An instruction manual for those who want a slice of the donor money pie

The world is full of ungrateful people. People who cannot see beyond the big picture to the small mercies. People who are unnecessarily critical when they should see only the bright side.

Such people question the efficacy of NGOs, for example, and criticise them for standing in the way of real solutions. They say that government should provide services like health and education and that government should be held accountable when it doesn’t do that.

Why waste time on social struggles when you can just start an NGO?

You must never listen to these people. What Nigeria, and indeed Africa, need is an increase in projects. Why waste time on government and social struggles when you can just start an NGO? Don’t let the ungrateful people dampen your spirit. The best time to start an NGO is yesterday. The next best time is now.

The rules of the hustle

As a Nigerian you know the deal: Everything is a hustle. Government, politics, religion- all a hustle. The Nigerian god only helps those who help themselves. The key to survival is to understand the rules of the hustle so that by strategically positioning yourself, God can meet you at the point of your need and bless your project.

This is where the NGO comes in.

You hear that millions of dollars have been set aside by foreign governments and donors for development in Nigeria. Smile. It may be a hustle for them too, but the fact is they are really doing it because they love you. Don’t wait to hear on radio or TV how this money is being spent. This will be unwise. You need to strategically position yourself now.

Get a lawyer to register your NGO at the Corporate Affairs Commission. Do your research before you do this. Find out what major donors- the European Union, DFID, the UN, USAID- have agreed to fund for the next few years. Avoid things that have received much funding in the past few years. Donors can be like children- they get bored with one thing and without warning, move to another. Plus, there is that evil thing threatening to truncate Europe’s hustle called a recession. Although God is faithful and will protect your hustle from truncation, God also helps those who help themselves.

Millions of dollars have been set aside by donors. Smile

You will need to take proactive steps to avoid being left with a redundant NGO due to lack of funding. Do one of two things: One, give your NGO a broad name that can cover two or more areas. The more the merrier. So instead of registering HIV/AIDS Alliance, register Health Watch Alliance. Instead of registering Alliance against Torture, register Alliance for the Protection of Human Rights. That way if there isn’t much torture for you to benefit from, you can benefit from other human rights abuses.

On the other hand, you can register multiple NGOs. With this you can never go wrong. Always be willing and able to change the dance as soon as the donors change the tune.

Funding value

When building the foundations of your NGO, you must be careful about the kind of people you invite. You don’t want the type who will suddenly become wild when the aid dollars start flowing in. Make the Board of Trustees your relatives and the parents of your close friends who are too busy, too old or too rich to care how you run your NGO. Include one neutral, fairly well-known person who has funding value: someone donors can respect. This person will be on the face of all your proposals.

Invest in media equipment: cameras, video recorders, projectors. Have pictures and videos to go with your proposals and letters of introduction. People need to see that you have been working hard, donating things and doing campaigns in your chosen field. Make sure you get lots of pictures of poor, sick looking children you have helped. Or homeless people you have given blankets to.

Make friends with guys who work in donor agencies. Networking in the NGO world is important. Many times crucial information about funding and projects slips out at social gatherings. This is how you know who is funding what and when.

A good proposal is everything

Take your time to work on proposals. A good proposal is everything. Seventy percent of the job of an NGO is paper work- proposals and budgets and retirements and press releases. If you are not sure how to package an NGO proposal, learn. If you can’t do it, don’t be stingy. Pay someone to do it. Pay for a beautiful website with lots of photos showing things you are committed to. Foreign donors get tickled by nice functional websites. Make sure you visit the website of your donor and follow the guidelines strictly.

Pay for a beautiful website with photos showing things you are committed to

Usually a career in one of the big donor agencies or international donor NGOs will prepare you for all of the above. If you have the patience, look for a job with one of the UN agencies, DFID or USAID. Study their processes. In a few years you will be ready to become a big local consultant or start your own NGO.

Running an NGO can be tricky. You rely on the hustle of foreign and local donors. You can suddenly run dry. You do not get a pension. So you must save for the day when donor rains cease to fall or you are too old to get another job. You must learn how to weave in extra items into the budget and inflate project costs. Anyone who calls this stealing, God will swiftly truncate their hustle.

When you spend donor money, you need to show that you really deserve it. So if money is left over, you need to find a way to spend that money or, next time you will get much less than you ask for.

