In this blog post, George Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz, co-authors, provide a synopsis of one of the main arguments in our brand new book ‘Between Power and Irrelevance: the Future of Transnational NGOs’. You can read more about our book here, including where you can buy it — for a limited time period with a 30% discount.
Geopolitical shifts, increasing demands for accountability, and growing competition have been creating a more challenging environment for Northern-based transnational nongovernmental organizations (TNGOs). In addition to changes in TNGOs’ external environment, TNGOs’ own ambitions have increased. Many TNGOs today have adopted a greater focus on addressing the root causes of societal problems, often complementing direct service provision with longer-term strategies for sustainably improving environmental, social, and political conditions. Prominent TNGOs have expanded their strategic repertoires to include new forms of activism, including rights-based approaches to development and supporter-led digital campaigning. Over time, TNGO interventions generally have become more complex, requiring more resources and greater collaboration within and across sectors.
Why all the existential angst?
But TNGOs find themselves today at a point where their rhetoric of creating sustainable impact and social transformation has far outpaced the reality of their more limited abilities to deliver on these promises. Many individual TNGOs have moved to address this gap through organizational reforms, but these efforts have not yet addressed the larger challenges that exist at the systemic level. Meanwhile, there is continuing and sometimes growing criticism of TNGOs along several fronts, including charges of ineffectiveness, limited efforts to hand over control to local partners, and failures to live internally the values that TNGOs promote externally.
What is at the heart of the challenges confronting TNGOs? Many observers have argued that TNGOs have become too large and too focused on their own survival instead of their missions. Others have blamed the overall aid system and its inability to fundamentally change the economic conditions of millions of people living in poverty. And some have blamed increased competition and professionalization, perceived to be inimical to the sector’s ethos. These criticisms identify important issues, but they all miss a fundamental problem faced by virtually all TNGOs: TNGOs are constituted as nonprofits and therefore operate within a specific institutional and normative architecture that constrains their ability to embrace new strategies and roles essential for their future effectiveness, legitimacy, and survival.
How the sector’s architecture is failing TNGOs
In our new book, Between Power and Irrelevance: The Future of Transnational NGOs, we consider how the underlying normative and institutional conditions of TNGOs—what we refer to as the sector’s architecture—are expressed in restrictive legal regimes, societal expectations, and cultural beliefs that make it hard for TNGOs to pursue their expanded missions. The difficulties are not simply due to the magnitude and complexity of global problems or the failures of individual organizations. Instead, key stakeholders of the sector, including individual and institutional donors, the general public, and governments, have been too slow in shifting their outdated expectations about the appropriate roles of TNGOs. The gap between TNGO rhetoric and their ability to deliver on their promises is growing because TNGOs’ new strategies focused on sustainable impact are not matched by the required capabilities for executing such strategies effectively.
The modern institution of the nonprofit facilitates and carries forward centuries-old traditions of charity in which social value is consummated in the act of giving itself and in the virtuous intentions and actions of staff and volunteers. Although recent decades have seen the term impact become a ubiquitous buzzword throughout the sector, underlying societal expectations about how nonprofits should raise funds and operate have failed to change in step. Today, more and more TNGOs have adopted the rhetoric of impact and have staked their reputations on claims of not just being good stewards of donor resources, but of also making a demonstrable difference in the lives of those they claim to serve. Philanthropy is becoming more data-driven and outcome-oriented, stakeholders are demanding new forms of accountability and participation, and more sophisticated operational strategies are requiring longer-term time horizons and significant new investments in organizational capacities. However, the organizational forms and norms of the sector’s architecture are preventing TNGOs from fully embracing the kinds of changes needed to successfully adapt and evolve, and above all else, to reach their potential in serving their missions. We show, for example, how the architecture provides a permissive environment for ‘successful irrelevance’ (survival based on fiscal propriety, regardless of impact), how it binds TNGOs to a Northern donor-focused accountability model, and how it inhibits specific organizational investments in areas such as digital technology, measurement and evaluation, governance reform, leadership development, and collaboration necessary for long-term mission success
The need for collective action in addition to individual reforms
To make TNGOs fit for the future, individual actions and limited organizational change initiatives will only go so far. The sector must move beyond the false comfort of the status quo and confront the architecture with collective action. TNGOs have already decided what kinds of organizations they want to be, now they must work together to create an institutional and normative environment in which those kinds of organizations can flourish.
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