Reflections on South Africa’s NPO sector

Jackie Schoeman, former CEO of a national NPO, currently a consultant for KuTh Consultants (NPO Section), shares her experience:
 
I have worked in the NPO sector for most of my adult life, starting off in 1983 as a social worker, and for the last 20 years or so as the CEO of a large national organisation. With my career spanning many decades, two governments, and a range of causes, I have been privileged to work with exceptional programmes and organisations that have made a meaningful and life changing impact on their beneficiaries, but have also come across average programmes that have provided some relief albeit not sustainable, and really poor projects which violated the basic principle of our sector, do no harm. 
 
I cannot judge any of the programmes for their results, because in my role as CEO I probably initiated and sourced funding for programmes that spread across the whole spectrum, but what I can do is reflect on the lessons learnt and how these can be used to improve service delivery in the NPO sector. 
 
Let me start with when I was appointed CEO in 2000.  South Africa was in the grips of a full-blown epidemic (as we are now once again). With my mandate to take the organisation national, we expanded our reach into four provinces over the next few years, and our paediatric HIV/Aids hospices and home-based care programmes were all operating at full capacity.  It is hard to recall the era before antiretrovirals, when very few babies reached their first birthday and some sectors of government promoted garlic and beetroot as a viable treatment option, but we were starting to read about a drug that could prevent pregnant mothers passing the virus onto their unborn children.  
 
As we had positioned ourselves as a pioneer in the field of paediatric HIV care, we joined a consortium to take government to court to get pregnant mothers’ access to treatment. This action resulted in a steady reduction in the number of children born HIV-positive over the next decade.  
 
In 2003, when we became aware of antiretroviral treatment (ART), we once again looked for a partner, this time a government hospital, to pilot a treatment programme for our children.  By 2010, after working hard to reduce the incidence of children being infected by HIV and to keep those who were positive healthy, we saw a substantial decrease both in the number of children being born positive, and those dying from Aids. Although this was something we were truly proud of and celebrated, there was some irony in the fact that we were running out of HIV children who needed the kind of care we provided.  We were fast becoming an NPO without a beneficiary base needing the services we provided.
 
First lesson learnt – if you are going to tackle big issues and want to achieve meaningful results, partnerships are the key to success.
 
By 2005, with the average age of our children steadily increasing, we needed to start re-thinking our programmes. Instead of focusing primarily on keeping children healthy, happy and pain-free, we now needed to consider that these children would grow up to be adults. If we wanted them to succeed, we needed to focus more on their development. Children who have struggled with poor health are more likely to have developmental delays, so we had to devise a programme that would start to close the gaps and prepare children for formal schooling. We invested many resources into this programme, not because we knew it was the way forward for our organisation, but because we wanted to help the children in our care.  As it turned out, this was to become the future direction of our organisation. 
 
What was frustrating for me at the time were the many organisations who were still sourcing funds by pushing the dying babies stories, when in reality we had moved beyond that and our focus should have been on making sure every child had access to treatment. However, dying babies was a big money spinner, so financially worthwhile. 

Second lesson learnt – services need to be adapted and revised to meet the ever-changing needs of society.
 
Alongside these achievements, however, were some not so successful programmes. Our food garden programmes, initiated in the Eastern Cape at the request of a donor and then duplicated in some of the other regions, never really took off.  At that time food gardens were seen as a sustainable solution for food security and could attract substantial donor funding.  Despite allocating more and more resources to the project, we were never able to get more than a few community members involved in the gardens, and they were therefore of little benefit to the broader communities they were meant to serve.  In fact, in one region where we had set up a food garden in the grounds of a high school, we later learnt that learners were sent to work in the garden as punishment.
 
Third, fourth and fifth lessons learnt – regardless of the financial opportunities it may present, make sure programmes respond to clearly identified community needs, that they are supported by the intended beneficiaries and stakeholders, and fall within the skill set available within your organisation. 
 
Our organisation has always been well known for the excellent services we offer to vulnerable young children, yet we branched out into food gardens despite having no experience in this field. Sure, we were able to justify this deviation from our core focus by rationalising that good nutrition is central to healthy development in childhood and therefore a vital component of our service delivery, but on reflection, what we were really doing was chasing donor money.
 
Sixth lesson learnt - it may well cost more to introduce new programmes outside your area of expertise, even if they come with funding.
 
