Whither Large International Non-Governmental Organisations? Smart new paper.

I’m glad to see Penny Lawrence, an Oxfam big cheese for 12 years before she resigned so publicly last February, has been busy reflecting and talking to other leaders (and me) about how large lumbering INGOs need to change. She has put together a useful paper on the topic (a source of endless fascination to INGOs, maybe not so much to everyone else). Some highlights:
‘Large INGOs have struggled, like many established large bureaucracies, to develop their capabilities, functions and structures to keep pace with rapid changes in the world, including technology, wider social demographic changes, and the greying of sector boundaries. The sands on which the sector was built have shifted. Many across the political spectrum believe that active citizens and charities are needed as much as ever, but that if INGOs cannot adapt to such disruptive change then they will not remain relevant or sustainable, let alone continue to influence in our fast changing world.’

‘A key question to start with is to ask ‘Can large INGOs be all things to all people?’ – are international structures, multi mandates (Humanitarian, Development and campaigning, working across the full value chain from

The INGO Trilemma

programme design to delivery) and being innovative and agile in our digital, challenging world compatible? Is this a trilemma where you have to choose two out of the three?

At the moment large INGOs seem to think it is possible to be all three. Oxfam is one of the most successful multi mandate INGOs struggling to be international – but neither of these lend themselves to being agile. WaterAid is single issue focussed, becoming increasingly international and is definitely more agile. There are plenty of local NGOs that are multi mandate and agile but by definition are not international in their reach or structure.

There may be a sweet spot in the middle for some of large INGOs’ work, but I would hold that there is very little in the sweet spot for any INGO. This trilemma may at least be helpful in identifying some tough questions to enable data to be mined differently to help make some tough choices. Do the gains from being part of an international structure or global family outweigh the challenges? What is the cost of the global family? Is it justifiable to supporters? Are you really the best at women’s rights programming/ humanitarian relief? How do you know? What benchmarks can you use or develop with competitors to find out? What evidence and data are there that you use your global reach to best advantage and to scale what works?’

Penny identifies three ‘structural options’ for large INGOs:

  1. Fragment into ‘smaller, empowered, more independent, more agile, more manageable business units. (Examples include Whitbread, Scope, digital INGOs; Groups such as Dimensions, Coram Group, Virgin Group; PWC franchise model)’
  2. Consolidate: use mergers and acquisitions to ‘acquire the skills or assets needed to respond to change (Examples include IKEA, Sainsbury’s/Asda, Housing Associations, Help the Aged/Age Concern, Cancer charities).’
  3. Unbound: ‘organisations are not bound by traditional organisational boundaries. They provide platforms to enable others to connect, and add value through convening, triaging, or quality control: (Examples include. Wikipedia, Airbnb, We Farm). This is more of a ‘reboot’ or ‘start again’ option.’

She then applies these to the ‘3 pillars’ of large multi mandate INGOs: long term development, humanitarian and advocacy to generate a thought provoking 3×3 matrix, with thought-provoking recommendations for each (green = recommended, red = don’t go there, yellow = meh).

This is interesting. She seems to have tacitly given up on the idea that the 3 functions can be unified (‘getting out of our siloes’) and is arguing that each faces different choices over future directions.

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15 Responses to “Whither Large International Non-Governmental Organisations? Smart new paper.”
  1. Quick idea near the end of a busy week at the receiving end of another reform.

    Maybe the INGOs are just good enough, and any gain from reform might be lost in the mayhem of the restructuring…

    Probably muddling through is just what we need to do.

    I will try to analyze the full document at the weekend.


    Every boss with sufficient testosterone (m/f) will restructure.
    This reform will happen. This is reform is independent of the needs of the organization. It is thus in vain to fight the restructuring or to propose alternative structures.

      • Penny Lawrence

        I think the gap between the pace that the world is changing and the pace that INGOs are changing is growing every year though Sam….There is a difference between creating a clear and inspiring vision of where you want to go based on your function and deciding the speed at which you want to change to deliver the function most effectively… testing learning and adapting… evolving rather than transforming?

