The role of NGOs: the important work of the sector and the need to evolve

Institute for Social Innovation

Article by Maria Sureda, Mar Cordobés and Ignasi Carreras

In summer 2020, during a working session with NGO leaders, a shared reflection emerged: what is the role of the third sector in this society and what role should it have? How has the impact of the pandemic refocused the role of social entities? 

As in many other sectors, the initial response to the health crisis represented a considerable challenge: how could activities be readjusted in view of the existing limitations? In the case of the third sector, there was also a growing demand for social care. Although the sector was on the front line, it was not always considered an essential service. Therefore, the sector's leaders asked themselves: how do they see us? Why have we not been viewed as a key player from the outset? What must we do for the work we perform to be recognised? Although there are issues that have emerged due to the context, these are reflections that go far beyond the health crisis situation, since they question the role of the sector and how it is evaluated in our society. 

These concerns led to the study “The role of NGOs: an evolving sector”. This study identifies the main macro trends that are relevant to the current context and the challenges facing the sector. These challenges already existed in the past, but some of them have increased with the pandemic: how can these entities respond in this environment of constant change and uncertainty? How may global macro trends affect them? What process of transformation must be implemented by the sector as a whole, as well as by each individual organisation, in order that it may adapt, continue to provide a response and have an impact in our societies? 

A key point was to learn how the sector is currently perceived, and therefore a survey was conducted about the role of NGOs, aimed both at leaders of social entities and at people outside the sector, who were asked to give their opinion of the work it does. 

Food bank
A food bank in Eastern Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic

Role of the sector 

One of the principal conclusions of the survey is that the sector shows the need for a change of role. It is considered that the main focus of the sector at present is on welfare work (89% say that one of its current roles is assisting groups at risk and direct action, followed, at a distance, by 47% who refer to empowerment and training of groups). However, the roles that respondents believe should be a priority in the future are working on joint initiatives with other players, thereby becoming agents of systemic change for social transformation (highlighted by 80%), followed by offering new disruptive solutions (49%). Notably, only 16% consider that the welfare-related role, so prevalent at present, would be the ideal role to maintain in the future, and on the other hand, only 10% believe that what it is hoped will become the central role – working together – is one of the principal roles at present. 

Entities must not limit themselves to pursuing just one role, for they can combine several; however, it is complicated to combine several roles and avoid getting side-tracked unless there is a clear priority, which must inevitably be aligned with the mission, vision and values. The commitment to a particular role must be made in accordance with the added value that the entity can offer society; efforts must be made to associate this role with a sustainable funding model; and there must be an assurance of its relevance in the present and the future. 

The conclusion is clear: the sector itself takes the view that it must change and move towards a focus of greater collaboration and innovation. 

How is this process of change possible? 

The report offers some guidelines or clues in this respect. Leadership is key, and those with responsibility must be aware of the importance of leading from a sense of purpose and shared vision. Changes of context require new ways of defining and driving strategies. At times of uncertainty, we must have a greater capacity to adapt and readjust, and we must also have more agile working systems.    We must not lose the focus of our mission and we must remain mindful of the objectives we are pursuing as an organisation, although the ways in which to reach these objectives may change. Working with theories of change may be a useful tool in this respect. 

Therefore, given this context of uncertainty and what may be a turning point, both the sector as a whole and each of its entities must think about a process of transformation, appraising how to respond to challenges such as the following:   

  • Welfare versus advocacy and social innovation 
  • Collaboration and generation of alliances as a requirement for social transformation 
  • We are clear about 'why', but what about 'how'? 
  • The need to increase the visibility and recognition of the sector 
  • Becoming organisations that are more transparent, open and participative 

This process of change is linked with some of the challenges faced by the entities, such as limited resources, exacerbated by increasing social needs; or the need to innovate in general, and specifically with respect to their own digital transformation (as in other sectors, the pandemic has imposed an acceleration of developments in this area). It will be of key importance to work on diversity, inclusion and good talent management within the sector, in order to respond to global trends, but also to ensure that entities have teams that are fit to face the new reality and to reduce the endogamy that existed in the past; this is vital if the third sector is to open up to and collaborate more with other sectors. 

How the sector is perceived from the outside 

Our society gives a positive evaluation of the sector's work: 88% think that the work carried out by NGOs is fairly or very important. NGOs are considered to be essential, taking action where it is socially necessary (87%). When this same group of people from outside the sector were asked what the principal roles of the sector should be, they agree about the importance of two of these roles: they believe NGOs should do more systemic work and be agents of change (55%), but they also consider they must devote themselves to welfare tasks and direct action (54%). Therefore, it is hoped that they will maintain this commitment to direct action, but combined with working in collaboration with other players. 

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