Redefining NGOs

Author: Primož Šporar

NGOs risks “losing touch” due to alienation from citizens, problems finding a common language with normal people and tendencies towards self-centered and undemocratic organizations with poor management skills, warns Primoz Sporar


Sure people know about us. We claim to pursue the public’s interest and refer to ourselves as civil society organizations, or in Slovenia, mostly as NGOs. You can’t avoid us. When legislation is being adopted, roads are being built or new jobs are being created, whether that’s on a local or international level, we are always there.

We claim to know the terrain, to have an awareness of people’s needs and interests, we say we represent people, we say we have solutions, but do we? In fairness to the Slovenian NGO sector, we certainly had solutions to the lack of democracy. Twenty years ago, when there was a clearly defined and visible challenge, combatting the lack of participation in our society, it was easier. Addressing this aim worked for NGOs for at least ten years during and after the transition period in all CEE countries. “No democracy without NGOs” was the slogan.
But in the face of new global challenges, NGOs seem to be much less convincing with criticism that we’re teaching our grandmothers to suck eggs widespread. Still remain teaching people to suck eggs. It seems that the mantra “Projects, projects, projects” is just not enough anymore. It seems that people working for NGOs are becoming more and more like many international experts. They travel a lot and learn more and more about their area of expertise, but all this has a limited impact. They spend time on planning, writing projects and establishing programs, evaluating the key issues, sitting in conferences and developing standards, taking care of salaries and offices, paying debts and spending money, but what’s the outcome? You could be forgiven for asking whether I’m talking about the administration or NGOs, they are starting to sound very much alike. But they’re not alike. They differ even in their raisons d’être.
The many millions of NGOs imply millions of raisons d’être, but we are united by one factor – almost all of us think our work is in the public interest, that we are needed and effective. We complain that it is the political, legal and fiscal environment that is not enabling us to play the role we would like to, but is that the real reason for our ineffectiveness?
We have to face some facts. The managerial skills of people working in the NGO sector are hardly comparable to those evident among their counterparts in the business world. Many NGOs are less democratic then public institutions, sometimes they are even autocratic and above reproach. It’s also rare that NGO experts possess a similar level of knowledge as experts from universities. NGO breakthroughs are limited compared to research institutions. Rarely can NGOs claim that they represent people as elected representatives do. They rely on foreign funding so are largely independent of the economic pressures affecting the business sector. They are also often top-down organizations largely driven by donors. Even their goals are frequently donor-driven, with their existence more closely related to the salaries of employees than the potential benefits for the target group. Political dependence on the government in power also harms the integrity and identity of the sector and gender equality remains an issue. Family and worker friendly values are not always promoted. Can NGOs claim to be using advanced management techniques, e‑NGO systems, participatory foresight exercises, social responsibility standards, benchmarking techniques and open coordination scoreboards? No, largely they can’t.
All that can be changed. And we are seeing the sector develop in that direction. We are attempting to be perfect across the board, but is that really the ultimate goal? Should our focus be to employ more people in the sector, to earn more money, to help more people, to account for a bigger proportion of GDP? Are we trying to imitate the Slovenian public healthcare system, with its 7 minutes per patient, so that we have 7 minutes per victim of violence, refugee, asylum seeker, Roma and poor person? We are being told that privatization of public services is THE chance for the sector, that NGOs provide effective and low-cost services. We are increasingly playing a simple socio- economic role and unconsciously becoming factories for forgotten people.
After the first exodus fromNGOs in the nineties, when people from the sector emigrated to political parties, it seems we are witnessing a second. We seem to be deserting and abandoning our roles. The sector’s energies are being spent on finding our role in the world of capitalism and neo-liberalism, instead of on creating a vision for the ultimate open society. Maybe that’s no coincidence. Filling out forms to create statistics about how good we are is slowly undermining our human face. Implementation is conquering innovation. And I can imagine that many people are not displeased with us for doing the paperwork instead of living in the real world and being the annoyance we used to be. But do not be mistaken, faith coming from the government in our ability to provide cheap services is more of a result of their equanimity for our target groups than an indication of trust in our work.
We do still have empathy for our target groups, you can see it in our eyes. We are still trusted by the general public, which makes a clear distinction between us and most public bodies. Although if you listen to NGO representatives explaining poverty, abuses and discrimination, you almost get the impression that they need all this sorrow for their existence. Maybe there is a fear that our work could result in citizens who are so active that they no longer need NGOs. They have to continue to depend on us if we are to continue to be necessary, we are good at having the monopoly on problems. I think competition from other sectors would do us good. Do we ask our clients for feedback? Have we evolved in line with their changing needs over the last decades? You can see evidence of that in some individual NGOs, but the sector as a whole has largely not changed much. People, jobs, the weather, governments and cars have changed, but how have we? Just getting older is not enough. We still expect the external world to understand us even if we don’t provide any explanations, we think the need for our existence is that obvious. What is the biggest change in the perception of NGOs over the last twenty years? Would shifting our empathy and services to unashamedly reaching people be such a revolutionary step? Being as good as we think we are, we could easily earn the money to guarantee a continuing stream of clients. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but getting closer to the real world seems to be an increasing trend. Maybe that was the reasoning behind the recently established association of (reach) managers in the NGO sector in Slovenia. This is probably unlikely, however, as a trade union of NGO workers was also established in the last year. Is social dialogue replacing a civil one? The bottom line is that in an era of information technology, globalization and the financial crisis, NGOs, compared to other sectors, do not seem to be overly concerned about coming up with new approaches. They have no real idea about where to go.
The cult of laziness and abundance is also influencing our work. How else can we explain the evolution of new, local initiatives, organized by citizens themselves targeting concrete problems? They are informal, ad-hoc and problem-oriented. They receive no funds and these activists seldom approach the professional and formal NGOs which claim to be there for them. It seems that we are slower, less flexible, and are losing touch. We do not need regulation from government, but need to be regulated by people and their needs. Unfortunately, not many NGOs are interested in such projects.
Let me remind you of a child’s approach. They are spontaneous, sincere, frank, open, direct, honest and sparkling — true friends. It is so nice to see them being disobedient. They play rather than plan to play or convince others to play. There is wisdom in their games. There has to be, otherwise they would not be happy. Are we happy in the NGO sector? Instead of talking, planning and convincing donors and governments to allow us to interact, we should be disobedient and just interact more with our clients and friends. In the coming European Year of Creativity and Innovation, using the child’s approach may be a niche.


