India has a large presence of NGOs, each working on different problems or issues prevalent in the society. While India has immensely contributed in the field of Information, Communication and Technology (ICT), the NGOs have not been able to fully utilize the benefits and explore the potential of these technology systems. Most NGOs use standard office tools to manage data collected from their field locations for every project. Every time there is a need to present its activities, the NGO has to collect information from its field offices, project managers, and lost/forgotten sources. The Management Information Systems (MIS) with the help of ICT solves this problem by keeping all the important information in one central repository and making the information available to the management.
Need for MIS in NGOs
Today NGOs are often spread over a vast geographical area handling a large number of diverse projects. Requirements of data may be vastly different for each project. When projects need to deal with large numbers of data from different functions and beneficiaries, MIS can provide ready and accessible data at any given point in time irrespective of the expanse and diversity of geographical locations.
A good manager can become inefficient without the required information. The program leads must have immediate access to the latest data of each activity implemented in every project. The availability of right data at the right time increases the efficiency of the program and allows staff to take quick and effective decisions.
A high degree of flexible and updated MIS can cater to the needs of different functions such as fund raising and accounts of an NGO. Data generated by MIS can be used not only by the program team but also by other staff who need particular data from other programs. Since MIS increases transparency by making project information more readily available, it can be a handy tool for those involved in preparation of proposals and reports.
The improved MIS enables Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) to take on a more comprehensive role in the project. MIS helps M&E for not only monitoring the indicators of outcome and overall project status, it also extends the capacity to evaluate the project’s impact.
Challenges of ICT based MIS in NGOs
I have been engaging continuously to develop a robust MIS application as SeSTA deals with more than 60 professionals and about 35,000 women farmers from 23 development blocks of Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya. However, implementing and incorporating ICT based MIS into NGO activities can be challenging. Some of the challenges are:
- ICT implementation can sometimes be very expensive. Even though MIS can be very useful to increase the effectiveness of NGO activities, their implementation is not always easy to conduct, often due to the budget constraints. Moreover, most of the NGOs focus on their mission and vision and spend their funds for this purpose only and they are not much conscious about their technological needs.
- Due to lack of technology experts in NGOs, the maintenance and regular updating of MIS often does not happen.
- Generally NGO managers and software developers talk in different languages. MIS developer has a different understanding and approach developing and implementing certain features and functionalities. While NGO managers have a clear concept of their operations and they may fail to explain those to the MIS developer in ways they would understand to enable building the right kind of database and interface.
- Collaboration between NGO, software developer and sponsors may not be always on the highest level. A good MIS requires software developer to have close collaboration when developing, implementing and testing certain technologies with all of the stakeholders. However, the frequency of this collaboration may not always be as effective as needed for the project to be completed in timely manner.
Requirements for Good MIS
Organizational budget and commitment: Just as NGOs have dedicated budgets for trainings, exposures and procurements etc. it also needs to have a budget for MIS too (whether small or big). Often the lead of the organization has to spend enough time in understanding the MIS structure, requirements, and capabilities etc. to utilize the MIS in the best possible way to secure the strategic advantage.
Selection of IT firm: While investing on custom built software, it is important to select a consultant/firm who have proven experience on developing similar MIS tools as developing custom built software often becomes a long process and expensive.
Defining clear scope: The MIS should address to its core activities and objectives. The scope of MIS needs should be clearly defined and explained to the consultant and the consultant should produce system analysis and design documents. Inclusion of unimportant data items makes MIS clumsy and increases the burden of data entry, while non-inclusion of important data items thereby making the MIS weak and useless.
Flexibility: NGOs do not work with the same donors for a long period of time. Thus with change of donors there will be changes in the requirements of data and reporting even if the same program is continued but with a different donor. Therefore, MIS should be flexible to include more projects and more data types as and when required in future without needing much changes to its database structure and program codes.
Training to the MIS users: Training on MIS may be important before implementing a new MIS project. The managers/officers responsible for entering data should be explained about how to enter the data.
Agreement with MIS Developer: As NGOs mostly do not have in-house developer, there will be a dependency on the application developer for all future changes. And if the MIS developer goes out of market then there is no way to modify the program. One option is to get the source code from the MIS developer. However, while getting the source code, the entire code needs to be tested by third party vendors to see if the codes are in working condition.
Data security: It is important to implement proper security measures to ensure that the valuable organizational data is protected from being misused by wrong people. The MIS may implement different levels of access to allow or disallow different people for different types of data.
Role of MIS lead: MIS lead has to play a vital role in interfacing various groups, training the new users, feeding the master data, assigning access rights, keeping data backup, ensuring data security and confidentiality etc. The person should be highly responsible, should have good knowledge on IT and good understanding of NGO program implementation.
Data repository: The MIS system not only needs to capture data but also documents, both completed and as well as work in progress. Old important documents available only in print must also be scanned and uploaded. Similarly the progress of the programs can also be ascertained by using the MIS.
Nowadays the developmental activities are being carried out by larger groups of professionals with clear objectives and strategies and the competition between the NGOs has grown significantly. The funding agencies extend their financial support only after satisfactory evaluation of NGOs past performances and success stories. Under such circumstances an NGO has no option but to improve its efficiency through various means. It has to prove that it not only has the expertise on specific developmental issues but also has the capability of managing larger projects, information and resources to achieve the desired goals. This is where MIS plays a great role.
Although many people argue that an NGO should not spend too much money on information management, it is a fact that organizing the information requires more of a mindset and an organized behavior than a financial investment.
Manash Rabha is currently working as an Integrator – IT, MIS & MEL at SeSTA. Prior to joining SeSTA, he worked with TCS as a Systems Engineer for four years. For more information and interaction reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org .