Building and sustaining an effective Board The boss Conflict resolution Gender
  1. Building and sustaining an effective Board
  2. The boss, the character and the job
  3. When there is serious conflict between two of the workers
  4. Do you need a Gender Analysis?

1. Building and sustaining an effective Board 

Having a Board or Steering Committee is a Western way of organising an NGO. It is not the only way. However, in the experience of the Networklearning group, good NGOs almost always have a good board and the contribution of that board is visible.

A Board becomes important when the workers start to be paid, and may become more concerned with earning a living than with good service.

A good Board can do the following:
  • If the membership is right, it will include beneficiaries/stakeholders and truly represent the interests of the beneficiaries/stakeholders.

  • It can make policy decisions away from the people doing the daily tasks, out of no personal interest except the good of the beneficiaries/stakeholders. This is what is meant by the separation of policy-making and executive functions.

  • It gives the director authority and support; and provides an alternative authority to which staff can appeal if the director gets out of line.

  • If it is made up of experienced women and men from the local community it will bring all kinds of competence into the NGO. 

By asking respect-worthy local leaders and representatives to be members, a bridge can be built between the NGO and the wider community. It is a fact that local leaders cannot be bypassed. If they feel ill-will towards an NGO then that organisation has a poor chance of doing well. (Other ways of ensuring the passive support of local leaders, when you do not want them messing in policy-making, are getting their blessing or asking them to be Honorary Patrons). If they are suitable to be on the Board, they can help form a  bridge between the NGO and donors, the NGO and Government. The skills that Board members bring should supplement those of the NGO staff rather than compete with them.

Examples of the people to recruit as Members are:
  • nurses who are of a mature age and have reduced their workload in the hospital;
  • headmasters;
  • officers who used to work in the community courts;
  • representatives of the private sector (since some business people have a refreshing way of seeing organisations)
  • people who work in finance, because most NGOs are dreadful money managers. 

The Board members should have their functions clearly written, with a job description – because for many of them, it is indeed a new job. The description should include the years of tenure. Job descriptions also help to link the board to the office and the people in the office. The two types of functions – Board and Staff – should complement each other, and both should be stated in writing. It should be clear that the Board shall never interfere in decision-making about daily work; and the staff should not re-interpret the policy of the board to make it fit with their own vision. Inevitably, though, these things will happen and there will be clashes. 

The relationship between the Staff and the Board in an NGO:

Both Board and Staff will only function at their best if their relationship is well built. The staff need to have ways of providing information to the board and having an input into the process of policy development. They must then be ready to understand, accept and work within that policy framework. And they need to have the room to make decisions themselves within the framework.  

Building the capacity of Board and Staff:

Members of the Board need to build their skills as Board Members. The NGO can arrange for them to spend days with field workers and arrange training courses. The board members, perhaps with staff members, can visit other NGOs; they can learn more from the staff about the issues of the work. If they share training with the staff they build a sense of working together.

2. The boss, the character and the job

The capability of bosses is affected by how they are motivated and what got them the boss position. Some are bosses because they are someone’s son or the oldest successor to the resigning boss. A more typical head is someone with extra drive, energy and vision. Sometimes the vision is for the beneficiaries/stakeholders, sometimes it is for personal glory. 

Are you the boss? Then ask yourself whether your work is about serving others or about your own self-image. If it is about you, don’t get discouraged. You can still do a fine job, but you need to build in safeguards – ways of ensuring that you treat workers and beneficiaries/stakeholders well and do not change into a small tyrant. Find people to spend time with, who will tell you if you are getting a swollen head. 

Then consider this: whatever your motivation as the boss, if you are a strong, inspiring leader, ask yourself “If I have a heart attack tomorrow, who would keep the NGO going? Who would maintain standards?”

Then, we suggest, you can start delegating more, giving possible successors more responsibility and guiding them so they learn how. Start building sustainable leadership. 

Think about this: energetic, driven bosses are sometimes better at getting results than at building good relationships with colleagues. If there is a persistent and serious conflict between you and a colleague, or between two colleagues, it may affect the functioning of the NGO. Look for solutions. 

» A further resource is: folder On Being In Charge .

This is written for people working in the Health Field but the principles of Leadership are the same whatever your discipline. Look at Part II Chapter 2 (Leading), Chapter 3 (Organising team activities) and Chapter 4 (Controlling & assessing the work).

