We live in a very different world today than when most INGOs were established. Profound demographic, economic and technological changes have reshaped our world. And as the world settles into the second decade of the 21st century, the economic recession in the United States and Europe, the winding down of major relief and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, new sources of development funding from mega-foundations and private remittances, and new donor nations such as Brazil, China and India are forcing development actors to reassess business models and modes of operating that have changed little in 40 years.
Many NGOs understand the threat to the status quo and see the need to change but don’t know how to remain true to their mission while maintaining the vitality and financial health of their organization. As change comes barreling down the tracks like an on-coming train, many NGOs stand paralyzed like a deer caught in the headlights. This subject is receiving additional attention with the recent publication of a report by the nonprofit consulting firm, FSG. The report, titled Ahead of the Curve, Insights for the International NGO of the Future, was sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
FSG’s task was complicated by the diversity of the study group. Although the report studied INGOs with at least $30 million in annual revenue, the organizations ranged from single-sector program implementers, to groups more focused on advocacy, to giants like World Vision with tens of thousands of employees and over a billion dollars in annual revenue. While FSG does a good job of describing many of the disruptions brought on by progress and globalization, different organizations will experience them differently depending on their mission and size. It would have been helpful to have tried to tease out some of these differences instead of simply arriving at a set of conclusions where one size clearly does not fit all.
Compounding this problem are some of the examples FSG used to draw general conclusions that, for those who are familiar with them, are not easily generalizable. For example, the fact that Habitat for Humanity successfully used an advocacy model to expand its impact is not a good basis for concluding that the future for INGOs is to become advocacy organizations, as the report does. I was also frustrated that the report didn’t use plain language to explain its points and recommendations. I found the report laden with jargon and vague language, perhaps because it just is not clear what the future holds. FSG’s crystal ball is just as murky as everyone else’s.