What Security Can Be

By Matthew Thacker, Senior Global Security Manager, PSI

Despite NGO workers meeting and working with us on a daily basis, the role of security managers such as myself often remains a mystery. NGO security managers have chosen to specialize in a different field than corporate, government or private security. Simply put, we see ourselves as NGO workers who do security. Even highly experienced staffers sometimes assume their security managers are karate experts, trained snipers and/or former spies. While some may practice martial arts, or may have been expert marksmen in a prior life, these are neither requirements of the job nor lead to being an excellent security manager.

So, what is NGO security? First, let’s define what it’s not.

Security is not offensive. In the NGO context, security is based on three pillars: acceptance by local communities; protection of compounds and staff using locks, walls, and gates; and deterrence using guards and other countermeasures. But security is never out looking for a fight.

Security is not an excuse. Curfews and no-go areas should be put in place only because of current risk assessments and threat profiles. They should not be used to limit how many drivers need to be hired or paid for after-hours work, or to prevent staff from going to clubs and parties. If a security curfew is 9pm on weeknights, and 11pm on weekends, it should be because the risks to staff are somehow different on those nights. Otherwise, either the environment is safe enough to be out until 11pm 7 days per week, or dangerous enough to warrant being indoors by 9pm every night. Using security as an excuse to limit movements without an actual threat not only causes staff to be less compliant with other security policies, it also erodes trust with the security manager.

Security is not logistics. Security managers constantly monitor threats, put mitigation measures in place, plan for evacuations, and respond to critical incidents. They manage guards and their contracts. They collect information and build very deep, trusting relationships outside of the organization. Although there is a lot of overlap between security and logistics — and the two must work in tandem — a full-time security manager should not double as a de facto full-time logistics manager, or vice-versa.

Security is not a hurdle. Engaged security managers empower programs and managers to succeed, even in challenging environments. Security managers who are active partners at the program design and budgeting phases can better understand the program’s goals and provide guidance on how to succeed safely. Keep in mind, however, that what it takes may be too expensive, or beyond the risk threshold or operating standards of the organization.

What security can be — if you let it.

The NGO security manager is a powerful, hands-on member of the management team when given the time, resources, and support to fulfill his/her mission.

Security is a powerful network. A security manager develops a mass of friends and contacts — both official and unofficial — through interaction with their counterparts, and in working closely with finance, program, operations, and management teams in all their past assignments and missions. Through these networks, security managers often get “heads up” phone calls, are included in SMS alerts from other organizations, know who to call to solve problems, and can ask for favors. These relationships don’t come from official meetings. They are cultivated over coffee, lunches, happy hours, and finding mutual benefits. Security managers can provide insights into their own organizations and clarify misunderstandings, suggest external partnership opportunities, and can become an essential resource or even a negotiator in a hostile environment. In too many examples, security managers have been able to negotiate safe access to hostile environments for program teams to deliver life-saving aid in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and numerous other environments. Let your security manager know your needs. You might be amazed at the information they can provide, if asked. 

Security is a key advisor. Country directors and senior management teams benefit from security managers also fulfilling the role of confidant. Because their responsibilities are not linked to program delivery or budget bottom lines, security managers have a different perspective on management issues. Moreover, any number of internal problems can become a security problem if poorly managed (i.e., firing staff, delays in paying vendors, or fraud investigations). Security managers can ask questions of staff or check issues while completing security assessments to offices and warehouses. They are paid problem-solvers, so let them offer a fresh perspective.

Security is a lifesaver. Ultimately, everything the security manager does is to protect staff, assets, and the organization. Security trainings are not a hindrance — they are there to prepare staff to think for themselves. First aid and hostile environment trainings empower staff to save their own lives, and those of their colleagues. Fire safety drills prevent catastrophic loss of life or business disruptions. Security briefings inform staff of threats, policies, and expectations. Security plans explain how to respond to incidents, and evacuate in emergencies. Security managers are always willing to explain why something is necessary, or done in a certain way. But they must be given the opportunity to do so, and the time and resources needed to succeed in their job duties.

So, engage your security manager fully. Invite your security manager to brief senior staff on their work and updates at every management team meeting. Put your security manager on the proposal development team from day one. Tell your security manager what information or partnerships would help the organization succeed. Explain to your security manager what’s keeping you up at night and get their perspective. And, most importantly, ask your security manager what they need to succeed in keeping staff safe, healthy, and productive — and give it to them.