Whilst the landscape we work in both domestically and internationally continues to evolve and bring new challenges, the data analysed in this report paints an overall picture of a sector in a relatively stable and healthy position at this point in time. In aggregate, both total revenue and public donations have been growing, and trust in development NGOs is reasonably high. Australian development NGOs collaborate successfully in a range of ways, from learning to campaigning. Australian development NGOs may tend to do less work in countries where human development is at its lowest, but the countries where they do work most are clearly countries where their work is needed. Australian development NGOs focus a significant portion of their work on countries in Africa. In-country NGOs’ work is spread across an appropriate range of partners and sectors. There is little evidence of increasing project or country fragmentation.

Despite these encouraging facts, the findings that emerge from this report raise some important questions when considered amidst the current context that Australian development NGOs find themselves. Different readers will no doubt find their own areas that they think warrant further analysis and discussion. However, for us the following areas stood out.

Although Australian development NGOs engage in monitoring and evaluation work, if our sample of ACFID members is anything to go by, important opportunities for transparency and shared learning are being lost because so few evaluations are being published online. Encouraging and facilitating the publication of evaluations online in the future could be an important area of growth. It may be the case that this doesn’t happen on individual organisations’ websites, but rather through a centralised evaluation library. This could serve as a focus point for sharing of learnings between NGOs.

Relatedly, a clear challenge for us as we produced this report was finding systematic evidence of the effectiveness of Australian NGOs’ work in developing countries. We know that there are excellent examples of success that exist amongst the work the community undertakes, yet at this point, systematically demonstrating this success is not easy. Being able to demonstrate such success by drawing on solid evidence would strengthen the case for aid delivered by Australian NGOs. Most importantly, it would increase the sector’s ability to learn as it worked.

Within the sector there is a clear, urgent need to find means of ensuring that more women are represented at senior management levels. In a sector where most staff are women, it is worrying that
most senior decision makers are men; this is a situation that stands at odds to the sector’s own commitment to women’s empowerment. From here, work is needed to find out what is causing the disparities and how they can be best tackled.

In the area of fundraising, two questions emerge. First, the greater efficiency of the network fundraising model used by smaller NGOs and the larger donations associated with it, raise the question of whether other, larger, NGOs might be able to find a means of emulating this, drawing upon the increased potential for fostering networks that are analogous to personal networks through social media. Also, while we found development NGO engagement with the private sector to be quite strong in general, it was striking just how small a share of Australian businesses donate to Australian development NGOs. This raises the question of whether NGOs could be doing more to engage with businesses as they seek donations. If they could, the potential for increased funding for the important work of Australian development NGOs could be greatly enhanced.

The fact that such a large share of Australia’s development NGOs, as identified in ACNC data, are small, if not tiny, raises important questions too. In particular, there are questions to do with organisational efficacy. It is possible to be a small NGO and to deliver a lot to stakeholders in developing countries. But once organisations become particularly small this seems less likely. For this reason, the large number of NGOs with revenues less than $10,000 per annum in the ACNC data raises questions. Could more of these NGOs combine? Can people be dissuaded from starting their own NGOs and encouraged to contribute to existing NGOs? Are there means of increasing knowledge-sharing from larger existing NGOs to smaller organisations, even when the smaller organisations exist outside of ACFID?

While it was particularly encouraging to see increased engagement with advocacy amongst ACFID members, and while the ability of the Campaign for Australian Aid to engage people was similarly encouraging, there are further questions to be asked about whether the sector is doing enough advocacy and whether it is going about it the right way. As we described in the sector, development needs are changing and issues such as climate change make advocacy increasingly important. The sector is making a substantial effort in the area of advocacy, but questions remain about how it can be made more effective in an environment where it is so clearly needed.

