Whither large International Non-Governmental Organisations?

Working Paper by Penny Lawrence: “Large international non-government organisations (INGOs) seem to be in an existential crisis in their role in the fight for social justice. Many, such as Save the Children or Oxfam, have become big well-known brands with compliance expectations similar to big businesses. Yet the public still imagine them to be run by volunteers. Their context is changing so fast, and so unpredictably, that they are struggling to keep up. It is a time of extraordinary disruptive change including the digital transformation, changing societal norms and engagement expectations and political upheaval and challenge. Fifteen years ago the political centre-ground in the UK seemed firm, with expanding space for civil society organisations to operate. Space for civil society voice now seems more threatened and challenged (Kenny 2015).

There has been a decline in trust in large charities in particular, partly as a result of their own complacency, acting as if the argument for aid has been won. Partly as a result of questioned practices e.g. the fundraising scandal of 2016/17 (where repeated mail drops to individuals requesting funds caused public backlash) and the safeguarding scandal of 2018 (where historic cases of sexual abuse by INGO staff, including Oxfam, were revisited by media in the wake of the #me too movement). This is also partly as a result of political challenge on INGOs’ advocacy and influencing role, their bias and their voice:

‘Some government ministers regard the charity sector with suspicion because it largely employs senior people with a left-wing perspective on life and because of other unfair criticisms of government it means there is regularly a tension between big charities and the conservative party’ Richard Wilson (Former Minister for Civil Society) 2018

On the other hand many feel that charities who have taken significant contracts to deliver services for the state have forfeited their independent voice and lost their way:

‘The voluntary sector risks declining over the next ten years into a mere instrument of a shrunken state, voiceless and toothless, unless it seizes the agenda and creates its own vision.’ Professor Nicholas Deakin 2014

It’s a tough context to be leading an INGO through, but INGOs have appeared ill prepared and slow to respond to the threats and opportunities, not realising how much they may need to change to respond to the fast evolving context and expectations. Large INGOs spend most of their energy exploiting present grant and contract business models, rather than exploring the opportunities to overcome poverty offered by such disruptive change. Their size and structures do not enable agility. They are too internally focused and self-referencing at a time when the world around them is changing so fast, and when political sands have shifted. Focussing on the internationalisation of structures and decision-making means large INGOs are ‘defeated by our own complexity’, as one INGO interviewee put it.

The purpose of this paper is to stimulate thinking amongst large INGOs at a time of such extraordinary disruptive change. The paper explores options for large INGOs, in terms of function and structure. After outlining large INGOs’ history, changing context, value and current thinking, it explores learning from others outside the development sector before suggesting the emerging options. It reflects on what’s encouraging and what’s stopping change and offers possible choices and pathways forwards….(More)”.