To keep our organisation relevant, in 2014 we initiated a transformation programme that saw the closure of the now redundant HIV residential and community-based programmes.  Using the expertise, we had gained around closing developmental gaps in young children, we transitioned into non-centre based early childhood development (ECD) programmes over the next few years. As we reached the end of the process in 2017, I stepped down as CEO and handed Cotlands over to my very capable successor who specialised in ECD and could take the organisation further in this field.
 
As my journey as CEO came to an end, and it was time to decide on where to next, I have thought a lot about the NPO sector, what I have learned, and how I can use this knowledge to help other organisations. 
 
My biggest concern has always been that each year billions of Rands are spent by NPOs (over R10 billion in 2019), yet we are seeing little evidence of social change. The social ills facing our country poverty, unemployment, abuse, addiction, violence, poor school performance, malnutrition, poor health etc, remain prevalent in most of our communities. It is sad to see financial and human resources going to waste when it can, with just some guidance and support, so easily be turned around. The best place to start is with a list where my organisation, and other NPOs commonly go wrong, and what we can do to fix this. These include: 

  1. Promoting non-business staff into senior management positions. I can say this because I qualified as a social worker and ended up running a R30 million plus organisation despite having no formal training for the job. Yes, I learnt along the way but the skills needed to be an effective social worker are very different from that of a CEO, yet many NPOs are headed up by social workers, nurses, teachers, psychologists and doctors, most who have the best intentions and big hearts. Some are instinctively good leaders, but almost every one of them would benefit from some external guidance and support.

  2. Still on staffing understaffing or unqualified staff, particularly in supporting roles. Most NPOs will allocate their financial resources to employing staff who are qualified to care for beneficiaries care workers, practitioners, social workers, nurses, and then appoint one poor person to handle all the finances, admin, HR, procurement etc. Another thing we tended to do was allocate portfolios to people who weren’t trained to handle them, and often the intention was to get them training but there was just never enough time and resources.  Typically, what happens for example is that the person employed as a data capturer ends up being responsible for the organisation’s whole IT system. I doubt this approach will change, but what can be done is to once again offer these staff members some support to do their jobs more efficiently.   

  3. Believing the common adage that floats around the sector you need to fight for your slice of the pie, which no doubt will get smaller post COVID-19. This tends to promote competition rather than collaboration, and big impact is more likely to be achieved when two or more organisations work cooperatively.

  4. Inflating numbers when reporting a legacy from the days when large international funders wanted to see huge reach rather than substantial impact. Although only one member of a household was the primary target, it was encouraged to count all the members living in the household, even if no direct services were offered to them.  While this may have looked good on paper, it really didn’t tell the true story, especially when extrapolating cost per beneficiary. All this has done is lead to unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved by a certain budget and NPOs need to provide with a more practical, meaningful way of reporting.

  5. Wasting resources.  Although not exclusively a problem in the NPO sector, it is more important not to waste resources, financial and in-kind, as we are using public money and not income that is generated through commercial efforts.  It is impossible to calculate how much money has been wasted on projects that yielded no results, duplicated services already in existence, purchasing buildings that remain empty, paying staff who don’t perform, poor service provider selection because of the belief that NPOs will automatically be granted favourable rates, and so on.  Programmes, systems and contracts should be reviewed by external experts to reduce waste and improve efficiencies.

Having said all this, I do want to acknowledge that tremendous progress has been made by NPOs, corporates and government not only in tackling critical social issues, but also in putting measures in place that promote good governance and accountability. 
 
Increasingly over the past few years more and more NPOs have being saying that they need to be run like businesses and not charities. This is true, and with over 250 000 registered NPOs in South Africa employing at least a million people, this sector is a big player in our country’s economy.  Yet, for the most part I don’t think we know how to make this transition. There are business experts that can help, and we need to start accessing this expertise, much of which can be sourced through corporate volunteerism or on a contingency basis. 
 
KuTh Consultants is one such resource independent, impartial analysts who objectively review systems and recommend solutions. They are not influenced by “we’ve always done it this way” or “it wont work in the NPO sector”, but rather have the ability to bring parties together, and to set and drive parameters of engagement that will force change and get best value.  In my new role as a KuTh consultant, I look forward to continuing serving the NPO sector for many years to come.
 
For more information about KuTh and the services we offer, please visit our website: www.kuthconsultants.co.za.

Date published: 
Friday, 9 October, 2020

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