Primož Šporar is attorney at law acting as an Executive Director of Legal Information Center for NGOs in Slovenia. He is actively involved in projects and programs in the field of human rights protection, development of the alternative dispute resolution methods and development of enabling environment for the work of the civil society organisations in Slovenia and the European Union. He is a member of different working groups for preparation of legislation and initiator of many NGO programs in Slovenia (CIVICUS Civil Society Index, US AID Sustainability Index, Cross Border Mediation training programs, establishment of the Association of leaders of Third Sector etc). He actively participated in numerous international events and acts as a mediator and a mediation coach, as well as asylum seekers counselor and children advocate. Šporar is the president of the Slovenian Union of Mediation Organisations (MEDIOS) and a member of European Economic and Social Committee – EESC where he represents Slovenian NGOs.
This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.


Comments by readers

Posted by: Michal

On: Wednesday, December 17 2008 @ 01:11AM

Nice article.. will comment more

Posted by: Codru Vrabie

On: Monday, December 22 2008 @ 04:15PM

no, Primoz, we're not happy :( but neither are children :( especially when they disobey and/or their level of (physical) interaction goes beyond what elders find acceptable, children also tend to become frustrated with the world around, and find refuge in mechanic, repetitive games, such as planning more and more projects :((( i guess you're on to something, just as i was discussing with my readers--but we still have no answer, do we?!? at least one we could accept and act upon... cheers! --Codru

Posted by: Primoz

On: Tuesday, January 06 2009 @ 01:16PM

Dear Codru,

good point with frustration and escape into games (projects). It is hard with answers. As I see it they can't be universal and will depend much on our individual perception and how un-happy we are ... but it is already easier if you at least think about that ...

Best, Primoz

Posted by: dan mcquillan

On: Saturday, August 22 2009 @ 11:56PM

Ha ha. A nicely written criticism, which applies to the UK charity sector as well.

The whole idea of Social Innovation Camps ( is to use technology as way to side-step this, and to re-connect with the directness of the informal citizen initiatives that you mention.

I don't think the spirit of Social Innovation Camps is disobedience, but rather to use the power that the internet has provided to 'act without permission'.

We'll see how much that comes out at Social Innovation Camp Central and Eastern Europe (



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