The pressure of being an NGO Director


I had a long chat with Savong this morning thanks to SKYPE. Savong told me that he is fairly tired, and yet needing to do a lot of things yet to improve the school, to get the latest accounts completed and to deal with a few HR issues as well. On top of this he’s studying for a university degree and he told me that he doesn’t get enough time with his wife and children.

It made me think how lonely it must feel to be the head of an NGO. This “lonely at the top” feeling is shared by many business leaders: people who be definition must make the hard decisions and deal with the big issues knowing the buck stops with them. But in Cambodia this takes on a whole extra dimension.

  • The director is surrounded by people without a similar management background.
  • The director is the face of the organisation – and is answerable to fund raisers and supporters overseas. They experience cultural differences without the advantage of coming form a multicultural background.
  • The director is blancing the business values (tidy paperwork, Government compliance etc) against the urgent and real needs of poor people. There’s a point where decisions need to be made to support (or not support) truly needy people.

Savong has worn this for more than 8 years now, and over the past 12 months I’ve found him to be quite fatigued quite often. When holidays come, instead of relaxing his body decides – right, now to get that flu! Now’s the time to get sick!

We talked about these things today and I urged Savong to slow down – have a few days to relax – but he told me he has no time. There’s more to do, improvements to make, systems to implement.

What gives him most satisfaction, he says, is being at the school and seeing an organisation that is basically running very well. All staff have a clear role, the systems are put in place, and smaller decisions don’t always end up on Savong’s plate. He finds this satisfying.

I also think he finds it satisfying because this is where his dream started. Watching young students get free education, and knowing that they benefit from this. “I like to stand at the school and just be there,” Savong told me. “That is when I am happiest.”

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