on entrepreneurship and NGOs

This post is in response to – or rather, a disgression on – Tom’s post a couple of weeks ago on his blog A View from the Cave. These are my thoughts, unadulterated, on the topic of whether “one person can create change.” I’m sure there are plenty of contradicting, conflicting ideas you’ll read below. This is a topic I care about and think about a lot, and my thoughts are still evolving. Please, please do comment and challenge me where you think I’m wrong.


Tom, over at A View From The Cave, recently wrote a post pondering why it seems (and sometimes is) so easy for aid industry outsiders to enter the aid world. This is part of a broader discussion which has been unfolding for a few months on Twitter (and elsewhere since forever), about the role of volunteers and non-professionals in humanitarian aid and development.

I generally agree with J. from Tales from the Hood that development and aid should be left to professionally trained and capable people. I also agree with nearly 100% of what is written on the superb “Good Intentions are Not Enough” blog. In Tom’s post, he wonders why it keeps happening – why do well-intentioned but untrained people think they can create change successfully?

It’s an excellent question, one worth asking in the age of E-Z charity. One thing that I find striking, though, when I peruse the reactions of aid professionals, is the general unwillingness to believe in the capacity of individuals to have not just good intentions, but also a valid framework for taking action.

As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on whether small-scale, grassroots initiatives and NGO entrepreneurs are qualified or able to make a positive impact. I’m always taken aback by how aid professionals so easily write off these efforts. Particularly given the huge diversity that this field represents, and given that they are often the same people who are the most powerful critics of their own industry. If change is so slow to occur within the industry itself, what’s so wrong with working on the periphery of it?


There is a paradoxical aspect to aid workers criticizing outsiders, since they often are the first ones to pick apart faulty projects and obsolete mindsets in their own industry. Recent, select thoughts from industry insiders:

“INGOs may do many good things, but they are basically not structured to deliver effective aid to the poor. They are structured achieve and maintain their own existence. And while it is easy to want to point at the large household charities as examples, it is no less true of the smaller ones.”

“I don’t know of a major disaster where, six months later, commitments had been fulfilled and serious progress made. That alone should make it obvious that this is not a bug in the system, but a feature – and that feature is the persistent exclusion of affected communities even while the language of inclusion is spoken.”

Aid shares features with pretty much any other professional field of activity:

  • A powerful, resource-rich industrial complex exists at the center. It includes state actors (donor governments and development agencies) and non-state actors (large INGOs; the UN and its agencies). Together, they form the “establishment.”
  • The existence of a well-established industry inevitably give rise to reactionaries; people for who innovation and risk-taking outside the boundaries of their world are heresy because they threaten the status-quo.
  • People both within and outside the establishment are seeing cracks in the system’s architecture: whether it be ill-conceived projects, lack of transparency, mis-allocation of funds or outdated operating procedures. As a result, innovation (good and bad) occurs at the margins.
  • Interestingly, it is often the same people who are the harshest critics of their own industry who are also the ones who dismiss outsiders’ efforts to break free from the prevailing M.O.


I should be clear that I do not – at all, ever – condone amateurish work. Whether it be in aid or any other field, it’s difficult to think of instances where dilettantes are better equipped than trained professionals. I think we need large, well-established professional NGOs with the resources (financial, human, institutional and otherwise) to do things that no single person or entrepreneur can accomplish on their own. So, with this caveat, let’s talk about why I think entrepreneurship in aid is important and why efforts in that space should be encouraged.

Sure, no single person can create long-lasting change, and successfully developing an aid project or organization takes a special kind of person and a real commitment. But if we stifle the creativity and wherewithal of entrepreneurs before they even have the opportunity to try – and potentially fail – then change isn’t going to happen, at all.


I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that when a bunch of crazy French doctors decided to create Doctors without Borders during the Biafra war, everyone around them must have thought they were absolutely off their rockers.

What about Henri Dunant, the idealistic businessman whose disgust with the horrors of Napoleonic wars lead to the creation of the Red Cross? (Did you catch that? Henry Dunant was a businessman with no experience in anything remotely connected to humanitarian aid)

There are several types of aid entrepreneurs; a fact that sometimes seems to get lost on critics and supporters of NGO entrepreneurs alike. Not everyone is an Henri Dunant, Bernard Kouchner or Greg Mortenson, obviously – there are also the Jasons of this world, the soles4souls and and one of my personal favorites, little pillow dresses. These are the types of initiative that are, essentially, purely fueled with good intentions. No research or real thought has gone into creating these initiatives. I have yet to see an aid professional be involved with one of these initiatives, and whenever they do chime in, aid workers are scolded for being elitist and belittling the pure motives of said initiative.


