Taking the “Business Approach”

Almost everybody working in the not-for-profit , humanitarian, or development sector has come across someone at one time or another who has fundamentally challenged the very purpose (or existence) of their work. Not, however, for any of the very valid reasons we all continue to work at addressing, but based purely on the notion that development practitioners are not “Business” enough to effectively address the myriad of issues half-heartedly lobbed under the umbrella of “Development”.  As a result of the perceived juxtaposition (or polarization) of the not-for-profit and for-profit sectors, which in my opinion are both capable of substantial inefficiencies, civil society has, for many, become a highly professionalized endeavor.  Regardless of this, I still find that I am regularly forced to protect myself and others against an almost constant onslaught of criticism broadly aimed at all things not-for-profit, humanitarian, or focused on the promotion of social good.

Recently I began a new position at an INGO called North Star Alliance, based in Utrecht (And Durban, and Nairobi) focused on mobilizing both the public and private sectors to address what was a substantial gap in the promotion of health and wellbeing in low-income settings: mobility. While I will profile more fully the exciting and effective work of North Star in the coming week, I wanted to pass along an article recently posted on their blog called the “Business Approach” that deals with the very subject mentioned above.  I highly recommend that anyone on either side of the argument give it a read as it is both well-informed and surprisingly amusing.  

The “Business Approach”

NGO-land has been in the grip of the “business approach” hype for some time now. As it goes with hypes, the interesting or original insights that kicked the whole thing off have become largely obscured under a superficial layer of jargon. Is there anything of substance left?

There are two main variants to the business hype: Variant A holds that NGOs that run themselves “like businesses” are superior to their woolly-socked contemporaries. Variant B is that NGOs are inferior to businesses in achieving development goals.

The presumed superiority of the business or commercial approach to structuring and managing and organization has been a central tenant of the reigning neoliberal world view that has dominated broader public discourse in the West for the last couple of decades. The underlying assumptions are that businesses are a) more efficient, b) more effective, and/or c) more sustainable. But are these assumptions supported by a serious body of evidence? Read the rest on the North Star Alliance Blog.


Categories: Not-for-Profits and Business


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