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Where does OD sit with NGOs?

To create truly transformative change at NGOs, Organisation Development (OD) needs to be an equal partner in the process.
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Whether it’s because of changes in context, lack of resources or shifts in relationships, NGOs are thinking about transformation.

To create truly transformative change, Organisation Development (OD) needs to be an equal partner in the process, says practitioner Sarah Ireland. Here, Sarah shares her top tips for successful change.

For me, transformation doesn’t mean change for the sake of change. It's meaningful, purposeful change which will lead to a different and better outcome for the recipients of our service. Transformation is also an overused word at the moment, it needs to be used wisely and thoughtfully.

In my experience, transformation is rarely that. Instead, it is often marginal change with little impact. This is where I think Organisation Development comes in:  being an OD practitioner I am still surprised when others think that change is just about structure or strategy and that significant meaningful change will happen as if by magic.

Scoping out what kind of change is really needed can be supported by good Organisation Development.  When Oxfam undertook a significant change in Asia, OD worked alongside HR and managers: suggesting and supporting on practical things like:

  • job profiles -  including common behavioural expectations
  • induction - everyone should have one in the new structure and it should focus on values and expectations as well as strategy and relationships
  • defining and developing the team - start laying the ground before the change starts
  • ensuring that the whole team is engaged in the change discussions - well-facilitated group discussions and support to leaders make a difference to how things land.


Transformation needs investment, yes, but as much investment in thinking as in money. When OD is an equal partner in a change process, involved from the beginning and the organisation has a basic understanding of the benefits of a holistic approach, then  good things can happen.

OD can provide support and challenge as well as provide practical solutions to accompany new strategies and structure. OD does this by bringing in the human connections and relationships. This is not the soft/woolly stuff – it's all the hard cultural dimensions which underpin any organisation and which need to shift if sustainable change is to take place. In my experience, supporting leaders to be open, and being open yourself, can really help the changes you want to see. I look back at changes in Oxfam Asia and I am very grateful that I had support to listen to suggestions for all corners of the team as the end result was a much more engaged motivated team.

My advice to any NGO is to invest in OD:


Listen to people who understand the dynamics of making organisations work, and work with them. Involve them, from the very beginning – if you have internal capacity, value them!

Be brave

Tinkering at the edges will not bring the change that is needed. Work with the whole system in an integrated way and listen to the disruptors.

Design the change together

Exchange and collaboration are not things to be afraid of but to value: the outcome will definitely be the better for it.

And remember:

Recognise there will be tensions between interests and beliefs to manage. Actively manage them and support your leaders to recognise them too.

Leaders give power and profile to OD. Enable them to accompany and support.

Sarah Ireland is the head of Learning and People Development for St Margaret’s Hospice in Somerset and formerly Regional Director Asia and Head of Organisation Effectiveness for Oxfam GB.

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