Project framework

The approach of this project is captured in the framework of 'Legacy, Legitimacy, and Leadership'. There is an empirical starting point: who exactly are these organisations, how have they changed over the years, and where are they now? Then there is a normative component that assesses their claims to legitimacy against other models (there will be an empirical dimension here too, to help us understand those other models better). And finally, there is a forward-looking piece, more prescriptive, which is about the future leadership that is required if INGOs are to continue to be relevant and effective.

In essence, this is about understanding INGOs’ fundamental purpose, the values that inspire them, how well their culture reflects those values and the degree of trust that they manage to secure both from those on whose support they depend and from those in whose name they exist, given the changing world in which they now have to operate.

Aims and approach

Our overarching aim has been to identify the features of the successful INGO of 2030 and beyond. This has been achieved by means of a series of workshops over a three-year period, informed by a number of commissioned research papers. In addition to academic research outputs and the Leadership Survey Report mentioned above, we will produce a commissioned Nuffield Report, aimed more at a policy and practitioner audience, which will be forward and outward-looking and will attempt to frame the leadership challenge facing INGOs of the future.

We have used the three prisms of 'Legacy, Legitimacy, and Leadership' to explore a number of existing questions relating to INGOs that help us see this future more clearly:

  • their values, principles, and motivations;
  • their relationship with their beneficiaries;
  • how they have been and continue to be affected by geopolitics;
  • their business models, the political economy in which they operate, in particular how donor politics impacts on their relations with their state funders.

Our three prisms allow us to make sense of these questions:

  • Legacy: who are these organisations, where have they come from in terms of inspiration and purpose, how has this changed over the years, and where are they now? Understanding their past is essential if we are to make sense of their present and anticipate their future. How well have they served their purpose and do they now face an existential crisis?
  • Legitimacy: how valid are the principles by which INGOs justify their existence? How much are they truly sensitive to the needs of their beneficiaries, and how much do they allow their form and their activity to be shaped by them? Are the values that inspire them truly universal or are they rather the product of a particular, predominantly western, liberal democratic hegemony? How effective are they; how do they compare with other, more recent forms of social organisation that perhaps better reflect the digital age?
  • Leadership: what is required if these INGOs are going to transform themselves into successful – i.e. relevant and effective – organisations of the future; what is the leadership challenge? Can they continue to do all the things they have done in the past, or do they need to find new operating models and better ways of working with others?

Progress to Date

Our first workshop took place in September 2019 and considered the attached Concept Note. Following this, we developed the attached Research Programme Outline which was discussed at a further workshop in March 2020, just before lockdown.

Subsequently, we have developed our thinking to incorporate not only the substance of our preliminary discussions but also the global impact of the pandemic and its implications for INGOs. We used these to identify a number of possible future scenarios and tested them as set out in the attached document at an online workshop in July 2020. In turn, this fed into a major survey of sector leaders carried out in 2021; the findings of this research were published in July 2022 as the Leadership Survey Report.

Work on specific areas has continued in smaller groups, and online workshops have been held in July and November 2020, in May, July, November and December 2021, and in February 2022. We finally managed to meet again in person at Nuffield in April 2022, and again in October 2022 (pictured above). At these, we have:

  • asked "why the people affected haven’t affected us that much”, and gone on to consider the persistent question of ‘localisation’
  • revisited the founding values of INGOs and looked at how they have evolved as institutions throughout ‘the long humanitarian century’
  • deconstructed the political economy within which INGOs have to operate, and looked in greater depth at “the humanitarian marketplace”
  • explored the relationship between relief and development and the role of INGOs in the wider aid sector
  • explored two of the major disruptors of the 21st century: the digital and data science revolution and the climate crisis
  • considered in depth the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on INGOs and their task
  • examined the changing geopolitical context in which INGOs operate, focusing on India, China, and Russia
  • heard from representatives of new social movements about their perceptions of INGOs in the 21st century
  • analysed public perceptions in the UK of relief and development, global solidarity, and the role of INGOs

We aim to produce a final report on the project early in 2023. In the meantime, you might like to look at this September 2020 webinar on “Aid Agencies: Past, Present, and Future” featuring Professors Thompson and Aaronson along with Visiting Fellow Yves Daccord, outgoing Director-General of the ICRC:​


Funded by: AHRC Care for the Future

Duration: September 2019 and ongoing