How to make positive change at an NGO

Public Health

In 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared an end to the Ebola outbreak in the Republic of Guinea and Liberia. Up until then, the disease had made a devastating impact – there were thousands of deaths, and a serious dent was made on the economy. Both nations found themselves facing food insecurity, children were left orphaned, and healthcare workers were at serious risk.

The crisis did not go unnoticed. More than 60 NGOs worked across 400 projects to aid medics on the frontline, as well as affected communities. Health promotion became the number one priority. Implementing interventions like this and helping stop the spread of infectious diseases like Ebola is just one of the key roles NGOs play around the world.

So, how do NGOs put people and purpose at the centre of everything they do? And how can you be a progressive force in an NGO, to improve public health and better the world? Here’s a quick guide.  

What is an NGO?

Non-Governmental Organisations are not-for-profits (NFPs), commonly known as NGOs. Unlike NFPs that typically tend to be smaller, like your local footy club, NGOs operate in the international arena and are guided by a humanitarian focus.

Across the planet, NGOs work to create momentum for positive change. They have the ability to influence a multitude of issues – social and environmental factors, transformation of health behaviours, driving changes in public policy and law, and impacting human rights.   

NGOs are known to support the most disadvantaged communities around the world. According to New Zealand’s former Prime Minister and former United Nations Development Programme Administrator (UNDP) Helen Clark, “NGOs are powerful forces in advancing development agendas and protecting the rights of poor and marginalised people everywhere.”

When it comes to tackling critical human issues such as famine, natural disasters and gender equality, NGOs play a central role. Through programs and projects, they design solutions to meet the needs of civil society – whether that’s looking at ways to provide clean water and sanitation, quality education or safety and security.

Back in 1945, the newly formed United Nations coined the term NGO in Article 71 of its Charter. Now, there are more than 10 million NGOs globally. In fact, if NGOs were a country, they would have the fifth largest economy in the world.

NGOs in a changing world

One of the challenges facing NGOs is the pace of change. When it comes to public health and disease prevention initiatives alone, NGOs are confronted with some stark realities. The threat of climate change, a rapidly ageing global population, the growth of chronic diseases and bacteria and viruses that travel across borders, almost as fast as e-mail messages – these are just some of the evolving needs they are required to respond to.  

So, how can NGOs devise sustainable public health strategies that will alleviate these emerging strains and lift communities up? It starts with strong leadership skills in NGO Managers. 

What does that look like? Let’s break it down.

Here’s a snapshot of the key responsibilities of a non-profit manager working for an NGO.    

The role of a manager in an NGO

NGO Managers play an executive role with five core responsibilities which include:

  • creating a vision
  • leading and managing teams
  • engaging local communities
  • managing legal and financial accountability and fundraising affairs
  • supporting the board of directors

When it comes to creating a strategic vision, it’s about setting and realising future goals by leading the company towards that desired outcome. 

For instance, according to the 2020 Global Health Care Outlook report by Deloitte, the focus of healthcare is universally shifting from acute care to keeping people healthy. For an NGO Manager working across public health and disease prevention interventions, that means needing to be at the forefront of building a smart health ecosystem.

Deloitte’s report states, “Health care stakeholders need to invest in value-based care, innovative care delivery models, advanced digital technologies, data interoperability, and alternative employment models.”

The insights from Deloitte also show that right now we’re seeing a widening demand-supply gap of skilled professionals in healthcare. For instance, in the small and regional towns of India, where 71 per cent of the country’s population resides, there’s a lack of skilled medical professionals. Meantime, wealthier and more developed countries like Germany are expecting a deficit of 1.3 million healthcare professionals by 2030. 

With these sorts of emerging global health challenges, trained NGO Managers are crucial to addressing contemporary health issues that affect both individuals and communities. Here’s how they deliver care, sustain wellbeing, and solve some of the world’s biggest health problems.  

Day-to-day role of an NGO Manager

An NGO manager's daily responsibilities include ensuring that all activities align with the objectives of the organisation. That means stepping into a position where you embrace the roles of advocacy, outreach, development and director. 

A non-profit manager job description at an NGO will typically require skills in:

  • information gathering
  • data analysis
  • management and allocation of budgets and resources
  • fundraising campaigns and activities
  • liaising with donors
  • recruiting and training volunteers
  • health promotion strategies and approaches (within diverse populations)
  • marketing (including online and social media)
  • community consultation and engagement (through the lens of culture)
  • managing staff and motivating teams to get results
  • producing reports
  • staying abreast of advancements in public health

NGO Managers need not only to plan and execute their vision - they also need to be able to monitor and re-evaluate their strategy, fine-tuning their approach to meet future needs.      

