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A women collects water in Tanzania. 

Transform or die? Existential questions and ways forward for INGOs

6 July 2020

Even before the Covid-19 crisis, INGOs had pre-existing challenges in declining income in recent years.

In my last blog, I looked at the slow onset threat to the continued existence of some northern INGOs. Having recently studied the long-term income trends of seven of the larger INGO families, I outlined the five main challenges to INGOs’ sustainability pre-Covid-19. These challenges are being exacerbated by the current crisis.

Now is the time for boards and executive leadership teams to make the tough decisions that have been looming for the last five years (or more). Based on my research and my experience as Oxfam International’s former director of strategy, here are some critical questions for INGOs to ask themselves and possible ways forward.

Questions for INGO leaders 

A suggestion for four areas to be explored are:

  1. How do we ensure we are relevant? Consider your organisation’s niche and the best role you can play in the wider movement to achieve a shared mission.
  2. Where do we focus to deliver at scale and with quality in our niche? Consider where you should be more robust, for example cutting countries, sub-themes or themes/programmatic areas. Let’s be honest with ourselves!
  3. Do we really need to grow our members in the global south? Examine your rationale and how it fits with your response to localisation in different contexts. Should you at least, in parallel, consider mergers between smaller global north members to rebalance the power and for efficiency?
  4. Be realistic about financial growth. Question whether equating financial growth with more impact is the right approach. Set flat or lower income targets which address the dependencies.

Future options?

There are options for the future of northern INGOs and their respective members. Three might be: 

  • transform: through a more focused role, niche, programming approach, geography and consolidated members. Any change should be based on a role that other actors or parts of the movement want the INGO to fulfil, and that can be articulated to all stakeholders with the same language and definition.
  • “die well”: transitioning expertise, power, connections and other assets to other global north or south-founded civil society organisations (e.g. merge, spin off, close).
  • “die badly”: through financial collapse, without securing an appropriate legacy and handover of partners, resources and programmes.

Transforming and dying well are both plausible ways to achieve impact. Dying badly is not a good outcome for the individual NGO’s and movement’s ability to effect sustainable change with all the hard work that has already been done.

High street retailers were most challenged by the move of consumers to online shopping and the first to collapse in the early days of the Covid-19 crisis were those already in financial difficulty. Those members of INGO families with pre-existing challenges will need to address their challenges soonest.

The good news is that some INGO families and/or some of their members have already begun to address these challenges, e.g. through a much tighter focus on theme, target group, expertise or geography. 

A world with global challenges needs a global civil society working in solidarity and based on complementary strengths. Civil society needs to work alongside other actors if we are to overcome the negative impacts of the pandemic, and deal with climate change, inequality, barriers to human rights and the other global challenges. Realism now about the existential funding issues gives global north-founded NGOs the chance to continue and to address those global challenges. 

Read Barney's full report on the existential funding challenge for northern INGOs.

About the author

Barney Tallack

Barney has worked in the sector for nearly 30 years. He is the former director of strategy at Oxfam International and works with various NGOs/INGOs on strategy, transformation and governance.