3. When there is serious conflict between two of the workers

If there is persistent conflict between two colleagues it may affect the functioning of the NGO. Here is one way to approach this problem. It may seem elaborate but you can adapt it to your own needs. Above all, do make the effort to resolve conflict: if major disagreements go unresolved, an NGO can get torn apart. 

Step one: Find an independent Chair, and have both parties agree to abide by the Chair’s decisions. 

Step two: The Chair starts investigating the background, bearing in mind the following basic principles:  

  • The problem is defined by the interests and the personalities of the people involved;

  • Both sides are probably interested in keeping their job;

  • Both sides are interested in being valued.

  • Probably, both want to be seen as in the right in this disagreement. So focus on interests, not positions or personalities The Chair may want to find out more about the conflict before any formal meeting, talking with bosses and colleagues within the NGO. Then, there could be separate talks with the families of those involved in the conflict to stop the conflict being stirred at home – instead, family members can be encouraged to bring gentle pressure for resolution.  

Step three: The Chair talks to each party separately. 

  1. Each party gets the time they need to recount their view of what has happened. The Chair tries silently to sort out real events from interpretations of events. 

  2. Parties are listened to quietly until emotions have been clearly expressed. Then the Chair responds to the feelings: “I hear from you how sad and angry you are about everything that has happened”. Both sides need to have their say, let out their feelings, and have those feelings acknowledged. Having each party do it separately means that bad feelings are kept away from the other party. 

  3. The Chair can list, perhaps on a big sheet of paper for each party, the main events and problems of the last years, with the parties ensuring that the lists are accurate. 

  4. The Chair ensures that all remarks are free of labelling one party the 'goodie' and the other the 'baddie'. Saying something like ”Nobody deserves to have their report stolen and presented as someone else’s work” would be fine. It does not say that the Chair believes the report was stolen (since it is not yet clear that it was).  

Step four: The Chair arranges the first meeting with both parties. Some conditions may need to be imposed – for example, that both promise to listen and not make personal attacks on the other.  

Issues of honour and face-saving may be important to both parties. When the word 'Honour' comes up, the Chair can acknowledge its importance and the feelings it raises; and say that any agreement reached will have to be honourable to both sides, otherwise it will not be agreed to. At a certain point, the Chair can say it is better not to use the word for the moment because it is a given, and it distracts from working out how to repair the underlying problem. Some people get stuck on the concept of honour and chew on it like a dog with an old bone. To move them on, talk about the honourable nature of working for a future for the NGO and how worthy of respect it would be to achieve that. 

Step five: Dealing with the past. The Chair has to identify which past events were unacceptable and cannot be forgotten by the injured party. Stealing a report and presenting it as your own might be an example. But is there proof, or an admission of guilt? If not, the injured party may have to live with no final resolution. 

Step six: Finding the long-term goals that can be agreed to. Ask both parties to think five years ahead. They will probably still both be working in the same NGO, perhaps the same building. What do they both want? It is hoped that they both want the NGO to be doing well. They probably both want to be in a job, perhaps with promotion. They may both want to be boss or to have more responsibility. They probably want recognition, to be valued, to feel some satisfaction in what they do. 

The Chair may have to point out that in these situations, people are not going to get all they want. However like every worker, they deserve a certain package. It may be possible to ensure that a party with little responsibility is given more (only if he or she is a personality who can handle it – the interests of the NGO are a higher priority). 

The Chair can meet separately again with the two parties, give each a prescription of how they should behave in the future, and promise to re-visit over the next year. One party, for example, might hear: “If you cannot control your temper over the next year I will recommend your dismissal”; OR “you need to tell yourself every day that the other party is not the enemy and should be treated as carefully as a sibling”; OR “you need to start listening seriously to the other party; you can learn useful stuff”; OR “Let go of all these complaints and grudges; they will give you stomach ulcers”. 

This may be a good time for the NGO to introduce a Code of Behaviour for all workers. This might cover inappropriate behaviour such as angry outbursts, bullying, and sexual harassment. Following such a Code can be part of every job description, a pre-condition for promotion and even for keeping a job.  

Step seven: Saying sorry. This part may need separate meetings with the two parties. When people have been hurt and angry for a long time, it helps to have this acknowledged by the people they see as the cause. It helps to hear the other party say “Sorry”. In English you can say “Sorry” without admitting fault – “I was not here when you broke you leg but I’m sorry it happened”. So, in conflicts between two people, find a way for both to say ”I’m sorry that we are in disagreement”; “I acknowledge that sometimes I forget how another may be feeling; I did not mean to hurt you but I am sorry that I did” or “I miss working closely with you”. 

