Photo: imaginima

Driving impact from the top

21 December 2016

NGOs face challenging times. Media scrutiny is ever increasing. Funding uncertainty looms large. Unrestricted, flexible income is shrinking and, as a result, investment in critical yet often hard-to-fund functions like monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) is under threat. Now more than ever the sector needs NGO leaders that focus on impact, positioning it as central to their role. 

However, in such times it can be difficult for NGO leaders to maintain a focus on impact. Widely recognised as important, it is often left to others to oversee. In some cases organisational pressures squeeze out any opportunity for regular, critical reflection on impact by senior leadership. For some leaders, MEL is an unnecessary expense or unhelpful diversion from a focus on delivery. Many fear the reaction of funders, the public or the media when sharing unexpected or negative results.

Furthermore, driving impact from the top is no easy task. Simply budgeting for monitoring and evaluation staff is insufficient. Our experience suggests that to build an organisation-wide focus on impact rather than pockets of good practice, NGO leaders must:

  • Clearly and continuously communicate the importance of learning and adaptation to ensure impact
  • Role model evidence-based decision-making, regularly asking for evidence and critically engaging with it
  • Demonstrate openness to risk and learning from failure 
  • Support staff to reflect on what needs to change and empower them to take action
  • Embed accountability for learning and adaptation in light of emerging evidence

We have observed four broad types of leadership engagement on impact that shape the behaviour of others in the organisation: “disengaged”; “disengaged delegation”; “engaged delegation”; and “hands on engagement”. The most realistic role for a CEO – and arguably the healthiest for an organisation as a whole – is “engaged delegation”. In this scenario an NGO leader resources a strong MEL function and role models positive learning behaviours. MEL is embedded across the organisation, and learning and reflection is seen as the responsibility of all staff. There is a culture which values understanding why things go wrong as well as recognising when they go well, and a sense that it is always possible to improve how things are done in order to deliver better outcomes for the people the organisation aims to serve.

So, how can NGO leaders be supported to increase their focus on impact? This depends on organisational context and priorities. For leaders focused on growth and/or survival, highlighting how a focus on impact can work in synergy, not competition, with other priorities might be most effective. For leaders focused on delivery, sharing evidence of the value of prioritising impact and leveraging donor pressure for increased investment in MEL might be needed. Meanwhile, addressing concerns amongst NGO leaders about communicating complexity and failure will likely require a collective, sector effort. 

Bond has developed a set of short reflection papers sharing learning from the Effectiveness Programme. This includes a paper on the role of leadership. Leadership will also be a key theme at the Bond annual conference, including sessions on Driving impact from the top and The evolution of NGO leadership

About the author

Jessica Greenhalf

Effectiveness and Learning Adviser, Jessica focuses on supporting Bond members to tackle some of the key challenges they are facing in monitoring, evaluation, research and learning. She previously worked for Plan and Restless Development.