On a mission: Juan Carlos del Olmo, secretary-general of WWF Spain © Gianfranco Tripodo
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The management of a non-governmental organisation, no matter its size, is a “huge responsibility”, says Juan Carlos del Olmo, secretary-general of WWF Spain, the conservation NGO. “In an NGO, the mission and values are the main thing and we must show results not only for our ‘stakeholders’, but for society as a whole.”

It is this demand for results — felt keenly by charities, international agencies, governments and myriad other bodies — that is sharpening the focus of NGOs worldwide, prompting them to seek out the management and leadership expertise most commonly found in the world’s business schools.

Peter Cunningham, of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), a global hub for security and peacekeeping training, says that NGO concerns and needs are now well understood. However, problems are sometimes not resolved because of decision-making paralysis, so leaders want to learn how to influence others. The GCSP recently teamed up with the Center for Creative Leadership, an executive education non-profit, to bolster this kind of training.

Running an organisation where principles are paramount demands high levels of competence. Del Olmo, a former documentary film-maker who has had a life-long fascination with nature conservation, found he faced a daunting management challenge. He is in charge of an organisation with a small budget relative to its ambitions, a high public profile, many volunteers and activists and an evolving agenda.

To develop his skills, del Olmo turned to Spain’s Esade business school, which has an Institute for Social Innovation, headed by Professor Ignasi Carreras. Its aim is to collect, develop and transfer knowledge between companies, NGOs and social entrepreneurs to enhance the performance of each.

The school runs two executive education courses for NGO managers and organises annual gatherings of non-profit leaders. Del Olmo has already completed the school’s Direction and Management in NGOs programme and is now a participant on its Social Innovation and Leadership course.

This programme, comprising five modules of three days spread throughout the year, totals 120 hours of “in room” teaching. It alternates between Barcelona and Madrid, where this year 52 participants are offered units in social leadership, advocacy and campaigning, social innovation and collaboration between companies and NGOs. “These courses are . . . highly adapted to the NGO sector,” says del Olmo. Among the most valuable lessons, he says, were “the importance of always maintaining a strategic vision and a results orientation” and “the need to lead by example and from a place of humility, and the importance of promoting a culture of change and transparency within the organisation”.

Among the challenges NGOs face is the way technology is transforming information flows, relationships with activists and funding. Both of Esade’s courses are taught in Spanish and often attract participants from Latin America. Prof Carreras says affordability is a critical issue for the non-profit sector. The Direction and Management programme, with 180 hours of in-room teaching, costs €3,000; and the Innovation and Leadership course €2,000, he says. Esade subsidises the programmes, also heavily sponsored by the La Caixa Banking Foundation.

In the US, Christine Letts, faculty chair of the Strategic Frameworks for Nonprofit Organisations executive education programme at the Harvard Kennedy School, agrees that affordability is critical.

The Kennedy School has long been a bastion of training for the public sector, but also runs dedicated online courses available to nonprofits worldwide. These encourage managers to analyse their own organisations, looking at mission, vision, strategic marketing, positioning and the cost-benefit balance. Access to materials for the 2.5 week course is free, but accreditation and other options can push the cost towards $2,000, says Letts.

Many nonprofits need help to identify and articulate what they are trying to achieve, she adds. “Marketing, identity and communications is one of the weakest muscles in nonprofits. We have conditioned nonprofits to describe themselves in a way a potential donor will find attractive, instead of saying: ‘This is what we stand for’.”

Recent participants include the heads of a Chinese energy bureau, an Australian spinal cord institute, a US theatre company and NGOs in Africa and Latin America.

Such diversity brings opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas, Letts says, for there are big differences between NGOs around the world. In the US, private social initiatives have a long tradition; in Latin America many are distrusted; in Europe they were historically crowded out by more interventionist governments — though the UK has a robust philanthropic sector.

In Hong Kong many NGOs in the past filled gaps in social provision. In the UK, business schools increasingly expect a proportion of non-profit and government managers among their executive education participants.

Henley Business School, a one-time government staff college, is proud of its modular executive education leadership programme. By starting on a postgraduate certificate course, participants can pay fees by instalments and add units step-by-step, finally graduating with an MA.

Jean-Anne Stewart, the programme director, says combining participants from diverse organisations enriches learning. Typically, she says, one-third are from nonprofits, government or the military, another third from large companies and a third from small and medium enterprises. Basic building blocks of subjects such as strategy and finance are common to many courses aimed at leaders of both corporate and non-profit organisations. But like Esade’s Prof Carreras, Stewart stresses the benefits of leadership that stem from working with managers in NGOs and government as well as companies.

Clearly such leaders can benefit from corporate skills. But in a world where companies are required to assume societal responsibilities, nonprofits harbour knowledge that corporate executives want — including how to manage and motivate large teams of unpaid or modestly paid workers.

A territory of giving

Hong Kong is home to one of the world’s most vibrant non-profit sectors. For more than half a century, philanthropists and activists stepped into gaps left by the British colonial administration to build a cradle-to-grave system involved in health, welfare, education, culture, the environment, advocacy and more.

The scale is striking. By 2010, among a population of 7.1m, one person in 12 was a registered volunteer, and 2007-08 tax deductions for charitable giving topped HK$7.03bn, or more than US$900m.

Indeed, the government of the Special Administrative Region, recognising the significance of a sector comprising 23,300 organisations, even began marketing the territory as an investment location for do-gooders.

Local universities, led by English-language Hong Kong University (HKU), have become involved in building and sharing academic and operational knowledge for this community.

The task is urgent. Cecilia Chan, programme director of HKU’s Master of Social Sciences in Nonprofit Management, says: “There is a serious succession problem in Hong Kong and Asia. A large number of CEOs and senior executives in the NGO sector are going to retire in the coming five to eight years.”

In addition, she says, many organisations are run by social workers or nurses, who need to learn business skills, fund management, crisis management techniques and other skills.

Divide: extremes of wealth and poverty in Hong Kong, where one person in 12 is a registered volunteer. Yet Prof Cecilia Chan, (right), is worried about future leadership of NGOs © Getty

A new generation of nonprofits is also emerging in countries such as China, Malaysia and India, driven by family philanthropists.

But with a dearth of qualified managers, they tend to be run by corporate executives who need to plug knowledge gaps in areas including impact assessment and social innovation, she says.

Today, HKU’s flagship Master in Nonprofit Management draws applicants from Africa, India and Sweden as well as Asia Pacific. But it is backed by a comprehensive range of short courses, with titles such as “Finding $$ to do good”, satisfying what Prof Chan terms “a market for high-quality training at all levels of the NGO sector”.

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