Salary expectations

If you’re looking to work in public health and disease prevention for an NGO, the good news is there’s been a 22 per cent increase in job postings in this field in 2020.

But what about the pay?

According to Payscale, the average salary for a non-profit manager is AU$78,454. However, an experienced manager at an NGO can earn up to AU$96,196.

If you’ve got your sights set on an executive-level role, like the CEO, you could be earning a handsome six-figure salary. So, what does it take to get there? 

Skills required to work in the executive level of an NGO

An executive at an NGO oversees and sets the agenda for strategic planning, business development and financial operations. It’s a demanding management position that requires a mix of leadership talent and the ability to be a people whisperer.

Here are the skills that will set you up for success: 

Communication skills

At the executive level of an NGO, you’re often the public face of the organisation. So, that means what you say and how you say it matters (verbally and in writing) – whether you’re facing the media, informing the board with latest developments, consulting with community groups, or simply holding a staff meeting.

To promote efficient and equitable gains in population health, your messaging needs to inspire action. Given NGO executives work with people from all sorts of backgrounds, studies show that this is a rapidly growing, in-demand soft skill. 

Negotiation skills

This role relies heavily on being a master facilitator. A core part of the job is to influence policy decision-making and funding. So, a knack for negotiation and advocacy is crucial to ensuring successful operations and administration.

Sharp mediation skills come into play when weighing up aspects such as: politics, the complex relationships between gender, culture and health, evidence-based public health approaches, and ethical reasoning.     

Emotional intelligence

Leaders across NGOs are required not only to implement solutions to complex public health issues, but also to be exceptional people managers. Professor James D. Hess explains that, as change agents, executive-level NGOs are “required to make decisions or judgments that manage the expectations of external stakeholders as well as the emotions of the internal organisational followers.”

Professor Hess’ research shows that non-profit leaders “who are self-aware and can accurately and honestly assess their strengths in comparison to others in the organisation have the advantage of leveraging the attributes of others in the decision-making process.”

Financial management

Being savvy when it comes to financial decisions ensures effective public health outcomes can be achieved and that the NGO endures. Executives at NGOs not only need to be able to crunch the numbers when it comes to planning budgets for specific global health initiatives - they also have to evaluate funding trends and metrics.

Anticipating the future is a big part of this role. It’s essential for executive-level NGO staff to create a blueprint for the needs and challenges that lie ahead, and shape the financial outlook for the organisation. This is also likely to boost trust and credibility among stakeholders – from donors to community members.       

Education levels

Some of the above skills can come from years of experience. However, having a postgraduate education can put you in a better position to capitalise on these skills and reach the executive level of an NGO. 

VU Online’s Master of Public Health is for professionals passionate about influencing positive change in public health through gaining the skills to tackle current and emerging issues in local and global contexts. The Master of Public Health comprises eight units that are consistent across the industry-unique specialisations that answer foreseeable industry needs. The hands-on skills you’ll gain (far beyond just book learning) make graduates more employable.

The future of NGOs and their demand

So, what’s the outlook for NGOs in tomorrow’s landscape? There’s a clue in the response we’ve seen to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. While the contagion elevated frontline workers in healthcare to superheroes, it also showed how networked NGOs can be some of the first and most effective responders.

In Papua New Guinea NGOs helped with simple but lifesaving cakes of soap and buckets for health clinics that had none. While in northern Uganda, trained volunteers worked to stamp out rumours and misinformation through podcasts about the health threats posed by the coronavirus.   

Social impact communications consultant Tim Middlemiss argues that the pandemic has created a unique opportunity for NGOs to “build empathy, not just sympathy.”

But if we look beyond the era of plague, in the next decade humanitarian needs like rising inequality are expected to grow, along with public health threats such as drug-resistant infections. Reports show that in 2030 NGOs will continue to play a vital role in educating communities and alleviating suffering.

Responding innovatively to future threats requires the right kind of training. Through VU Online’s Master of Public Health, you’ll gain an in-depth understanding of what causes poor health and how to create environments that support good health. This degree will give you all the tools you need to assess health needs through the context of social, cultural, economic and political needs.

To learn more about our online Master of Public Health, visit here