5 Tips You Need to Help You Decide if an NGO is Legit
Talking the language of nongovernmental organizations can be pretty confusing, not in the least because the name encompasses so many different things. Charities, community organizations, nonprofits generally, some clubs specifically; local, national and transnational organizations, ideologically-driven or cause-specific.
What complicates matters even further is the fact that while 60 years ago only a few dozen nongovernmental organizations were in official existence, we are now in the millions. Also, while most if not all NGOs in the ‘Western World’ are accredited, registered, and have publically accessible records, how they are regulated and documented in the rest of the world varies.
Trying to assess, validate, and legitimate the NGOs you are giving your time and/or money to is important. Not only because you want to know where your hard-earned donations are going, but also because NGOs today wield a lot of power. They are not ideologically neutral, and they are often strong influencers on governmental and corporate bodies, and simultaneously, are strongly influenced by those bodies too. As such they need to be accountable and transparent to the public they serve.
NGOs can function on different scales and have different priorities. They might provide service to the poor, work on capacity-building in communities, address humanitarian needs in crisis, serve as corporate watchdogs, and so much more. Whatever they do, there are generally a few characteristics and markers you can use to determine a good NGO.
First, some warning signs:
1- Cash only or credit card over the phone: These are generally not good signs, as most well-run NGOs have different secure payment options on offer.
2- Claims that 100 percent of funds go to victims: Every NGO has administrative costs, so unless there is a particular crisis for which they have documented proof as to how they are offsetting or absorbing their own administrative costs, and for good charitable cause, then they are being dishonest and are not trustworthy.
3- Unable to articulate accomplishments, progress towards goals, or challenges: Every NGO should be able to clearly articulate their mission and mandate, and no matter how new they are, should also have clearly articulated goals and a strategy in place to achieve them. They should also be realistic and honest enough to be able to articulate the difficulties they may face along the way. As a donor or volunteer, you have the right to ask these questions.
Now for Our 5 Tips:
1- Clear Vision
An NGO that can clearly articulate to you (verbally or on its website) its Mission & Mandate, what it essentially wants to ACHIEVE, at least has some of its ducks in a row.
2- Transparency & Accountability
An NGO is accountable to multiple stakeholders- the people in need or cause, the donors who fund it, those who partner with it, and, the government. To be accountable to these stakeholders, an NGO has to be using its funds ethically, wisely, and with transparency. This is called ‘good governance’, and involves a system of checks and balances that can be tracked through its public records. They should have financial reports and annual reports, available on their website. These same reports should be able to demonstrate the change that has resulted from NGO efforts.
3- Solid Theory of Change
NGOs, in the end, are largely about development in one form or another. Development is complicated and can be driven by theoretically very different ideas. As such, every NGO should have a well-established, academically and/or socially-backed theory of change that demonstrates their understanding of how they believe change can happen through their work in the cause of their focus. This might be evident in their mission & mandate, but alternately, it might be a different theory of change outlined for each project in larger organizations.
4- Community Sensitivity & Connection
This is both tricky and simple. For a long time, we did not question the fact that large NGOs from abroad would come to local communities seeking to enact change, with preconceived ideas completely disconnected from the needs and values of the people it claimed to serve. This still happens more often than we would like. A good NGO is not only sensitive and attuned to local cultures and customs, it builds from them. It partners with the community to understand and represent its needs, and it sources people from within it to deepen these representations further. The people being served by the NGO must participate in the planning in some significant form.
5- Staff Diversity/Representation:
Like tip number 4, this does not imply representation in a hollow way. It is about respecting the dignity and knowledge of the community. An NGO serving a community of racially marginalized individuals will not be staffed by predominantly white people. An NGO that is focused on reproductive health will not be run by men. Diversity is strength. Even when not directly linked to representation in relation to the community served, having an NGO that at all levels of the hierarchy (from ground staff to board) is mixed when it comes to gender, race, class, ethnicity, religion, and ability, offers more vantage points and depth of understanding than uniformity.
Some extra thoughts
So, in sum, do your research before giving. While most NGOs are transparent and do good work, it is important to ask questions, check their website, and check charity records on websites like globalgiving.or
A note on smaller, local organizations outside the Western hemisphere, for example, in Lebanon. There are many great non profits that do beautiful work and may not have the funds to be formally accredited and assessed, and may not have records online in the way that may be customary elsewhere.
However, that should not necessarily discredit them. Try to follow the other tips for checking their legitimacy, by visiting their location and asking them the necessary questions, and maybe even following up 6 months down the line. Investing in our small local organizations is important, and might require taking a small leap of faith. Here are a couple of lists of NGOs in the country, being gradually compiled by the UNDP and Daleel Madani:
We hope you’ve found this helpful, and please let us know in the comments if you know any further tips that we’ve missed. Also, if you know of any local or regional NGOs that are starting up and should be getting more air time, let us know and we will look into doing some coverage on them!