What East African NGOs Teach Us About Organizational Development

By Claire Fialkov, Ph.D., and David Haddad, Ed.D. February 17, 2014

Resiliency is ubiquitous because it’s fundamentally important to human survival. Psychologists have long known that children exposed to similar trauma respond differently to it, some showing symptoms of depression and anxiety and yet others who seem to emerge with even greater resolve. It’s as if the adversity provided an opportunity for growth.

With a sample of over 1.1 million participants, psychologists have discovered that resiliency is linked to character strengths. Character strengths provide the fuel for well-being and resilient outcomes.

When people use their strengths in daily life it helps them build resiliency for future challenges. Since we will never be a world that is free of adversity, why not try to build on the resources we need for facing adversity when it inevitably comes our way?

Character Strengths Among NGO Staff

The new science of positive psychology and strength-based practice provides a valuable human resource tool for the measurement of character strengths, the VIA Inventory of Strengths. The VIA-IS a free, online, 20-minute, self-administered assessment tool that gives you a rank order of 24 character strengths that have been cross-culturally established with over 1.3 million people worldwide. In our study we looked at a sample of development workers in the East African (Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda) NGO community. When we compared East African NGO workers with workers at other global, nonprofit organizations, we found that the NGO workers in East Africa had significantly higher scores in: teamwork, leadership, prudence, perseverance, self-regulation, hope and spirituality.

Comparisons were made across five samples:

  • East African NGO employees (the target group).
  • U.S. nonprofit employees.
  • Global nonprofit employees.
  • East African nonprofit employees.
  • East African workers in general.

The following summarizes overall results:

  • NGO workers had higher prudence than global nonprofit employees.
  • NGO workers had higher teamwork than U.S. and global nonprofit employees and East African workers in general.
  • NGO workers had higher hope than U.S. and global nonprofit workers.
  • NGO workers had higher perseverance than U.S. and global nonprofit workers.
  • NGO workers had higher leadership than global nonprofit workers.
  • NGO workers had higher self-regulation than U.S. and global nonprofit employees.
  • NGO workers had higher spirituality than U.S. and global nonprofit workers.

The character strengths that stand out in East African NGO workers are well-matched with resilience. Teamwork and leadership are relational strengths of civic responsibility. East African NGO workers were found to value community connection and loyalty to kin, friends, teams and organizations over individual self-interest. We know that having strong social connections and an ability to work together make you more resilient.

In addition to working together, effective job performance and achievement requires that you stay the course. Prudence, perseverance, and self-regulation have been called strengths of effective action. Think of the person that falls down, yet gets up again and again, each time with even greater motivation. This is commonly known as “grit” and those in the development world are well aware that this work requires determination in the face of setbacks.

What do you think you might need to sustain grit over the long haul? People burn out if they are not able to imagine a better future. You need hope because it keeps you going. Hope is highly connected to well-being. If you have hope you can continue to feel good about life in the face of disappointment. Hope and its close cousin, spirituality, both give us a sense of higher purpose in life. Spirituality is a highly utilized strength in many parts of the world, yet it has been under-utilized in organizational development work because of the Western models we often rely on for guidance.

Resiliency Programming Needed

There is a clear need for NGO resiliency programming that contributes to a sustainable reduction in vulnerability and increased resilience. A November 2007 assessment report on “NGO Staff Well-Being in the Darfur Region of Sudan and Eastern Chad” shines light on the desire to strengthen well-being within NGOs. The No. 1 recommendation is that NGOs should articulate a commitment to staff well-being and demonstrate that commitment by evaluating and developing clear organizational policies related to building well-being capacity, and include a budget for staff care as a regular part of operating expenses. Field workers in Sudan suggested that they would like to see “much more time devoted to having staff oriented and familiarized with the value of care and wellness as key values of the organization.” The overwhelming majority (82 percent) of NGO headquarters and field staff felt that they could benefit from strength-building training or coaching during their time in Sudan or Chad. They further indicated that they would find workshops and training as well as discussion groups with colleagues most useful for the delivery of these services.

We have developed a resiliency program that cultivates individual and team strengths in the context of relationships and culture. It has been previously tested and published with U.S. groups, and been used with an East African NGO in Kenya in February 2013. We start by inviting program staff to complete the VIA-IS in order to assess and build a language for strengths. Then we engage the group in an exploration of how character strengths manifest in their life and work. The format moves back and forth between small and large group conversations that create the space for staff to describe those moments when they feel most connected to their work and what they value. We get beyond the assessment of strengths to a place of deeper meaning and connection.

Listening to the stories people tell about their strengths is deeply meaningful and embedded in important cultural contexts, political climates, and family narratives.

We wonder about the role of families and communities in the development and nurturance of these strengths. Sharing the origin of your deeply held strengths with a caring and respectful team of attentive listeners not only provides a gateway to someone’s deeply held values, but also supports well-being, productivity and resilience. The reflective process encourages you to listen to the voices of your colleagues as knowledge experts about their own lives. It respects that staff often come with strengths that need to be seen, voiced and cultivated at work. In fact, as our preliminary research shows, East African NGO workers come well-prepared to foster resilience in the communities they serve, perhaps because they have already cultivated it in themselves.

Because program design must go hand in hand with impact evaluation, we are developing both qualitative and quantitative measures of impact and we routinely gather anecdotal evidence, such as this comment by the country head of an agricultural-based NGO in East Africa: “The single most important outcome was and continues to be a significant change in self-perception and confidence. On both individual and team levels there is a renewed sense of optimism, challenge and encouragement all of which were absent. The process, including the strength inquiry and the investigation into the outcomes of same, providing room for respectful discussion, and … were all key components and all built perfectly on the foundation of the team’s existing strengths...”

If we are to help communities emerge from cycles of crisis on to a pathway toward development, we must walk the walk with them. If these goals are to be reached within the communities we serve, NGOs need equally effective and measurable interventions for cultivating character strengths within their own organizations. Strengths transform organizations and create spirals of staff engagement that extend outward into the community.

Claire Fialkov, Ph.D., is a psychologist and core faculty member at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. She is a co-founder of Appreciative Action, a consultation practice that focuses on strengthening the capacity of organizations dedicated to creating a healthier and more civil world community. David Haddad, Ed.D., is a licensed psychologist and systems therapist, and co-founder of Appreciative Action. His current research interest involves the assessment and cultivation of strengths of NGO workers, in service of building a more resilient global development community.

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