But then there are also many brilliant, creative, intelligent people who hail from various backgrounds and industries who have jumped into the fray. To name a few organizations who emerged from the efforts of non-aid workers but who distinguish themselves from the aforementioned amateurs by their quality:

  • Solar Sister: Founder Katherine Lucey was an investment banker for 20 years before starting to work on how to empower women through market based solutions
  • The GO Campaign: Founder Scott Fifer was a Hollywood TV and film screenwriter and former Wall Street attorney and U.S. Senate aide. The GO Campaign funds local, grassroots projects in Africa that have a direct impact in communities.
  • Forge: Founder Kjerstin Erickson started this NGO when she was a junior in Stanford. FORGE has implemented over 60 community development projects that have served more than 70,000 refugees in the four refugee camps in Zambia & Botwana. An official Operating Partner of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), FORGE works in Zambia, hand-in-hand with refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan.


This question of the value of NGO/non-profit entrepreneurs is something I think about every day and affects me personally. About three and half years ago, towards the end of my masters program, I spent two months volunteering in a refugee camp in Ghana (gasp! horror! are you still going to read the rest of this blog, or have I been catalogued as a poser?)

In spite of the fact that I had no training in community health, I was asked to create a health education curriculum for children ages 5 through 18 who were students at the Carolyn A. Miller school, the only tuition-free school in a refugee settlement of 40,000. I remember feeling ill equipped to handle the task I had been assigned, and that’s a real understatement, trust me. Thankfully, by relying on the expertise of local doctors, nurses, health workers and community members, I was able to develop a basic health curriculum that the school I was assigned to was able to implement. After two months living and working with this community, when I left, I felt compelled to continue being engaged with them.

The Niapele office in Liberia

I never set out to create an NGO; it wasn’t part of my plans. I wanted to find a way to continue working with a community that really touched me and I felt close to. I didn’t want to just give money and hand-outs; I wanted to avoid creating the situations of dependency which I kept coming across, over and over again, during my time there. Along with my friend Celina Guich, we set out to develop a model that would allow us to work with the community we had grown close to.

Fast forward three years, and I’m the director of a small international NGO, The Niapele Project. We partner with community-based organizations and local leaders in Liberia to help them implement programs that seek to improve the livelihoods of war-affected youth. You can learn more about our work here, here or here.

[It’s always interesting to see how people react to Niapele. A majority of regular civilians (read: non-aid/development crowd) are very supportive, and generally “impressed.” This is something which has been written about in Tales from the Hood before, but this feeling makes me a bit uncomfortable: I don’t feel like I’m a saint or really all that amazing or creative for doing this. There are tons of other people out there whose creativity, passion and talent exceed my own and are involved in some truly impressive projects on the periphery of the aid/humanitarian industrial complex (see the few examples mentioned above).]


What I’m asking for is that we, as the aid/development community, recognize that innovation outside or on the periphery of the established industry is a good thing. For every successful initiative, there will be ten really crappy ones. But that’s how it works – entrepreneurship is inherently risky, and it’s not because one thinks they have are a good entrepreneur that they actually are one. But we have to accept these negative dimensions to reap the benefits of change brought about by the entrepreneurs who know what they’re doing.

What’s the alternative?  Let it be known that even though the aid industry has profound flaws and is fundamentally unsustainable, innovation on the outside is discouraged?

Not every new idea is going to be a good idea, of course. There are plenty of duds out there, and stupid people with bad ideas aren’t going away any time soon. What’s apparent to me is that social entrepreneurship is a reflection of people’s desire to DO something, and do something more than write a check or send old shoes/blankets/books/etc. It’s also a product of (sometimes legitimate, but not always) frustration both within and outside the aid system. This is why we see ideas like 1 million shirts crop up. Well-intentioned people, but without the practical or theoretical knowledge needed to drive a successful initiative, will give it a go. This is inevitable.


The real question, for me, is how do we support the kind of innovation that does create positive change, all the while weeding out all the useless and potentially harmful amateurish initiatives?


I completely understand why aid amateurs irk the professionals. I’m lucky to have a vantage point at both the micro level, outside the humanitarian/aid/development industrial complex, and within it. I’m constantly surprised by how often I come across seriously flawed ideas, shoddy implementation and pure self-interest and aggrandizement. And let it be known that all this happens with large, established NGOs and the smallest initiatives.

18 thoughts on “on entrepreneurship and NGOs

  1. Well written, honest, and candid, and calls attention to the other side of an argument that keeps on going among aid folks. While much of what you say resonates with me and makes sense (I still assist with development for a grassroots orphanage in Kenya, founded by a Kenyan journalist, that had a profound impact on me…and we’ll never be a big INGO), I would bring up on point that seems to come up every time the aid-business debate comes up.

    When entrepreneurs in the business world set out to create a product, be it software, a silicon cup to make poaching eggs easier, or whatever else, there will either be demand for the product on the market or there won’t. In theory they have done their market research and are aware of a demand in advance, but you never know. Or perhaps that’s just my naive thinking about business, where I have limited experience/expertise. People can choose to not buy the product, and their lives are not particularly impacted by this choice. Poorly designed and thought out aid projects, like a t-shirt-sending campaign, often have a direct effect on peoples’ lives and livelihoods without their choice or consent. So I would argue that entrepreneurship in the aid and business sectors are inherently different in how they reach and affect the recipient.

