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What will be the future of transnational NGOs?

Between Power and Irrelevance:
the Future of Transnational NGOs

Why this book?

  • It explains why a gap exists between the rhetoric of transformative change and the reality of transnational NGOs’ limited abilities to deliver on their promises
  • It integrates insights from hundreds of practitioner interviews, extensive experiential learning, and academic research from multiple disciplines
  • It helps readers evaluate and formulate strategies for adapting transnational NGOs for the future

Who is this book for?


  • transnational NGO leaders, board members, and strategy directors
  • consultants advising transnationally operating NGOs through change processes
  • academics looking to understand the challenges and opportunities TNGOs are confronting
  • graduate students who study the effectiveness of transnational NGOs in current world affairs
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On the challenges of the transnational NGO (TNGO) sector:

“Without significant change, TNGOs risk “successful irrelevance”—continuing to survive by satisfying the expectations of the architecture but without necessarily providing relevant solutions for those they claim to serve.”

“The core problem may not be what the TNGO sector has become over time (e.g., arguably more competitive, professionalized, and detached), but how it has failed to evolve its own norms and institutions apace with its expanding aspirations and commitments to new roles.”

“As many TNGOs intellectually may have already made the shift from a charity to a sustainable impact mindset, they nevertheless remain embedded in an architectural context prioritizing low-cost intermediation over value-adding innovation, short-term outputs and results over long-term social change, and upward financial accountability to donors over primary stakeholder empowerment.”

Sample recommendations

“The sector’s future may need to involve changing how TNGOs are fundamentally constituted in law and understood as cultural objects. Such changes will certainly face the greatest resistance, with stakeholders struggling to conceive of what an alternative vision of TNGOs may even look like.”

“The sector would be better off developing a collective capacity to control its own destiny, rather than allow complacency to erode the sector’s status and relevance.”

Advance praise

 “George E. Mitchell, Hans Peter Schmitz, and Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken know what they are talking about. I strongly recommend this book to any NGO strategists pondering their long-term future.”

Duncan Green,
Oxfam Great Britain Senior Strategic Adviser and Professor in the Practice of International Development, London School of Economics

“This book provides a much needed update to the literature on transnational nongovernmental organizations (TNGOs). The authors bring a critical insider-outsider perspective to their analysis, providing important theoretical and historical context while engaging in a wide ranging consideration of the current issues and challenges TNGO leaders must surmount to keep their organizations relevant and true to their missions. Scholars, students, and TNGO leaders will all find important insights in this volume.

Mary Kay Gugerty,
Nancy Bell Evans Professor in Nonprofit Management, Evans School of Public Policy & Government, University of Washington

Book review excerpts

“Philantropic, humanitarian, and development organizations have been conducting deep organizational changes to respond to the expectations of the communities they serve and a new generation of individual donors. A shift from charity, assistance, and feel-good altruism is taking place towards results, innovation, and accountability. The book “Between Power and Irrelevance: The Future of Transnational NGOs” from George E. Mitchell, Hans Peter Schmitz, and Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, is a must-read for anyone participating in such changes and seeking ideas to build the next generation of social change organizations. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!”

Raymundo Tamayo,
Country Manager, The Lego Foundation

“This a must read for INGO leaders and senior staff of INGOs, particularly in the Global South, so that they can understand what is going on in the power-centres of their INGO organizations [ … ].”

Ramesh Kumar Singh Malla,
Independent Consultant, former COO,
Greenpeace, and former CEO, ActionAid International

“This book is a must read for all TNGO practitioners. It is both provocative and well argued. The questions raised cannot be ignored if authentic impact is sought. Buy it. read it as a group and consider the changes that are truly necessary”

Pierre Ferrari,
President and CEO, Heifer International

“By leveraging the extraordinary breadth and depth of their collective experience and research, Mitchell, Schmitz, and Bruno-van Vijfeljken articulate a series of fundamental dilemmas confronting transnational non-governmental organizations(TNGOs)which, if not addressed, will erode the sector’s credibility. impact, and relevance:

Ed Boswell,
Co-Founder and CEO, Conner Advisory

“Transnational NGOs are a huge phenomenon. There are thousands of them all over the world; they play a notable role in the ecology of the global political system and have an impact on policy and outcomes. This valuable book helps us understand them.”

Peter Gourevitch,
Founding Dean and Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of California, San Diego

“This book is essential reading for INGO leaders and students of international development.”

Chris Jochnik,
CEO and President of Landesa

“Between Power and Irrelevance provides a shortcut to understanding the challenges and limitations of NGO power and should be on the desk of every CEO in the sector.”

 – Kate Bunting,
former CEO, HelpAge USA

More on the three authors:

George E. Mitchell

George E. Mitchell is Associate Professor at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College, City University of New York. Prior to joining the Marxe School, he was Assistant Professor at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York, City University of New York. He received his PhD from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University (USA), where he was cofounder of the Transnational NGO Initiative at the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs. George’s research examines topics in NGO and nonprofit management, leadership, and strategy

Hans Peter Schmitz

Hans Peter Schmitz is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of San Diego. He received his PhD in Social and Political Sciences from the European University Institute in San Domenico di Fiesole/Italy. He is the co-founder of the Transnational NGO Initiative at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs/Syracuse University. His research interests include international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), human rights advocacy, digital activism, philanthropy, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) as global health issues.

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken has worked on international development and civil society issues for 30 years, in practice, in academia and as independent consultant. Before launching her consulting practice, Five Oaks Consulting, Tosca was the Director of the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University, USA. She focuses on NGO change management, leadership development and organizational culture. She has served as board member of InterAction, Public Interest Registry, ProLiteracy and Cadasta.  Early in her career, Tosca worked as development practitioner for NGOs, the UN, the World Bank and at a think tank based in the Netherlands, Tosca’s country of birth. Tosca’s bio can be found here.

With Afterword by Barney Tallack

Because we as authors like to ground our academic work in practice, we invited our long-time collaborator Barney Tallack to write the afterword and to provide inputs into three chapters. Barney has worked as a practitioner in the INGO sector for nearly 30 years. He has held senior leadership and Board member roles in a variety of international and UK based organizations. He has deep experience in leading strategy and organizational transformation programs, supporting restructurings, governance and NGO mergers. As Director of Strategy for Oxfam International, he ran the global strategy process and for 5 years the global transformation and change program.