Freedom of Information

As you run your NGO never assume that you will spend most of the money on actual causes. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Preparation is key. Best is to spend up to 70% arranging meetings, paying admin and other overhead costs that will make sure that some of the remaining 30% of the funds you have, goes to the cause where your hustle is domiciled.

Am I too technical? Let me give you a practical example. Say you run an organisation called the ‘Freedom of Information Alliance.’ Donors give you 100,000 dollars to promote Freedom of Information in Nigeria. Instead of squandering the whole amount actually promoting Freedom of Information in practical ways, thus wasting the money of kind donors, you must set aside considerable amounts for advocacy meetings, (lunch and tea breaks included), a conference or seminar to discuss the issue, capacity building (I’m not sure what that means but you shouldn’t think too hard about it either) and admin costs (some of the money should go to offsetting your rent in the heart of the city where rent is super expensive). And by some I mean like 80,000.

With the rest, you can promote Freedom of Information. You can, for example, make a nice glossy booklet that says that Freedom of Information is important.

A glossy booklet

Now, say there is another NGO that does the same thing. Yes, that happens. Sometimes another person, somewhere, is thinking the exact same thing you are thinking. Or maybe they just overheard you in a barbershop or hair salon talking about your interests and decided to copy you.

You must never work together. I know sometimes donors will require coalitions on some issues. In those instances, endure it. Join the coalition for the purpose of accessing funds and looking good. But when it comes to your day to day work, ignore the rival NGO. Nothing good can come from sharing ideas or working together. People just want to steal your ideas and get all the money from donors.

People should understand that you can’t risk clashing with your donor

Sometimes, a situation may come up that needs you to look outside the narrowly defined grants that donors give. Well, it is not your fault that people’s problems don’t align with the specific proposal you made to the donor. The thing is, God can see your heart and you really want to do what is right. Of course you would like to help people with real problems, if you could. But people should understand that you can’t risk clashing with your donor. How will you be able to afford rent for your nice office?

People need to be reasonable in their expectations. You are, after all, the only alternative to corrupt, inefficient government. What would anyone do without you?


Remember that the local people you are trying to help have no idea what they want. If they did, they wouldn’t need you in the first place. If you say they need Freedom of Information, then that is what they need. If you say they need a borehole, then what they need is a borehole. There is no need to spend time asking the people on the ground how they would do things. Often, they will be too grateful for what you have done for them to bother about the effectiveness of your intervention. And that is all that matters: their gratitude.

Because NGO people are jealous, it is important that as God blesses your NGO hustle, you do not draw attention to yourself. You don’t want fellow NGO people reporting you to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Wear casual shirts (preferably sewn with kampala fabric) on jeans unless you are attending donor meetings or meetings with government counterparts. No need to advertise all the money you are making from saving your fellow countrymen.

Never miss dinners and meetings organized by embassies and donors. These people are an important link to funding. It doesn’t matter if you do not get a personal invitation- once there is ‘civil society’ in the program, polish your shoes, take your glossy complimentary cards and get going.

If you are into human rights, try to get arrested

If you are into human rights, try to get arrested. Foreign donors get excited when they meet human rights activists who have actually been locked up or who have gory tales to tell. Take advantage of popular protests to boost your activist CV and the reputation of your NGO. You don’t want to take this too far however. The idea is to get attention, not get killed or locked up indefinitely. Be smart.

Do television, radio and newspaper interviews. Pay to get interviewed if possible. It is for the cause. Do press releases. You must not only do work but be seen to do work. The more visible you are, the more NGO points you get. The more NGO points you get, the more funding you are likely to continue to have.

One final thing: when in doubt, remember the three W’s: 1. What would the donors do? 2. What do the donors want? 3. What can the donors fund?

God bless your hustle

If you follow my advice, before long, you will be flying from one all-expense-paid foreign conference and seminar to another. For the cause. May you continue to receive funding and may God, through your NGO, bless your hustle.

According to his Twitter account Elnathan John is a (Nigerian) satirist; recovering lawyer; not an award-winning anything; and in an abusive relationship with Nigeria. He is currently finishing a novel to come out in 2016. Follow him on

Note: Photo is taken from the video "Let's Save Africa – Gone Wrong", 2013, by SAIH | Norwegian Students' and Academics' International Assistance Fund.