    • Penny Lawrence

      And where market forces don’t prevail??
      You’d think that a combination of savvy public supporters and institutional donors would force more INGOs to whither away than actually do ….so few mergers, so few go to the wall as compared to business sector. In values driven organisations, why don’t we attach more value to learning from and benchmarking ourselves against one another so our collective effort is more efficient and effective …..I’m as guilty of the self referencing accusation as the next INGO leader…. but ideas in the paper include – putting the power in the hands of the customers? – where is that Trip Adviser of the development sector? Peer/ donor scoring against an agreed set of competencies /standards…..any more ideas?

      • Better ideas perhaps:

        – accept that the development and response sectors are not more complex than other (complex) sectors and so accept that standards and governance (applied well in other sectors) should be applied and embedded in our sector

        – measurements of success should be based on impacts and outcomes, not outputs and efforts as is too often the case in the humanitarian sector, because “it’s too complicated to measure impact accurately”)

        – undertaken that transient population of workers, stakeholders, recipients and donors, is no excuse of failing to apply continuous performance improvement systems. Then we don’t need to brainstorm so much or restructure. Large organisations can plan and deliver multi year multi billion programmes, yet remain agile and responsive (embracing of) change in many dimensions. No more reports and lessons learned (mistakes identified but not acted upon in training and delivery processes etc)

        – stop pretending that charities, non profits and NGOs of any size, should be excluded from the rigours of effective policies, processes and procedures. Then safeguarding wouldn’t be (as it not is seen by some to be) a strategic issue to address. It would be a highly impactful and shameful manifestation of poor governance and HR and whistlblowing et al

        – move from competition to collaboration. By which I mean ceasing to compete for the donors funding to the extent that beneficiaries get less because information is not shared for fear of others delivering upon identified needs. See ODI report on “letting go”, and understand that market forces can help to shape our orgs (needs driven) rather than turning up with the same good everyone and making them fit the problem, to the exclusion of innovation and collaboration

        … just some ideas. Worth trying. We are and we love to work with others of similar mind sets

  2. Jon Bellish

    Can there be no inter-institutional solution to this challenge? In the private sector, standardized measurement, firm failure, and capital markets sort out who’s good at what. It also creates strong incentives in executives and senior managers to really figure out what a given institution is good at, as well as what adjacent institutions are good at. The result is an ecosystem of value creation that minimizes the importance of which institution is performing which function at a given time and makes it fairly obvious who needs to partner with whom to get a given thing done.

    This is of course a problem of the way INGOs are funded and evaluated more than one of how they’re run, and I get that the above paragraph is arguably the purest example of “easier said than done” that has ever been articulated, but if anyone can figure it out, they’d be doing themselves and the world a huge favor.

    • Penny Lawrence

      And where market forces don’t prevail??
      You’d think that a combination of savvy public supporters and institutional donors would force more INGOs to whither away than actually do ….so few mergers, so few go to the wall as compared to business sector. In values driven organisations, why don’t we attach more value to learning from and benchmarking ourselves against one another so our collective effort is more efficient and effective …..I’m as guilty of the self referencing accusation as the next INGO leader…. but ideas in the paper include – putting the power in the hands of the customers? – where is that Trip Adviser of the development sector? Peer/ donor scoring against an agreed set of competencies /standards…..any more ideas?

  3. One concatenated issue is that many INGOs and NGOs have expanded from a focused undertaking because of the availability of resources at a particular time (natural disaster, confict, some UN organization report), and the INGO’s or NGOs intention to take advantage of that window of opportunity. Good or bad….I am not making a judgement, but depending on the amount of time and effort in decision-making, the foundations for engaging in snother sector or activity may not have been as thoughfully looked at as for the original organization.
    A second issue is that hordes of potential local NGOs are just that: non-government, but not necesarily by local definition not-for-profit. Again, no judgement, but this should be clarified before partnering.
    Any my third comment, for now, is that work that is micromanaged from a cushy home office across the sea spells disaster in the long run, as is work interfered in by the donor country’s locally-based counsellor.
    I have noted these latter two issues because regardless how well the above green options may be implemented, a significant component must always be clarity on the management which often does not give forethought to or is in too complex a context the potential impediments.

    • Penny Lawrence

      I think your first point is spot on… passionate INGOs committed to doing all they can to tackle poverty find it very difficult to say no to any opportunity that arises…. adding staff rather than reprioritising activities….. saying ‘no thanks‘ or ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think we’d be good at that’ aren’t phrases you hear to often ….

