A number of speakers at the World NGO Day Summit, held in London on 16 November 2012, commented on the fact that when they were first approached, they were surprised to find there wasn’t a World NGO Day already. After all, there seems to be an abundance of designated days focusing on a whole range of issues – AIDS, social justice, cancer, mine awareness, blood donors, freedom of the press … there is even the international day of happiness! A full list can be found on the UN website. So what would be the focus of a day specifically for NGOs?
The organizers of the Summit stated that World NGO Day is intended to be the symbol of bringing together the world’s NGOs to build a stronger future for all. It would be a dedicated day for all NGOs to commemorate and celebrate their achievements, ensuring that small grassroots organizations gain the recognition they deserve.
Marcis Liors Skadmanis, executive director of the World NGO Day Initiative’s Secretariat, described it as an opportunity to celebrate not just NGOs but the people behind the organizations. He questioned why society does not foster an interest in the work of NGOs at a young age – one doesn’t hear of children aspiring to work for an NGO, but surely this is just as valid a goal as wishing to become a doctor, or a teacher, or any other career choice. Numerous speakers discussed the importance of encouraging young people to become responsible global citizens and the value of a day that can be used as a platform for people to come together regardless of culture, size, focus or location of their organization.
However, as panellist James Shaw-Hamilton of the Humanitarian Forum commented, the sector is very good at saying what it is not – non-governmental, non-profit – rather than what it is, and many attending the Summit noted the impact this lack of definition could have on a World NGO Day. One attendee raised the point that those at the Summit only represented a portion of those who would technically be defined as NGOs. This further questioned the idea of a day of unity for all NGOs, given that any of these may be directly opposed to one another.
Panel discussions at the event were loosely based around two main topics, the first being ‘Understanding Cultures & Promoting Sustainable Development’. Ben Jackson, chief executive of BOND, presented a compelling argument for why NGOs should collaborate, citing examples of how working together had strengthened advocacy campaigns, as united voices are more likely to be heard. He said it was important for NGOs to ‘present ourselves to the world as a whole’. One attendee, who was admittedly sceptical about what having a day dedicated to NGOs would achieve, suggested that perhaps it was time for NGOs to grow up and acknowledge that others also do good work rather than competing against each other. Shaw-Hamilton continued this theme of working together as he outlined the work of the Humanitarian Forum to bring together western humanitarian actors and their Islamic peers, developing strong networks of humanitarian communities.
Ben Jackson stressed the importance of ensuring that collaborations work effectively to guarantee they have the desired impact, which often involves organizations being willing to step back out of the limelight and to acknowledge that others have different ways of working. The importance of the way organizations relate to each other and work together is a central theme of Alliance magazine’s upcoming special feature on ‘Networks and philanthropy’, which includes articles considering how to get the best out of networks and key aspects of effective collaboration.
This emphasis on effective collaboration echoes the thoughts of many about the creation of a World NGO Day: it needs to have purpose and be effective. During discussion which focused on sustainability and leveraging new technologies, Phil Mulligan of the United Nations Association UK said that using new technology can increase reach; however, the depth of that reach has been diminished, as often it is the quality of relationships that are as important as the number of connections that can be made.
Perhaps this is a good analogy for the direction in which World NGO Day should head – using it as a platform to celebrate the great number of people involved in the NGO sector and to increase their awareness of each other, while also developing ways to create effective collaborations that have the depth and quality to continue for more than just the one day a year. The challenge now seems to be identifying the best ways to achieve this. ICT consultant Miles Maier said that the biggest dangers of technology are knowing what you use it for and finding the right channel to reach your audience – a portrayal which seems apt for World NGO Day itself.
Jenny Conrad is Communication and Circulation Officer at Alliance magazine
Those interested in supporting the creation of a World NGO Day can sign the online petition at http://www.causes.com/actions/1694373.
Further details about the Alliance magazine special feature on ‘Networks and philanthropy’ can be found on the Alliance website. Those involved with World NGO Day – either through attending the Summit or signing the petition – can access a 20% discount on subscriptions to Alliance.