Exceptional NGOs rely on exceptional leaders. In the Indian social sector, a senior team's competence is often the make-or-break factor in an organization's ability to make strides toward such ambitious goals as providing equitable healthcare, ensuring high-quality education for children, or providing access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. Yet widespread doubts persist about whether there is sufficient investment in NGO leadership teams to achieve these important outcomes.
Against this backdrop, The Bridgespan Group, with support from Omidyar Network, undertook what we believe is the first data-driven study of NGO leadership development in India. We looked into NGOs' efforts to strengthen their leaders' skill sets and build their leadership bench.
Our findings were sobering. Drawing on a survey of approximately 250 leaders from Indian NGOs and the Indian offices of international NGOs—supplemented with more than 50 interviews with funders, intermediaries, and NGO executives, as well as secondary research—we found a systemic gap between the sector's leadership development aspirations, and the reality of its investments and efforts.
The consequences of this underinvestment are threefold:
- Overdependence on individual leaders, often founders
- Lack of a second line of leadership
- Limited organizational leadership skills such as change management and strategic thinking
Reflecting this, 53 percent of surveyed NGOs do not feel confident that anyone internally can effectively lead their organizations in the absence of their senior-most leaders.
Yet we also found cause for optimism. Even as NGOs struggle to attract and sustain strong leadership teams, some NGOs and funders are taking replicable steps to close the gap. Their approaches and ideas—detailed in Sections IV and V—hold promise for both bolstering leadership teams and nurturing the next generation of senior talent.
The implications represent a threat to these organizations' ability to sustain and scale impact. A full 97 percent of survey respondents say leadership development is vital to their organizations' success, a belief echoed by funders. But practitioners and funders also say they invest little time and resources in cultivating leaders. Indeed, more than half the NGOs polled do not believe they are capable of recruiting, developing, and transitioning leaders. And more than 50 percent report their organizations have not received any funding to develop leaders in the past two years.