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Swiss-based NGOs face resource squeeze


The other day I spoke to the communications manager of a UN agency about how to better engage with their key stakeholders.

“Most importantly our donors – and potential donors – need to actually understand what we’re doing”, she said. She hinted at a major challenge facing many NGOs: they seem to have difficulty formulating their concrete contributions to solving an issue or in explaining their cause, especially to a audiences outside the Geneva bubble.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this kind of conversation. NGOs – especially those based in Switzerland – urgently need to convince their donors of the need for continued support.

It’s not all doom and gloom: SDGs and well-designed engagement strategies can help

In order to get access to alternative funding – a bit of resource diversification would have been advisable anyway, wouldn’t it? – NGOs are redirecting their engagement towards the private sector. The global commitment to the 17 SDGs at the end of 2015 has already had a strong impact on how the private sector incorporates sustainability into all facets of business strategies.

From our experience of working with NGOs in Geneva, we see six important strands NGO-leaders and communicators should bear in mind when embarking on a private sector engagement strategy:
  1. Organisational strategy – Concise and jargon-free
    The NGO’s vision, mission and values need to be clearly described and easy to understand. More importantly though, concrete objectives and messages should be defined. And avoid jargon. Corporations – especially if hey don’t have experience of working with not-for-profit-organisations – will have difficulty grasping, where the interface between the specific NGO’s cause, their business course and the SDGs lies. So make it easy for them.
  2. Stakeholder mapping – identification and monitoring via netnography
    While all NGOs usually know their direct stakeholders well, they sometimes underestimate the important role of international influencers and opinion leaders beyond their direct stakeholder environment. Leidar offers an application and related services called “Netnograph” to analyse and visualise the networks of influencers and stakeholders. It is the ideal basis to define the communications strategy.
  3. Targeted communications strategy – collaborative and realistic
    In times of scarce resources, a solid communications strategy is essential for NGOs to create awareness, acknowledgement and acceptance, and to activate target audiences or donors. Involving all internal stakeholders in developing the strategy, from staff to the executive team and the governing council, will create the buy-in of important advocates who will be integral parts of the communications campaigns. Another strategic consideration – and this is very important – is that only realistic communications objectives will lead to measurable results.
  4. Clear messaging and storytelling – bringing the message across
    As part of the strategy development we strongly recommend defining key messages and identify substantiating facts, as well as supporting stories. This process of digging out the stories isn’t always easy and may require some external moderation and guidance, but it is an essential part of bringing the messages to life. In any case, NGO-staff and leadership should tell the organisation’s stories consistently.
  5. Empowered staff and executives – engagement on all levels
    However, as we say in Germany, paper is patient. The messaging needs to be brought to life. It requires training to convey the messages, be it on Twitter, in an interview with “Le Matin” or live on CNN. A precondition for success, though, is the ability to use the agreed messages and be consistent with facts and stories. In order to do so, all involved staff, leadership teams, and those board members who speak on behalf of the organisation, should have systematic media and storytelling training.
  6. Using all channels – in the right way
    Just pushing out Tweets or posting news on websites is not enough. Successful engagement on social media requires a plan that is embedded in the overall communications strategy. Social media guidelines defining roles and responsibilities, the tone of voice, evaluation and measurement criteria, as well as channel priorities, are inevitable ingredients on the social media menu.
    Based on the agreed social media guidelines, staff and executives should be trained to effectively communicate on social media and handling selected management tools.

The six key pillars of successful engagement require one major precondition: total support and commitment from the NGOs leadership.

The European Union – access to additional funding

The European Commission and its numerous financial instruments, their programmes and projects, provides a further source of potential funding for NGOs. While substantial, multi-billion budgets have been set aside, Swiss-based NGOs – with or without EU subsidiaries – have to know how to navigate the complicated EU tendering systems and application processes. To benefit from EU funding requires a deep breath, being fully prepared, and a willingness to enter into consortiums and a permanent monitoring system. I’ll go into more detail in my next blogpost. Stay tuned.

Lutz Meyer

Senior Advisor, Advocacy and Public Affairs, based in Brussels

Lutz leads Leidar’s focus on international advocacy across the influencing axes of Geneva, Brussels and London. He develops communications and advocacy strategies for international organisations and also advises on organisational in-house structures related to sustainable strategy implementation.

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