Do It Your Own Way

Opinions; everyone has an opinion. I only have one very real piece of advice with regards to starting an international non-profit organization, or any kind of corporate entity. Do it your own way. If you’re waiting for someone to tell you how to start a successful INPO, then maybe you should just get a job, or at the very least find something else to read.

There is no right or wrong way to start, run, or grow an International NPO. That is probably why there are so few books on the subject. You can find a mountain of books on how to run an organization based out of the USA or Europe; but nothing for owning, starting and operating an INPO in a “developing country”. Why is that?

My best guess as to why a definitive book on the subject has not been written is because the counties we work in are all at very different stages in their development. That may seem obvious, but really, it’s not. For example, Lao, China and Vietnam, are radically different countries, yet they share common boarders. Governance, education, foreign direct investment, infrastructure, health, literacy rate, GDP, freedom of press, among many other factors, create dramatically different environments for an organization to operate. So, any book written on how to operate an organization in Lao would largely not be relevant to Vietnam or China; they’re just too different from each other.

Culture has, in hindsight, been the single biggest challenge I’ve had to navigate. Specifically, how the local culture feels about development work, charity, giving, NGOs, and NPOs. As an example, lets just look at how it impacts HR and the hiring of staff between two specific countries. In Vietnam, getting a job at an INGO is (almost) equal to getting a job at Microsoft; it’s respected, and it’s considered to be a quality career choice. Where as in China, working at an INGO is “sensitive”, and carries a negative social stigma. This impacts wage expectations, the number of potential applicants that have relevant experience, the gender of applicants, and the duration that someone will stay employed at a non-profit organization. Having had offices in both of these countries, it has presented me with both opportunities and challenges.

More than anything, you need to be prepared for the very real reality that you might not know what you’re doing, that your initial plan is garbage, and that on day-one you will need to change your entire business model. You won’t get the answers you are looking for by reading a book by Richard Branson or binge watching TED Talks. You get answers by believing in yourself, assessing the on-the-ground realty of the country you’re working in, empowering a diverse team, fighting and never giving up.

More than anything, the never ending tsunami of opinions from outside the development sector are neither helpful or well informed. Ignore them. The decisions you make on how to start and operate an INPO in-country really need to be put into a local context. The only person who can do that is you.