January 7, 2014 |

The NGO challenge: stay ahead of the curve

What will the international nonprofits of the future look like? PATH CEO Steve Davis lends his perspective.
Young girl in blue with dimples, holding a piece of orange-fleshed sweet potato.
Pauline’s family has benefited from better nutrition since her mother began growing sweet potatoes—the result of a project that got its start through a PATH fund. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

“With unprecedented disruption occurring in the global development sector, how can organizations capitalize on their distinct assets to stay ahead of the curve and meet the global challenges of tomorrow?”

Recently, FSG, a nonprofit consulting firm specializing in research, strategy, and evaluation, approached me and the leaders of other international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) with this question, engaged us in conversation, and distilled insights from across our sector into a compelling report, Ahead of the Curve: Insights for the International NGO of the Future.

Four ways to have greater impact

The report identifies four key approaches that will allow INGOs to have greater impact:

  • Enhancing direct implementation, already under way, by leveraging technology, informing programs with cost-effectiveness data, and making other improvements.
  • Influencing systems change by utilizing all assets and bringing in other players to fill in gaps.
  • Harnessing the private sector through shared value that creates jobs, develops new products that address critical needs, and fosters prosperity in local communities.
  • Leading multisector action, turning pro forma partnerships into rigorous collaborations for complex problem solving.

Taking innovation to scale

PATH is one of the world’s largest and leading INGOs, and we’re thinking a lot about these questions and findings as we map out our approach to bringing more global health innovation to scale in the coming decade. The FSG findings closely mirror our approach, a fact underscored by the report’s authors.

PATH is “moving beyond the one-off, isolated, pilot, and implementation orientation that has dominated the sector,” they write. “PATH colleagues investigate the full spectrum of activities and players that are needed to bring health products to market and leverage market forces and partnerships to address regulatory, procurement, and distribution solutions while products are still in development.”

Need for flexible funding mechanisms

One challenge faced by international development nonprofits like PATH is the influence of donor funding, which is aligned to donor priorities, programs, and funding cycles. With staff and partners on the ground around the world, especially across Africa and Asia, and an emphasis on finding innovative solutions, we often need to move more quickly than traditional donor cycles allow, to take experimental approaches, to support proof-of-concept work, and to pilot transformative strategies.

The FSG report cites PATH’s Catalyst Fund as a model for other INGOs. Created in 2005 with support from foundations, corporations, and high net worth individuals, this internal fund provides flexible funding that we use to invest in organizational infrastructure, experiment with untested but high-potential innovations, and bring proven interventions to scale.

We’re exploring other potential mechanisms for future development, including deeper corporate engagement, fees for some technical services, and leveraging our intellectual property in more effective ways. I will expand on those ideas here in 2014.

Our sector is changing rapidly

There are many new and different actors in the development space and many new models for partnership and innovation, which provide exciting new opportunities. In this environment, the experience, technical expertise, resources, networks, and insights of INGOs are extremely valuable. PATH brings a unique combination of entrepreneurial spirit, scientific and public health expertise, global reach, and mission-driven commitment to health equity. But, as this report underscores, INGOs must continue to evolve, striving for greater efficiency, partnership, and impact as we tackle many of the world’s greatest challenges.

I commend FSG for developing this report, and I recommend it as essential reading for anyone devising strategies for greater impact with an eye toward the needs of tomorrow.

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