Etienne Eichenberger, Executive Director of WISE, sat down with The Global Journal to discuss his views on the NGO sector.
What is your interest in NGOs?
I have worked with civil society for the last 15 years. In the past I collaborated with the Avina Foundation in Latin America in the field of social entrepreneurship, and supported the Schwab Foundation while at the World Economic Forum. Today, I am the co-founder of a leading boutique philanthropy consultancy. We advise a range of clients in fulfilling their philanthropic aspirations. I am also Vice President of Sustainable Finance Geneva and a board member of several foundations. Many paths lead me to NGOs as you can see.
What do you see as the biggest trend in the sector over the last 1-2 years?
There are more long-term underlying trends that remain key, such as accountability and related issues of transparency. However, another interesting trend is the fact that social innovations in transition countries – or so-called ‘poor’ countries – have begun to be replicated in developed economies. Let me give two examples. One of your Top 100 NGOs of last year, Friends International, has been asked to test a model – developed originally in South East Asia – in the United States. Their approach to working with disadvantaged youth is seen as standard-setting. Another example is the ‘Fight for Peace’ model developed in Brazil being exported to prisons in the United Kingdom.
Have you observed any challenges for NGOs linked to the financial crisis?
NGOs have grown more professional due to numerous factors, though the influence of limited financial resources is certainly one key element. This has been caused by the diminished performance of foundations, and the financial constraints imposed on public funding. At the same time, the financial crisis has also brought new ideas and talent into the sector. In a certain way, the crisis has provided an opportunity to rethink our status quo.
What is the most innovative NGO you have worked with?
I often think we fool ourselves by equating social innovation with technical innovation. At the last European Venture Philanthropy Association meeting in Dublin, a speaker suggested “social innovation is not what is new, but what works better.” I like this quote because it helps us to move beyond the paradigm that only new is better. I think, however, that Arc en-Ciel in Lebanon is a very innovative model in its context – it is very interesting to see how an organization can create great value in a tense environment. Arc-en-Ciel began operations after the civil war with wheel chairs, but today pursues six development streams, including medical waste management and eco-agriculture. Its founders have seen a weak state as an opportunity to create social value.
What do you think is the NGO model of the future?
NGOs, like businesses, are all about diversity – from small and medium size enterprises to global corporations. Their respective challenges are hardly the same, and neither are their models. Future models will depend on numerous factors, driven by an NGO’s mission. For instance, an advocacy NGO will need to further strengthen its independence, an NGO focused on service delivery will need to continue to innovate with regard to generating revenues. But both small and large NGOs will need to be more accountable in terms of impact and the quality of their delivery. The time when NGOs had a blank check to “do the right thing” is gone.
Photo © DR