Poaching talent from NGOs: does it matter?

Neville Gabriel

NGOs are an essential part of the talent ecosystem for philanthropy. But this presents a contradiction. On the one hand, it brings valuable new skills and voices into philanthropy. On the other, it pulls talent out of the NGO sector. Does this benefit or harm the field?

Philanthropies that flourish today house people of varied skills, able to reach wide networks across different levels of influence and capable of having relationships with diverse interest groups. The NGO pool should be one important talent feeder for them. But there is no one unique NGO ‘competency’ or perspective. Talent scouts in philanthropy will need to be clear about which particular competencies, networks and perspectives they are seeking.

However, a move from the NGO field into philanthropy is normally regarded as a move up. It often offers higher salaries and greater professional prestige. This can give rise to problems. When it becomes the norm that senior NGO personnel aspire to advance their careers by crossing over into philanthropy, the fault lines start to rupture. NGO leaders start looking more to impress the funders than to be accountable to their organizational purpose and the groups they work with.

The root of the problem may be a view of philanthropy as a distinct professional discipline. While grantmaking may require particular sensibilities and professional standards, the broad fields of social investment, social and economic development, law, client service or advocacy require capabilities that can be found outside philanthropy. What is unique about philanthropic practice is the quality of resourcing and relationships that is brought together around a public purpose, not any unique or superior professional discipline. It is in the coming together that philanthropy is made.

The people who come to philanthropy from NGOs could place informed champions for NGO funding inside philanthropies, resulting in more and better funding for NGOs. But their biases about particular actors in the field may be stronger because of their experience of the NGO sector, which is highly competitive and often divided, resulting in distorted perspectives of the field. In the end, it comes down to the qualities of the individual person who comes to philanthropy.

People matter, particularly from a capacity development view. Many philanthropies invest heavily in developing the capacity of the NGO fields that they support. But extracting the best talent from NGOs can undermine the very purpose of capacity development if attention isn’t also paid to supporting succession planning, ongoing training, and the active replenishment of talent in the NGO field. These are aspects of organizational development that have the least attraction for funders.

It is unlikely that these risks can be fully mitigated. We have no right to deny anyone’s individual freedom to pursue the professional path that they choose. But some things can be done to limit the need for wholesale poaching of NGO talent into philanthropies.

If philanthropies were built as open rather than closed systems, borderless organizations whose bridging functions between sectors are valued, it becomes possible to construct models in which there are mutually reinforcing links between essentially philanthropic functions and essentially NGO functions, without damaging the NGO field.

The Open Society Foundations (OSF), for example, invest heavily in a global network of independent boards for each of their programmes and geographical fields, made up of NGO activists, eminent people, business people, and the like. They form an influential part of strategy development and grantmaking in OSF – though it’s not just about more effective grantmaking; it’s a genuine search to build a broad movement.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been experimenting with NGO ‘anchor partners’ and ‘platform partners’ who provide an active advisory function. Again, this approach is increasingly about coherent advocacy partnerships rather than grantmaking.

Emerging or renewed forms of crowd-sourced and community-based philanthropy are breaking the conventional mould too, with new forms of direct relationship between ‘philanthropic communities’ and particular NGOs and advocacy groups. These philanthropic communities are turning the potential risks of NGO talent migration to conventional philanthropies upside down by holding NGO activism on the cutting-edge frontlines of development in the highest esteem – and by being comfortable in their own collective role as unprofessionalized supporters.

But there can be no one answer for all philanthropies about NGOs being part of the talent ecosystem. Form needs to follow function. The functions of philanthropy are changing. Its forms, faces and voices should too.

Neville Gabriel is the chief executive officer of the Other Foundation. Email ngabriel@theotherfoundation.org

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