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

October 5, 2018 15 By Duncan Green
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.