Ahead of the Curve

Insights for the International
NGO of the Future

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FSG studied the 50 largest U.S.-based International NGOs and others to unlock insights for both INGO leaders and funders regarding greater effectiveness and impact in the future. This site provides an overview of our learnings. The full report is available for download.

International NGOs (INGOs) stand at a critical juncture. Conversations with INGO leaders reveal that many are unprepared for the disruptive shifts on the horizon. Close donor relationships and high opportunity costs associated with pursuing innovations have created an INGO version of the innovator’s dilemma. How can INGOs capitalize on their distinct assets to stay ahead of the curve and meet the global challenges of tomorrow?

Photo © Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps 

    Disruptions Facing the INGO Sector

  2. New, complex global challenges

  3. Rise of business as a development actor

  4. Empowerment of individuals

  5. Increasingly fragmented funding landscape

  6. Competition from new players

Getting ahead of these major shifts is challenging. Some INGOs are breaking the innovator’s dilemma by confronting these disruptions directly. These organizations are affirming their mission with future-oriented approaches and operational strengthening.

Photo by Ezra Millstein/Habitat for Humanity Int.

    Four Approaches for Greater Impact

  2. Enhancing direct implementation

  3. Influencing systems change

  4. Harnessing the private sector

  5. Leading multi-sector action

We see a strong correlation between a focus on operational elements and the ability to anticipate disruption and embrace new approaches to impact.

Photo © Chris White courtesy of PSI 

    Enabling the INGO of the Future

  2. Strategic focus

  3. Evaluation and learning

  4. Funding Structure

  5. Organizational Structure

  6. Talent Acquisition and retention

A Call to Action

Donors and INGOs share responsibility to address the innovator’s dilemma facing INGOs today, a central tension evident from the conversations conducted for this study. A key recommendation is for INGOs and donors to work together to address this tension. What are the next steps?

  • Documenting evidence of impact from new approaches pursued by INGOs (of which this report is the first step) and translating these ideas to inform future RFPs.
  • Exploring an “innovation fund” to incent INGOs to experiment with more rigorous multisectoral collaborations or business partnerships.
  • Using existing forums, such as InterAction or the NGO Leaders Forum, to engage in conversations between INGOs and their donors to identify solutions based on their common objectives.
Photo © Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps 
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The following recommendations can help start INGOs on the journey. INGOs will need to improve their operations, both to stay competitive in the near-term and to experiment with the newer approaches to impact.

To shift from narrow, project-specific interventions to a systems approach by influencing other players, INGOs can:

  • Develop capacity of country staff to synthesize data on community gaps, conduct ecosystems mapping, and identify needed interventions to design systemic solutions.

To transform corporate philanthropic relationships to those that are mutually beneficial and focused on more sustainable and scalable impact, INGOs can:

  • Identify where program priorities overlap with companies’ business goals. Develop a set of criteria consistent with the INGO’s mission to guide the selection of shared value partners.

To increase the impact of existing and future collaborations, INGOs can:

  • Make the case to donors, such as USAID, that existing partnerships can be transformed into more rigorous collaborations, including the ideas of a formal backbone, a common agenda, and continuous collaboration.
  • Strike a balance between localization and capitalizing on INGOs’ unique value by supporting local organizations to take on direct implementation, while at the same time supporting INGOs to adopt new approaches to impact.
  • Support field resources to accelerate organizational strengthening.
  • Transform pro-forma partnerships into true collaborations by investing in disciplined and sustained approaches that embrace a common agenda, mutually reinforcing activities, and shared measurement systems to address complex global development challenges.
  • Lay the foundation for long-term INGO-business partnerships to leverage the scale and reach of the private sector.

Adoption of these new approaches will require focus on the operational elements that enable INGOs to move in this direction. The transformation will not happen without difficult changes to mindset, practices, and funding by both INGOs and their donors.

The INGO innovator’s dilemma poses a major challenge for these organizations exploring ways to expand and deepen their impact. But new approaches to established tools hold promise. The INGO of the future can achieve more sustainable and scaled impact by influencing systems change, engaging corporations as shared value partners, and leading coalitions between sectors. We hope this research plays a part in launching the platform for this transformation.

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