NGOs in the 21st century: reprofessionalisation of the sector

Maria Sureda Varela

We define an NGO as a non-profit private entity that works to achieve a social mission, understood in a broad sense with the aim of improving the conditions of society in some of its aspects. It should also meet the following criteria: it should have a formal structure and be privately owned, non-profit-seeking, independent, and based on voluntary participation. The concept therefore goes beyond the definition in negative terms of its private nature (non-governmental) and highlights its social purpose.

In order to pursue their goals and the greatest possible impact in their action, as well as to develop their own organisation on an internal level, NGOs must have credibility and trustworthiness in the eyes of the various social stakeholders (beneficiaries, funders, but also society at large) and be able to mobilise a substantial social base, in short, to have the support of their grass roots and the legitimacy of society in general.

In order to perform their activity and fulfil their missions in the most efficient and effective way, NGOs need to be professionalised, that is, they must ensure that they have the necessary capabilities and resources to do their job professionally and competently. The sector evolved notably in the last decades of the 20th century and at the beginning of the present one, with a significant increase in the number of organisations, but also in their size. This growth period saw a parallel advancement and improvement in the professionalisation of the sector.

Eleven key elements to consider an organisation as being professionalised were identified in 2011:


More than a decade on, all these elements continue to be valid and necessary for organisations of the future. Nevertheless, in the current context, in which we have become accustomed to talking in terms of volatility and uncertainty (VUCA environments), with the great challenges our societies face and the crises of confidence in models previously taken as valid, but also with more recent trends and lessons that have been accelerated in part by the health crises and associated impacts over the last two years (and with implications for the future), certain nuances and new areas are more necessary for this new professionalisation required by the current and future context.

Although some of the skills that used to be required in the non-profit sector are still necessary (together with other more general skills for all types of organisations), new capabilities are added that will be of increasing relevance for achieving the desired transformation and results. Decision-making teams need to show a greater capacity for adaptation and flexibility in more variable contexts, be able to combine even more than before long-term direction-giving vision with short-term requirements and needs, be aware of how the technological revolution and digitalisation are affecting globally all sectors of activity, and know how to seize opportunities, as well as bringing to bear an increasingly enterprising and innovative attitude (and to be capable of encouraging it in their teams). Now it is necessary to take a holistic view of the causes they pursue, identify relevant systems and players, and be more oriented and open to partnership, especially with other sectors, and to the co-creation of joint ventures.

In the study El rol de las ONG: Un sector en evolución (The Role of NGOs: An Evolving Sector), we show that the sector itself saw that a change in its role was necessaryto give greater drive to joint ventures with other players and sectors for social transformation, and to achieve a broader range of new disruptive solutions to social problems. Obviously, direct action is still essential, and organisations will not abandon this work and will continue to meet existing needs, but they aspire to perform a more systemic and transformative task, indispensable to overcome the root causes.

Organisations must rethink their own role and be open to new opportunities in order to be an active part of the major processes of change that are necessary to reduce existing social inequalities and stop them from growing. Their knowledge and direct contact with social reality should be key contributions to advance together with others and succeed in accomplishing the goals they pursue. It is not a matter of survival per se, but of ensuring they are acting in the best way to achieve the desired transformations.

That means substantial changes in organisational culture and management. And making sure that all the teams are aligned towards the same goals, as well as guaranteeing their ability to work with that orientation. Specific training programmes for the non-profit sector such as Dirección y Gestión de Organizaciones no Gubernamentales -DGONG (Management of Non-Governmental Organisations) and Liderazgo e Innovación Social -LIS (Leadership and Social Innovation) offer content that enables management teams, and therefore their organizations, to advance towards this change. The aim is to develop the necessary capabilities to work along these lines and encourage reflection and to continue to contribute to the professionalisation of the sector.

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