How can NGOs become more credible watchdogs?

Posted in: Charity, Giving, Policy


Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are indispensable watchdogs against corrupt practices and global challenges found in complex, modern societies. Yet sometimes, NGOs themselves can struggle to live up to the ambitious standards they demand of others, such as responsible advocacy, ethical fundraising, and meaningful participation of stakeholders. In this piece, Prize Fellow Stefan Hielscher and his co-authors Jan Winkin and Ingo Pies discuss their recently published research, which suggests that strengthening the rules of “fair competition” among NGOs is a promising avenue to increase their credibility.


Stereotyping by NGOs

With so many causes competing for attention from the public, it’s perhaps inevitable that NGOs may opt for shock tactics. Some controversial tactics can be very effective in raising public attention, gaining member support and securing funding, “Poverty pornography” provides a telling example. Critical observers invoke the term to describe the use of shocking but misleading imagery in NGOs’ fundraising campaigns, such as the notorious “potbellied child.” Critics claim such campaigns conceal the root causes of poverty, misdirect well-intentioned help, and violate the dignity of those in need. The website Rusty Radiator collects a variety of impressively frustrating examples, awarding the “fundraising video with the worst use of stereotypes” on an annual basis.

Granted, poverty porn is an extreme example. But it is the case that NGOs are sometimes tempted to simplify messages, thereby misrepresenting complex issues, and this may result in the root causes of the problem being misunderstood. For example, recent research reveals serious inconsistencies in advocacy positions related to the global food crisis in 2008. Before the food crisis, NGOs claimed that low food prices would promote poverty and hunger in rural areas in developing countries. After the food crisis, however, the very same NGOs claimed that high food prices cause hunger and poverty in urban areas in developing countries.


NGOs and responsible advocacy

To address challenges to their accountability and strengthen their credibility, in 2008 the international NGO elite founded “Accountable Now” (AN). Responsible advocacy is one of 12 agreed-upon accountability standards, and includes fact checks and clear procedures for advocacy positions. A complaints handling mechanism was designed to give stakeholders a voice to critique misrepresented interests or other questionable advocacy practices. A 2016 survey by AN of members and non-members however, revealed sobering results. NGOs seem to fare quite poorly in “stakeholder responsiveness” and “responsible advocacy.” Only about 10% of NGOs responded to complaints raised by AN’s evaluation team in a blind test, and many NGOs lacked robust fact checks and clear procedures to adopt or exit advocacy positions.


How competition affects NGO behaviour

Why is it that even member NGOs struggle to comply with AN’s standards? Our research suggests that NGOs operate in a highly competitive environment, all seeking funding, members and media attention. All these are necessary, but scare resources, and the competition for these can impede responsible advocacy.

NGOs are facing a “social dilemma” here. They can either choose the easy option and seek out attention without worrying too much about potential negative side-effects, or present a measured view which incorporates the best available knowledge on a controversial issue. The danger is that by taking the easy option, other NGOs will follow suit to secure their piece of the pie. As a result, the whole third sector’s reputation and credibility as a promotor of social change is put at risk.


Creating an enabling environment for responsible advocacy

Can we expect NGOs to refrain from this kind of race-to-the-bottom competition, and to engage in responsible advocacy on a voluntary basis? While some international “giant” NGOs may have the resources to take the moral high ground, some smaller NGOs are facing much stronger threats to their survival. For some of them, every successful fundraising campaign counts. Some NGOs will be able do the right thing only if the organisational benefits outweigh the associated costs. They will need to be sure that their competitors for public attention will follow suit in responsible advocacy.

This is why Accountable Now is such an important initiative. NGOs need to establish their own regulatory framework to raise standards for the whole sector. Within the AN’s NGO community, some voices are demanding stronger leadership to make this happen. Others are looking more towards external monitoring.

Our research has found that to be effective, both strategies need be designed so as to create a more enabling environment for NGOs and therefore to improve the cost-benefit balance. Effective monitoring of stereotyping campaigns requires graduated “reputational sanctions,” for example by raising public awareness of bad examples. Conversely, AN could reward best practice with public attention, by, for example, awarding prizes for responsible advocacy to leading NGOs.

There are no ready made solutions for these issues. It is important for NGOs, though, to acknowledge that they are not spared from the adverse impact of competition just because they are siding with the weak, the marginalized, the neglected and the poor. The insight of economics also applies here: good intentions need be supported by appropriate incentives, to do the right thing and to do things right.


Image by Howard Lake

Posted in: Charity, Giving, Policy


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response

  • The article refers to 'meaningful participation of stakeholders' in its introduction. However, in the remedies for NGO irresponsibility it refers only to more regulation and 'monitoring'.
    These are the tried and failed devices of corporate neoliberalism. Conveniently adopted by business and government to provide a patina of accountability.
    What about some democratic accountability to stakeholders? Extend or adopt membership constitutions for donors, recipients and NGO workers. Give them a say in the appointment of NGO leaders and policy priorities.
    If democracy is good enough for the political intitutions why should it not apply to business and charitable organisations?
    For more on this perspective see:
    Jones and McDonnell, 2017, Alternatives to Neoliberalism. Towards equality and democracy, Policy Press
    Jones, B., 2015. Corporate Power and Responsible Capitalism? Towards Social Accountability. Edward Elgar.

  • Dear Bryn

    Your comments allow us to clarify one important aspect. Meaningful participation is just one of many potential means proposed and promoted by AN (level 1). The aim of all these mechanisms is to achieve the goal of improved NGO accountability (level 3). Self-regulation (including monitoring), as we understand it, is an intermediate goal (level 2). To see why differentiating these three levels is so important, consider the logical distinction between these two cases:

    1. Accountability mechanisms generate private benefits in competitive environments (which outweigh their costs)
    2. Accountability mechanisms do not generate private benefits in competitive environments (which do not outweigh their costs)

    Case 1 summarizes successful examples of good accountability practice, e.g. in “meaningful participation of stakeholders,” of single organizations. Good intentions lead to good results. A beautiful example is Amnesty International (cf. Hielscher et al. 2016, see also Case 2 describes examples when competition threatens good intentions. It is also our tentative explanation (hypothesis) for why NGOs might be struggling to use democratic accountability.

    Call it naïve, but we believe NGOs and their leaders are actors with moral intentions, only that certain contexts make it hard for them to live up to their own standards, such as dysfunctional forms of competition (Case 2).

    The interesting question for us is how moral NGOs can navigate the tensions and challenges related to Case 2. We suggest collective self-regulation as a promising avenue and thinking about it should be guided by the following distinction. First, self-regulation can increase the benefits of being accountable, e.g. by traffic light systems and/or rewarding good practice. Second, self-regulation can raise the costs of failing to meet accountability standards, e.g. by convincing donors to sanction failed stakeholder engagement. Either way, monitoring is important to keep track of good and bad practice.