Disrupted: The Future INGO

By Rebecca Weissburg, FSG

Disrupted: The Future INGO

“Some of the routine service activities that INGOs have historically implemented–health care, food delivery –can now be carried out by local operators at a lower cost. The question now is: What do we bring to the picture that others cannot?”

—Carolyn Woo, CEO, Catholic Relief Services

Today’s international NGOs or INGOs stand at an important juncture. Progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals is mixed and the organizations themselves acknowledge that today’s INGO model is not sufficient to take on the challenges of the next 20 years.

We at FSG believe that INGOs have a unique and important role to play in achieving these goals and addressing today’s complex global challenges. But few of them are living up to their full potential. By and large, INGOs, particularly those funded by the U.S. Government, have comprised a relatively protected class – harried, but not compelled to transform. This is resulting in an INGO version of the “innovator’s dilemma,” in which INGOs recognize the need to adapt, but struggle to find the time and resources to do so.

This stasis, however, is unlikely to last. As Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer recently shared with more than 60 CEOs at last week’s InterAction CEO forum, “Disruption is finally impacting the development sector. This impacts our relevance and long-term leadership, which we care about deeply as it affects our ability to have impact at scale.”

The disruptions that INGOs face include:

  • Complex global challenges, such as climate change and adaptation, that cut across more issues and geographies than ever before
  • Private sector companies, like Novartis, emerging as a serious development actors, motivated not by philanthropy but by real market opportunities
  • New technology platforms that allow a younger generation of philanthropists to interact directly with the Global South through organizations like Give Directly and Causes and make the voices of traditional “beneficiaries” heard at the global level
  • Nimble, differentiated development players, like Charity: Water that are challenging the traditional INGO-led development model
  • An increasingly fragmented funding landscape, with traditional donors like USAID seeking to diversify their funding approach and growing funding from BRIC nations with sometimes competing priorities

FSG sought to better understand how INGOs are adapting to disruptions in the sector and highlight examples of how they are innovating for greater impact. We released the findings in our new report “Ahead of the Curve: Insights for the International NGO of the Future,” which builds on research from more than 100 interviews with INGO executives, leading donors, academics, and practitioners. The report, and associated website, FutureINGO.org, which captures our key findings, including the four approaches we believe INGOs can use to create greater impact:

  1. Enhancing direct implementation
  2. Influencing systems change
  3. Harnessing the private sector
  4. Leading multisector action

FutureINGO.org will be updated to reflect ongoing innovations and best practices in the INGO community. We hope our work serves as a conversation starter for INGOs–and those who fund them, work alongside them, and are invested in their work.

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