An NGO’s Crisis Turnaround

By Karen Johnston

Just two years ago there was public consternation at the imminent closure of the Western Cape NGO, the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. Immediate reasons for the shutdown were financial, coming from the global economic contraction and resultant reductions in donations being received from individuals and companies, along with unpredictable lottery donations and inadequate state funding.

Having been forced used all of its financial reserves in the previous financial year, Rape Crisis retrenched almost all staff in July 2012. Fast forward to today, and Rape Crisis is back on its feet – a result of applying some basic business principles to its non-profit environment.

It is a lesson for others who would recognise the predicament of Rape Crisis director Kathleen Dey: “Over four years we lost R4 million in international grant money, yet the need for our services was greater than ever. We were at a complete loss.”

The fight back to health of Rape Crisis came through a turnaround strategy that has refocused the organisation’s thinking along business principles resulting in all staff members being rehired, and with the NGO now having several months’ worth of operating income stashed away.

In its critical weeks, Kathleen Dey was advised to lean on the advice of marketing consultant and Wits Business School lecturer Laurence Beder. It was an unusual coming together.

Says Beder: “Rape Crisis was in real trouble. Under the circumstances there were more important things than relooking at vision and mission statements. We needed to focus and act fast. And so we didn’t concentrate on a nebulous sustainability in our strategic planning; rather we looked at what we could do at that moment, to do what I term a ‘speedboat turnaround’, instead of the usual ‘turning an oil tanker’ approach”.

There were several challenges: the original model of Rape Crisis focused on planning for programmes only, staff morale was low, various groups of stakeholders were being ignored, and the organisation had not properly understood how to position itself in the marketplace.

By adapting marketing and business principles to the NGO environment, Beder, Dey, and the (by now unpaid and voluntary) Rape Crisis team began to create the turnaround, work out how to implement it, and how to track progress.

First up was aggressive marketing, not a thing many NGOs are comfortable with. “If you want to get ahead of the game, you have to put your best foot forward and say out loud what makes you different. That’s how you get most support,” says Beder.

That meant specifically targeting more audiences than the usual beneficiaries and grant makers: it meant going beyond these to the communities in which Rape Crisis operates, government, media and individual donors as well as its own volunteers and employees, each needing specific messaging and communication. Beder continues: “If you want different stakeholders to become your spokespeople, you must work out how to position yourself in their minds.”

For Rape Crisis this even meant working off a new, more positive tagline of “Supporting recovery; seeking justice; making change” in place of the old “Women against violence against women”. It meant a shift from punting themselves as a welfare organisation to that of “change makers”.

“The time we spent crafting messages for different stakeholders also meant getting to understand them better. It was one of the most valuable parts of our turnaround process,” explains Dey. And off of this came the pillars of the organisation’s new operational strategy – to achieve consistent excellence in programme and financial management, governance, fundraising, communications and human resources.

Concentrating on these things may seem obvious, but for many NGOs it isn’t. Far too often it is the “purpose programmes” that get all the attention. After all, who starts a childcare organisation, say, with a focus on marketing? Led by Beder and Dey, Rape Crisis started to align and consolidate functions, planning fundraising strategically, crafting messages to media and stakeholders and so on. Public happenings were watched for opportunities they could present.

One came with the brutal rape and murder of Anene Booysen. Here was a tragedy that spoke directly to the NGO’s purpose and work, and they needed to think not simply in terms of outrage, but of strategic communications.

Rape Crisis ran a social media campaign protesting the killing and mutilation of Booysen and promoting their own work, raising a fast R75 000. That quick win was immediately followed by an International Women’s Day bus campaign, taking their message to courts, community centres, schools and the like; announcing their services to the public. Pro bono and sponsored consultants were brought in to design strategy in each of the organisation’s operational pillars, and to guide implementation, with concomitant boosts to staff confidence.

One example of how Rape Crisis got outraged individuals involved was their call for individuals to sponsor volunteer counsellors. They used the online fundraising platform GivenGain to run a short-burst campaign that allowed people to transfer funds at the click of a button. They punted the campaign through the mainstream press, and through free and paid-for social media. So successful was this that Rape Crisis now have a fund to draw on for future training courses. Indeed, overall individual giving for the year exceeded the organisation’s largest single grant.

Moving beyond simple operational survival, planning strategically across all areas of the business, tight management controls, and an aggressive and targeted communications campaign has brought results. For the first few months of the turnaround, that meant going for “quick wins” to ensure survival. From there came a steady progression from crisis to containment to sustainability. It is a story that could be repeated across the land.

  • The case study of the turnaround of Rape Crisis was presented to the recent Trialogue CSI Matters conference, held in Johannesburg. First published in Business Day, 3 July 2014.