Whatever You Do, Don’t Start Your Own NGO

I have often been asked my advice for individuals who are starting their own organizations and after years of nurturing my own start up org, being involved in starting and encouraging a number of others and now on the brink of starting another brand new one, my best advice is: DON’T DO IT! This is a case where I implore all off the other justice-loving, peace-fighting, hard working, big-dreaming hippie do gooders out there to do as I say and not as I do. I’m too far into the deep end of the intoxicating rush of designing logos and crafting mission statements and training staffs and mobilizing groups around common goals to make it out alive. But you still have a chance to save your own soul! Whatever great idea you have for the next life changing organization to introduce into the world, take a moment to bathe in the the very brief euphoria of the hypothetical, and then quickly abandon all of your brainstorms and swiftly run in the other direction. The truth is that there are better ways to channel your lust for making a difference than making one more well intentioned acronym to add to the global alphabet soup of good deeds.

I’m not writing this to rain on anybody’s parade but to lend my support to the idea that the way that humanitarian work is done is truly changing and the future does not need any more MONGOs (My Own NGOs) to flourish. I am also not saying this because I regret starting my own or because I think others have been mistakes. But the way we do things even since I founded my first 5 years ago has changed drastically. We collectively have learned a lot and we’re at a tipping point where things must change to improve and even maintain the prestigious reputation that humanitarian work has held in the past. We have learned a lot from the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and all of the failures that followed. We have learned a lot from Greg Mortenson and Somaly Mam and Yele Ayiti and Invisible Children. We’ve learned a lot from MONGOs that weren’t equipped to handle fame and recognition and the support that comes with it to carry out their grand visions. We’ve learned a lot from MONGOs with very big ambitions and even bigger hearts but absolutely no cultural or professional expertise.

IMG_1219-001I, personally, have learned a lot from all of the ego inflating highs and the soul sucking lows that I’ve gone through myself in my MONGO experience. Luckily I’ve been able to make it through all of those highs and lows, as have the organizations that I’ve been involved with, while maintaining some hope still for the future, but there have been too many days along the way where I have seen the humiliating gateway to failure looming dangerously close. And although I and the orgs have survived in the big picture, there have been too many smaller failures in the process of learning to survive that make the bigger picture much less enjoyable to believe in. (Somewhere in there there’s a metaphor about seeing the forest for the trees.)

The truth is that you shouldn’t start an NGO of your own because in order to succeed you have to give up too much of yourself and You are too precious of a thing to sacrifice so completely to some greater abstract notion of altruism. I know, I know, cynical old crabby doom and gloom. But here’s the glimmer of hope, the crocus pushing up through the cold, icy snow: You can make a difference! But in order to do so, You have to remain the beautiful creature that you already are. The beautiful creature that believed it was possible to do something great in the first place. That beautiful creature that dreamed of a world better than the one they knew and thought that they could play a role in making it come true. Be that beautiful creature and don’t destroy it by trying to start another NGO. It’s the most guaranteed way to crush those beliefs and suffocate those dreams. The people that you think will be there to support you and encourage you along the way will end up being the ones doubting and ridiculing and criticizing you. Or you might find that you get so much support you don’t know what to do and the next thing you know you’re wandering in the street naked babbling like a crazy person while someone videotapes you in secret to share with the world.

So, now if you decide to follow through with your idea for an NGO anyway, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Maybe you’re just a little masochistic like me and are drawn to the suffering. This is one of the reasons I refer to myself as a green mango. They’re masochistic little fruit. Mangoes actually need some sort of trauma to thrive. When nature is the harshest, mangoes love it. And in order to maintain the right kind of crazy to run your own NGO you have to have some of that attitude where you welcome the pain and the failures and turn them into opportunities to thrive. Welcome the bitter reality and still find a way to turn it into something sweet. But even then, even if your desire to help others trumps the logic that says it’s not possible, there are better ways to follow through in this day and age than by starting your own NGO.

And yet, I realize that sometime’s it’s simply safer to stick with what we know. And for years we’ve been told that NGO’s are part of the answer to the world’s problems. That’s a large part of the reason why I am standing at an impossible intersection that leads to building another MONGO right now. Despite everything, it’s what I know, and it would be a shame not to apply everything that I’ve learned in the past 5 years to something that means so much to me. You want to know more about it? Check out the Facebook site for The Mountaintop BAZ Foundation. Make a donation if you want. As far as MONGOs go, I think this one’s pretty damn sweet.

But, I repeat, just because I’m doing it doesn’t mean you should. Especially if you are new to the NGO world, I urge you to carve out a different path than the one that I and many others have found to work. The fact is that it won’t work forever, it may not even work for much longer, and I know that you’d rather be a part of the future. Create the future if you have to. Make it one full of more beauty and dignity and less institutionalized begging and pathetic logos and websites. Make it more about justice and less about charity. Make it a future that down the road, old fart humanitarians like me can say we were proud to be a part of when we were.

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5 comments

  1. You’re absolutely right, Lee. Not only does the structural model for charity (where we stick out our hands asking for money to give it to others who we tell not to stick out there hands) not work, but the conceptual model of charity is destabilizing. Communities aren’t meant to only receive, they need to be able to give too, to participate in the process.

    This “do as I say not as I do” lesson of yours is a hard one to hear, but for those who do listen, a most important one to swallow.

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