Step eight: Sharing hospitality and pleasant times. If the parties eat or drink together, with the Chair and the others involved, the process is rounded off and lightened; there is a start towards better feelings and correct behaviour to each other has the chance to begin straight away.

4. Do you need a Gender Analysis?

The following is an extract from folder How to Build a Good Small NGO .

Including women and men: working out a gender policy

What is gender? We are born, most of us, as one of the two sexes. But boy babies and girl babies get treated differently from the moment their umbilical cord is cut. We are taught how to be girls/women, boys/men. So gender roles are the social and economic roles that our culture gives us. They apply to both main genders, but women tend to be behind men in their situation (often poorer, less well-fed) and in their ability to get to resources. In most countries, for example, they find it much more difficult to get credit even though they have a better record of repayment.  


In 1998, there was a pause in the fighting in Sierra Leone. The planting season was only six weeks away and the big international agencies had to get seeds and tools to everybody, fast – to settled villages and to the displaced people in and around the villages. They worked through national NGOs who in turn worked through Village Heads. Those NGOs with no gender policy allowed the Village Heads to control who benefited, which meant that the 13% of displaced families headed by women got nothing. The NGOs with a gender policy knew how important it was to reach these families and made sure they were helped. 

Here are the reasons why we say that an NGO should work out its own gender policy:

The first reason is that it will help you provide better services to beneficiaries (like in the example above).

For a long time, certain groups have been getting less attention in development projects than others. Women have been sold short; so have different ethnic minorities, people with physical disabilities, the elderly. Meanwhile the groups with the highest profile and loudest voice get the most attention. A crude example is the crowd waiting for the bread handouts, a mass of young men elbowing the women to the back. But the women – leaving empty-handed as the bread runs out – look after, on average, five other people. If the distributors knew this, and acted on their knowledge, they would provide a more effective service.

So to some extent a gender policy is about knowing the people you are helping and the groups within the group. It is similar to doing a Vulnerable Group Analysis. It is a planning tool.

The second reason is that it is an issue of Capacity Building. Developing a gender policy will force you to look at how your own organisation has developed and whether your staff is representative of the groups you are helping. NGOs that are dominated by a higher class, or by one sex, NGOs where everyone is young and able-bodied, will probably not provide a sympathetic service for anyone different, especially not the other sex, the elderly, the most despised minorities.  

EXERCISE: If tomorrow your NGO started a project for prostitutes, would everyone treat them as well as they would treat an old friend they went to school with, who is now in trouble? If not, why not? Where does kind-heartedness start and end? 

On a more practical level, most NGOs need women staff for certain tasks, like talking in confidence to female beneficiaries or providing Family Planning. But if they are only employed to do jobs decided on by male bosses alone, then the NGO is under-using their abilities and treating them with disrespect – and it probably disrespects its beneficiaries as well. NGOs which want to change can organise staff training, demand a proven record of gender skills for certain posts etc. 

A third reason is that many donors and bigger NGOs take the issue very seriously. They have a gender policy and will expect you to have one too. This is not true for all – UNHCR has a gender policy, Medecins sans Frontieres does not. Find out from your donors and partner NGOs where they stand and then look at their work. 

A fourth reason is that gender is a matter of Human Rights - of principle. If people get what they need then the service is fairer, more ethical. And we cannot know what they need unless we understand their situation. Analysing it from the perspective of gender is one way to understand, and a helpful way. 


HelpAge International works through local NGOs with older women and men, and to do a good job it needs gender awareness – an understanding of the situation of both women and men and how they are affected by social and psychological factors. With good understanding, the rights of both women and men can be equally supported. 

At the Africa Regional Development Centre of HelpAge International, we felt that we needed to do more to make our programmes gender-sensitive. So a consultancy firm was involved to guide our work. They started looking at the current programmes implemented by the organisation and whether they could be more gender-responsive.

Various tools useful for mainstreaming gender were developed, for example tools for advocacy, for indicators and for programme monitoring. Then, a three-day’s workshop was carried out, to share these tools and increase the capacity of the staff to use them. 

The workshop was an eye-opener for the staff. They saw the need to change beliefs and practices that marginalize women and the need to be more systematic and alert about ensuring that older women and men benefit more fairly from programmes.” 

» Ready to take action? Download folder Incorporating Gender into your NGO .
This will help you to identify what to do and how to do it.