Improving future reports

This is the first ever state of the sector report conducted in Australia. It has provided a unique opportunity to gather information and learn about the state of the Australian development NGOs and their work. It has also provided an important opportunity to start a conversation about what the sector wants to know about itself in the future. If the sector views additional learning as important, it will have to discuss how missing data can be gathered, and whether the benefits of gathering data outweigh the costs.

Two useful, illustrative, examples of important missing information can be found in the areas of staff diversity and well-being, and development NGOs’ impact in the countries where they work. These examples illustrate both the need for more data and the challenges of gathering it.

The first example relates to the important characteristic ‘has a healthy and diverse workforce’. At this point, the only indicators for this characteristic pertain to staff numbers and the representation of women at different levels in organisations. As it is, these indicators are very revealing. Yet few would argue that they provide a full picture of the health and diversity of the workforce of Australian development NGOs. Many other important indicators can be thought of for diversity. For example, staff who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders, staff with disabilities, staff who were born or live in other countries, LGBTQI staff, etc. Similarly, the health of development NGOs’ staff could be captured in many meaningful ways, including surveyed life satisfaction and surveyed job satisfaction.

The challenge with these additional indictors lies in gathering the necessary data. Potentially, development NGOs could obtain some of the information from their own staff. They could subsequently provide this information to ACFID. However, in some instances, gathering the data may raise privacy issues. It might also add to the costs of NGOs’ own internal data gathering and would add to the time burden associated with NGOs’ reporting to ACFID. It would also add to the time required to process the data within ACFID.

Another approach that might address privacy issues, and be a more efficient means of data gathering, would involve a survey of staff from development NGOs coordinated by ACFID (or possibly an academic body). If the sample of staff involved was broadly representative, it would not need to be particularly large to paint a good picture of staff diversity and well-being. Confidentiality could also be preserved through such a survey. Yet considerable time would still be needed to create a sample frame and for data gathering. Time would also be required for analysis.

The crucial question for this indicator is whether people view the learning that could emerge from the data as worth the additional costs. This question will need to be seriously considered in advance of future surveys.

The second example relates to two characteristics that we were unable to report on this year. The first characteristic was, ‘is fostering development and humanitarian responses that enable sustainable change in-country through empowerment of local actors and systems’. The second characteristic was, ‘is delivering significant social, political, institutional, economic and environmental outcomes and impact, and contributing to systemic change’. At present, no quantitative data exists, nor do indicators that speak clearly to these characteristics. One obvious means of starting to gather data that might speak to the characteristics would be to ensure that evaluations are as comprehensive as possible, and that they are made publicly available. In this year’s report, we showed how rare the publication of evaluations was. If most or all evaluations were well constructed and readily available, some form of analysis could provide insights, even if it could not comprehensively speak to the characteristics. Other innovative methods such as using Keystone Surveys of communities working with Australian development NGOs in recipient countries could also be very useful, although such surveys would come at a cost and would still not fully speak to these indicators.42

Although we have only covered three characteristics here, much the same could be said about missing data and other characteristics. In many different areas, the sector will need to decide whether the value of the learnings, and the change that they can help bring about, justifies the cost of gathering the additional data.

Another issue that the sector will need to discuss prior to the next iteration of the report is the scope for learning more about organisations that are not within ACFID. The data that ACFID collects about its members has provided us with a unique opportunity to learn in depth about these organisations. Data from other sources, particularly the ACNC, has augmented our ability to learn about the sector more broadly, but not with the depth that we could learn about ACFID members. As we discussed early in the report, this was not always a limitation, but in some areas it was. In the future, expanding coverage should be considered, although it will certainly necessitate greater resources.

There is undoubtedly scope for improvement in future reports. Nevertheless, the 2018 ACFID State of the Sector Report stands, not only as the first of its kind in Australia, but also as one of the first of its kind globally. It has provided a rich picture of the state of the Australian development NGO sector. There is scope for further learning, but there is also much that has been learnt, and much that can be drawn upon as the sector seeks to change its work amidst a changing world.

42 For more information see:, accessed 18 Jan 2018.