Think small: What is the future for small NGOs?

Photo Courtesy of LinkedIn

Submitted by Bill Abrams, president of Trickle Up

In December 2013, I attended an InterAction CEO Retreat presentation on a study by consulting firm FSG called “Ahead of the Curve: Insights for the International NGO of the Future.”  It was an interesting, thoughtful study but, frankly, I was annoyed.  Its sole focus was big NGOs; all of the consultants’ interviews were with representatives of the 50 largest U.S. NGOs.

What about the rest of us?  How do smaller NGOs prepare for the future when we are seeing more disruptive change, coming us at a faster pace, than ever before? What is the strategic role that smaller NGOs should play?  How do we face the challenges of scale, funding, and efficiency that can be limited by our size?  How do we stay relevant in a world that generally tends to favor large-sized organizations? 

A few months after that December presentation, I began to explore those questions by inviting several InterAction board members to my house for lasagna and conversation.  My first challenge was the guest list.  Where to draw the line between small and big NGOs?  I decided to simply invite those who were below the midpoint of organization size (measured by revenue) of our board members.  The smallest among us had budgets of a few million and the largest were in the $60-$75 million range.

Being on the smaller end of that spectrum (Trickle Up’s budget is about $4 million), I was surprised to hear colleagues who led the largest organizations say that they also considered themselves small.  They were at a size I envied, but they faced most of the same issues I did.  How do we generate significantly more revenue in order to have more impact?  Compete for funding with much larger NGOs?  Afford the sort of necessary capacities – strong M&E, effective knowledge management, investment in innovation – that would enable us to thrive in the 21st century and fulfill our missions with maximum impact?

There were no easy answers, of course, but our discussion did identify some opportunities for greater collaboration and conversation:

  • Sharing expertise and perhaps also sharing services (for example, two or three smaller NGOs sharing one HR director);

  • Sharing resources like policy and procedures statements, strategic plans (or portions of them, such as the environmental or trend scan that most of us do periodically), and other organizational tools;

  • Leveraging the entrepreneurial nature of many smaller NGOs so that they can be laboratories for new ideas and approaches that could benefit other organizations and the development field in general;

  • Creating more forums and “safe spaces” where leaders of smaller NGOs can come together to talk about common problems and opportunities, similar to the InterAction CEO Women’s Retreat every December.

I could only seat eight people at my dinner table at that discussion two years ago.  I hope that the smaller members of InterAction can come together to continue this conversation.  As of 2015, InterAction had 185 members, and their distribution by budget size was about 58% with budgets of $10 million or less, 30% between $10 million and $100 million, and 11% above $100 million.  Who is small?  It’s up to you.


Bill Abrams is President of Trickle Up. Abrams will be speaking at the InterAction Forum CEO track workshop, "Evolving Our Response in Today’s Changing Landscape," on Monday, April 18.

Editor's Note: This blog is part of a series highlighting the various workshop tracks at Forum 2016. Check back every day until April 15 for a new blog!

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