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Leadership Survey Report: What leaders of international NGOs think about the challenges they face, and the future of the aid and development sector
Principal Investigators: Andrew Thompson and Mike Aaronson
The rise of powerful international NGOs (INGOs) is widely recognized as a key development in the international humanitarian landscape over the last century, especially in the last thirty years. The part played by INGOs in the delivery of emergency relief and longer-term development assistance is well documented.
But there is a widespread feeling within the leadership of the INGO community that this is a time for critical reflection about the nature of INGOs themselves and their relations with their donors and beneficiaries as well as with governments in their countries of operation. There is much talk of INGOs being in crisis: a crisis of legitimacy, of core identity, and of relevance.
In 2021, the project team interviewed the CEOs of leading international NGOs on the challenges facing the sector now and in the coming years. This report details the findings from their 50 hour-long interviews with leaders in the development sector.
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.
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:
Our three prisms allow us to make sense of these questions:
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:
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: