Operational Excellence: More Essential Than Ever


Operational Excellence: More Essential Than Ever

By Tom Dente

President and CEO

Since Humentum’s founding almost forty years ago, we have been fortunate to support the growing development and recognition that global operational capabilities are essential to delivering and sustaining the impact of international NGOs. Appreciation of the unique value that operational expertise brings to enable and support effective programs and overall organizational strategy has grown, notwithstanding ongoing challenges in funding.

Operations and defining operational excellence are complex and evolving topics. Different needs, funding, reporting structures and stages of development have created a variety of different models. As the traditional NGO ‘back office’ has become more strategic across functions ranging from finance and human resources to IT, international NGOs have had to successfully address multiple issues:

  • How do we better ensure linkages and integration with our overall strategic direction, competencies, and program needs?
  • How do we operationally support the increasing overall diversity of our programs, projects, locations, and geographies?
  • How can we assess and improve fragmented, often decentralized capabilities that have developed over time, in different places, and at different rates?
  • How can we support long-term investments given funding models and budget pressures and avoid “business-as-usual” costs crowding out new opportunities?

In this environment, operational excellence often requires both setting strategic direction while delivering integrated, effective, and efficient processes day-to-day in countries around the world.

The importance of advancing operational excellence for NGOs is well documented in our sector. The consulting firm, FSG, noted in Ahead of the Curve: Insights for the International NGO of the Future that “while there is not always a direct relationship, we see a strong correlation between a focus on operational elements and the ability to anticipate disruption and embrace new approaches to impact.” Others, such as The Bridgespan Group in its report, Stop Starving Scale: Unlocking The Potential of Global NGOs, have been even stronger: “For those eager to do more and better work, the path ahead is clear but difficult to tread: make the investments in core operations that will transform the organization into a platform for efficient delivery of highly effective programs on a global scale.”

To support operations professionals, Humentum has created forums for practice sharing, learning, and development across multiple disciplines. While each NGO’s portfolio of functional expertise, value-added services and infrastructure support will vary, overall operational capabilities are evolving in the sector. Within functional disciplines and across overall operations areas, Humentum seeks to bring experts and organizations together to share knowledge and practices as NGOs define future operational capabilities. In our roundtables and expert sessions, we note the many new ways operations adds value, supports organizational scale, and implements new approaches to adapt to emerging needs.

We also provide an overall platform for recognition of operational excellence in the sector. Highlighted each year at our Annual Conference, our Excellence Awards for key functional disciplines reveal the innovation and creativity occurring regularly across our community. As organizations and operations continue to evolve and transform, realizing the full potential of strategic operations will be an ongoing effort, but one that holds great promise in a time of change for international NGOs. And Humentum will be there to support you, our members, in this essential work.


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