the Board (where there is a distinction between retired/ not working and unemployed)?  See this blog for some thoughts on Boards and fundraising.
  4. Entrenched Boards:  this is a big, sticky one!  Board members should serve a term of three years, and might – under certain circumstances – serve a second three-year term.  But Board members MUST NOT stay on a board endlessly.  Even if the organisation feels like your baby.  If you have been on a board for more than six years, you are starting to hinder the organisation. Yes, really.  Your thinking is stale, your resistance to change and new initiatives is damaging, and you are starting to treat the organisation as if things must be done a certain way “because that’s how we do things here”. No, Board members.  Move on.  You are doing your organisation a dis-service.  It is your job as a Board to ensure that new, suitable, energetic and committed Board members are identified, stewarded, invited to be Board members, and are then inducted and trained thoroughly in what it means to be a Board member of that NPO and what is required of Board members. So if you are thinking you need to stay because there is nobody to take over, you have failed.  Ensure there are strong candidates lined up – because life happens and you never know when you might need to recruit new Board members. Know who your next board members are!
  5. Donors: some fundraising models will tell you that fundraising is all about relationships.  Does that then mean that community-based organisations which are English-second language, and rural (and are marginalised in other ways as well) won’t be able to raise funding?  Or do we relegate these organisations into the “cold-calling/ spray-and-pray” bucket and wish them luck?  Since it is overwhelmingly challenging for such organisations to build relationships with well-resourced and wealthy business people and other professionals, what are the key routes to attracting funding for community-based organisations? See this previous blog for thoughts on the challenges faced by so many NPOs, and this blog for insights into what donors are looking for in an application/ proposal.

The top five issues impacting your NPO will depend on your geographic location, the size of the organisation, the effectiveness of your board, the resources you already have to invest in scaling up your fundraising work, and your organisational capacity to host, support and leverage the value offered by volunteers.

Feeling challenged? What are your top five issues right now? Post them here and I would be happy to provide quick pointers in response 🙂

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One thought on “Top 5 nonprofit issues in South Africa: sustainability, governance, voluntarism, and others

  1. Many years ago when talking about the use of volunteers in primary health care I used the term voluntarism and was corrected by our local communist. He said that voluntarism had a very specific meaning for communists (I forget what) and that I should use volunteerism. Having checked the dictionary after reading your blog I find that there is no such term as volunteerism and that you are absolutely correct in using voluntarism – thank you for that.

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