  4. David Lewis

    Interesting paper and blog. Maybe the idea of ‘being all thing to all people’ is the wrong starting point? Who are the people NGOs want/need to be particularly close to? And why? I think one big gap for U.K. NGOs at the moment is communicating effectively and truthfully with Northern publics – and not just their supporters, but more widely – about the work that they do. Since we no longer bother about what used to be called ‘development education’ in the U.K. we don’t have a high level of public understanding of development issues. The press sets the agenda, not schools, colleges, unions, local civil society. Oxfam’s better at this than most, but there’s lots to do.

  5. INGOs and other forms of international actors activities need to be questioned to ensure critical characteristics of NGOs are clearly adopted , establishing these basics will define what NGOs stands for in developing countries , if their values are not adhere to , the sentiment of many people about INGOs being a make up of colonial enterprise which is intended to maintain the west legacy as protectionist strategies for resources grab and to maintained domination over underdeveloped countries , range of strategies are explored to maintain imperialist countries presence in developing countries , under these arrangement INGOs disguise themselves in various forms ,pretending to rendering relief
    assistance to poor countries eyeing the resources of these countries receiving cosmetic relief assistance ,or working to disrupt combination of unspeakable difficulties and extreme disadvantaging condiitons affecting poverty entrapped people in conflicts zones,NGOs will need to do more than offering help , or justing offering helps . In another context , NGOs should embark on building institutions to end poverty .Meanwhile ,many poor countries with many natural resources seems to be affected by western sponsored wars in Africa . For example. south Sudan where America and china are battling for oil and other important resources .I will strongly argue that NGOs solution to third world countries need to be critiqued and concomitantly analyse to ensure NGOs is not just a relief givers but institutions builders to empower broken society by ending dependency legacy imposed on poor countries . In totally , NGOs cannot reduce poverty without transparent due diligence , as it is perceived by many actors NGOs and relief workers.
    The question is Why many countries with vase resources , including Congo, Liberia , sierra leone are inundated by conflicts perptually, it is because of these countries have natural resources needed by the West and cooperate companies , these same cooperate institutions will sponsored NGOs activities in poor countries . Do you think poverty will be reduced under these circumstances ?
    I will strongly contend that NGOs cannot mitigate poverty related conditions under dubious directions , if it does ,by now Africa will be rich , these conditions of economic strangulation confided by bad polices are deliberately intended to control poor developing countries.
    maintain resources grab.

  6. Kennedy Phiri

    Good to see this stimulating conversation. Part of the challenge of many organisations is that they focus internally and less so on the needs of the external environment. Respond and react to late to changes in their external environment; have developed detailed systems and processes – taking many years and a lot of resources that it is not possible to challenge these systems and processes even when they don’t work.
    But they have also become a burden to themselves with many people becoming part of the “institution”. They have been with the same organisation for many years, blocking innovation, change and ultimately the development of the organisation. I remember 17 years ago talking to Penny about my career and telling myself I needed to get out to acquire skills that would propel me to the top. But I had options to stay longer in the organisation.

    INGOs need to move away from functioning as government and more like the private sector. The private sector is able to respond quickly to changes in the environment because their very survival depends on how they adapt to the external environment. The result is efficient utilization of resources, both human and financial. This is what INGO need to learn to learn.

    • Penny Lawrence

      Totally agree with your analysis Kennedy and sure we need to learn from them but not sure we’d want to import all that even the values conscious businesses do… …one thing that directly translates for me though is how they put clients/ customers at the centre of all their thinking. If we can judge all decisions by asking ‘so will this deliver better value/ quality for people living in poverty?’ I think we’d all do a better job …. can’t be 17 years ago surely … you must have been in shorts!!

  7. Andres Gomez de la Torre

    I think this is an excellent paper. Irrespective of how much we agree with Penny’s views, it raises key questions. The “trilemma” is in my view one that INGOs consciously or unconsciously avoid facing seriously. Most give it for granted that they can just do everything and can hardly stop doing anything. It is not part of the paper but for me the other key element is national actors/national civil society organisations. What can these now do (and should do) and what INGOs need to let go/stop doing/claiming. Addressing some of the key issues raised here on INGOs will involve lots of energy, attention, time and money. Is that the right thing to do?

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