Russian NGOs need to become more professional

Careers in NGOs: “More skills needed in the social sector than in business”


Project NGO-Pro was launched on 13th November with the aim of providing information about professionalism within the third sector.  Experts debated a number of issues including whether voluntary work should be regarded as a profession, why NGO staff should be paid a salary and how to raise professional standards in the charity sector.

The sector is becoming professionalised

Researchers monitoring civil society and the voluntary sector at the National Research Institute of the Higher School of Economics have reported that the number of staff in paid employment at NGOs has risen over the last five years.  In 2012 64% of people working in the voluntary sector were paid employees, by 2017 this figure had risen to 73%, while the total number of people in permanent positions in NGOs has fallen.

According to Alexandra Alexandrova, the Chairman of the Moscow Committee for Public Relations, the voluntary sector is moving towards greater professionalisation.  A trend is emerging of people moving to employment in NGOs, away from other professions, but few of them are adapting well to the different demands placed on them.

“Working for NGOs requires many more skills than working in business.  In a small organisation you need to perform many difficult tasks.  You need to show empathy and avoid emotional burn-out.  It is a very difficult balance to strike,” Alexandrova remarked.

Svetlana Chupsheva, General Director of the Strategic Initiatives Agency, believes that the voluntary sector will face enormous pressures over the coming decade.

“We predict that over the next ten years as a result of technological advances and automation many jobs in accountancy, law and management will die out.  However, we have every reason to expect that the voluntary sector will grow.  These professions need emotional intelligence, empathy, kindness, creativity, the ability to build teams and develop cooperation and communication between different sectors and cultures.  Under these circumstances artificial intelligence is no substitute for a human being.”

Demand for training

Despite the growth in NGOs, experts have noticed that there are currently very few programmes that provide adequate training for their staff.  Programmes tend to be limited to a particular subject or are simply unavailable on a regular basis.

Yelena Alshanskaya, President of the Charitable Foundation Volunteers to Support Orphans, said, “NGOs need to be professional.  If they are to have a real impact on society they cannot be treated like a hobby and there need to be sustained training programmes for them.  Delivering social change requires high quality work and stability, and yet when we looked into this issue we discovered that employees are not being properly trained anywhere”.  We need places where we can provide high quality training to NGO staff.  Where we have few of these opportunities staff have no option but to study independently.  Standard courses for NGOs need to be incorporated into the education system.

Professionals on no pay?

Gor Nakhapetyan, Co-founder of the Friendship Foundation, has said that one of the main reasons for the failure to professionalise the work of NGOs is the low salaries paid to their staff.  According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2014 there were around 2,700 NGO heads overseas earning above US$1 million per annum.

Currently Russian NGOs lag far behind.  According to data from the research foundation We Need Help, many Russians firmly believe that they should not contribute to the administrative costs of running an NGO, although this statistic is changing over time.  In 2017 18% of those questioned said that people’s donations should not be used to cover these costs.  Last year that proportion fell to 12%.  In 2017 11% of those surveyed felt that NGO staff should not receive any kind of salary (that figure had fallen by 2% compared with the preceding year).

One expert said, “I do not want the voluntary sector to be seen as inferior. It is no different than any other section of the economy.  Like everyone else, we are in the business of recruiting professionals to fill our posts.  Why should we be considered inferior?  Surveys have shown that the Russian people believe that voluntary sector workers should not be paid a salary or if they are then it should be a very low salary.  In fact, people working for NGOs should be paid a market rate. Only then will we be in a position to attract professional people.

Yekaterina Chistyakova, Director of the Charitable Foundation Give Life, said, “We once used to help children in our spare time, at the end of our working day, but we came to realise that it is impossible to provide effective help on a voluntary basis  This realisation was a huge step forwards.  Accepting money for voluntary work was once considered a disgrace, but much has changed since then.  A wage is simply part of an incentive scheme.”

Chistyakova explained that Give Life is trying to encourage the voluntary sector to pay competitive wages but at the same time avoid abusing the trust of people who donate their money to children’s causes.  She added, “Instead of a salary we can give NGO training opportunities.  We cannot and we are unlikely to be able to compete with businesses and we certainly don’t want volunteers competing against each other for bonuses.  I want people to be working for results that make the help that we offer more effective.”

Yelena Chernyskova, Head of Collaboration with Educational and Voluntary Organisations at the Moscow office of the company Odgers Berndston, agrees with Chistyakova, highlighting the point that the voluntary sector does not have enough financial or human resources.  She remarked, “Overall the voluntary sector is progressing despite a terrible lack of resources.  The theorists will say that it is possible to bring about radical improvements in any area of work but only if there are sufficient resources.”



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