    1. I think you pinpoint one of the elements that makes a succesful NGO-trepreneurs successful: are they certain that their service is in demand, that there is a real need for what they are doing? I don’t think one needs to be a seasoned aid veteran to know that answering this question requires research and investigation, just like a commercial entreprise would do for a product.
      Aid deals with people’s livelihoods, and often their very lives and survival, so we have to be careful not to confuse entrepreneurship in the private sector and in aid. Though I’d argue that a good entrepreneur – in any sector – will always have some basic qualities: a bit of humility and the ability to accept criticism (looking at 1millionshirts guy), flexibility, etc.

      1. I think you should make the term “NGO-trepreneur” a new phenomenon. Thanks for your insight!

  2. I agree that it’s in this “periphery” where when can look for and find alternatives to “old school” development. The myth of “no capacity” and “no accountability” perpetuated about small and local organizations by professionals in the INGOs can be pejorative and disparaging, and does not do justice to some of these on-the-ground efforts that are well-run and making real long-term impact.

    It’s time to abandon the “expertise infusion” and rather than the community-based groups needing to change, it’s the INGOs and donors that need to require organizational development and power asymmetries to be part of their staff’s consciousness in a more comprehensive and meaningful way. It’s the donors and NGOs who need to restructure and revise their accountability requirements to focus on the minimum structure and financial controls necessary, in order to lower the “glass ceiling” for community-based organizations to participate in and benefit from a more inclusive development discourse.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t issues in working with local groups that will challenge the sector and how we approach our work. But when will the policy wonks, so-called “experts” and donors finally come to appreciate community-based organizations’ strengths, such as their resourcefulness, flexibility and community responsiveness that IS worth cultivating and learning about? Could it be that maybe the entrepreneurs we reproach are on to something that those in “the system” are grossly missing?

    I’ve had the privilege of working with over 300 grassroots organizations in my career. Most were linked to local churches, schools, or clinics or were independent groups that assist children by extending support and services into areas that are not reached by government or international agencies. A mapping exercise sponsored by UNICEF identified over 1,800 community-based organizations focused on orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi alone (Network of Organizations working with Vulnerable and Orphaned Children in Malawi, 2005).

    It’s time for a dose of humility in the sector to acknowledge the vision, structure, and impact that CBOs do have. Clearly these under-recognized and under-resourced folks have knowledge and expertise could be invaluable to us all.

  3. Nice post Penelope. Thanks for writing it! I feel a bit stuck in that same zone as you since many of the people I work with on one side are innovation people, and on the other side, they are development people. There is so much distrust between the two ‘sides’. It’s really a shame because we could learn so much from each other. And you are right. There are amazing initiatives and brilliant people as well as full-on idiots and duds in both.

  4. Thanks for articulating the dilemna of having well intentioned people on both sides of the debate, who ultimately are working towards the same goals, but without good pathway(s) to move ahead together. You highlighted what I think is one of the key challenges: How do we support the kind of innovation that does create positive change? Your post helps to move us in that direction.

  5. There is a paradoxical aspect to aid workers criticizing outsiders, since they often are the first ones to pick apart faulty projects and obsolete mindsets in their own industry. Recent, select thoughts from industry insiders:

  6. Stumbling on this post over a year later, but it still resonates. One key feature in your personal experience that differentiates you, as good NGO-entrepreneur, from those that I think irk most professionals – you knew, more or less, what you didn’t know, and reached out to expertise (in this case the local health professionals) to fill the gaps. This made your input useful and helped to advance things in a productive way.

    The main problem with non-establishment efforts to do aid, in my opinion, is the many cases in which they come from one of two schools, either “aid is obviously broken we need to disregard all that’s been done and start something new, so I’ll try this” or “aid is incredibly easy the problem is a lack of commitment, look how simple I’ll show you.” Both of these are, basically, profoundly arrogant approaches to development, and so they do not challenge established paradigms in a good way, and tend to lead to waste more than progress.

    If you want to consider a parallel, imagine someone who felt that they could contribute domestically to improved health care. They might think that the current system is broken, or they might think that a simple idea – say, more exercise – could really be effective. However, it’s highly unlikely that they would, in either case, attempt to disregard the entire health system nor assume that their quick study enables them to already know as much as a medical professional. If they did that (e.g. quack concerns about vaccines, or selling “super-vitamins” based on a tiny bit of knowledge) they are rightly seen as fringe operators, largely due to their evident unwillingness to start from a rational, realistic place.

    A good aid professional should welcome small, innovative ventures that take as their point of departure a perspective informed by clear thinking, openness, and questions – and I think most of us do welcome that.

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