IN THE 1990's

. By Bonnie Koenig


The recent trend towards non-governmental organizations (NGOs) becoming more international in their operations, has been well documented. As Rice and Ritchie note in a 1995 issue of Transnational Associations, "The emergence during the past two decades of these organizations [INGOs] is one of the most striking global phenomena of the late 20th century.

Although still inadequately recognized by some scholars of international relations, INGOs have become a significant third force in international systems, paralleling, although not yet equaling, the expanding role of intergovernmental organizations in the political sphere and rapid globalization of business in the economic sphere." According to a 1993 report by the Development Center of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), "International NGOs - those without a strong national identity and with independent chapters in several countries - are a growing phenomenon. They are also the expression of an important desire to reduce the North-South gap, particularly where communication, learning and development education are concerned."

Increasingly, organizations are being founded initially as international organizations with members and/or leadership coming from more than one country. Examples include Civicus and the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), both U.S.-based, the Green Cross (based in Switzerland) and WomenSport International (with its secretariat in Australia).

However, this expansion of NGO activity at the international level also includes an equally significant movement of traditionally nationally- based organizations to expand their international programs.

Many NGOS focus on issues that are naturally cross-boundary and lend themselves to multinational constituencies (improving the status of women, sustainable development, health and human rights to cite a few examples). Thus, the step from working at creating alliances at a local level, to extending these partnerships to the global level, can also be seen as a natural progression.

The recent series of UN conferences and NGO forums (beginning with the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development - UNCED in 1992), as well as the increased availability of telecommunications (notably electronic mail, the Internet and faxes) have helped to facilitate this activity, by enabling formerly local and national groups to communicate on an international level.

Although this activity into the international arena has been significant, little has been written to help practitioners make this transition. In Citizens Strengthening Global Civil Society, Isagani Serrano notes that "Citizen bonds extend far and wide across the globe...Citizen solidarity and the international institutions built on it have been molded through direct and sustained cultural encounters and mutual learning processes." The strength and the weakness of this citizen-based process has been that the shared knowledge base is by and large an oral tradition, with little recorded about the growth and structure of these new international institutions.

The following article looks at the management of international NGOs (INGOs) in the 1990's and the unique characteristics of operating internationally as it relates to fundamental NGO management issues such as organizational structures, leadership through the Board of Directors, and staff management. Although this article will touch upon organizations that do international work but remain under the jurisdiction of leaders of one nationality, its primary focus is organizations that also have a multinational leadership.

Transitional Phases

INGOs can be classified into two categories vis a vis the international nature of their operations:

1) organizations that began in one country and expanded to other countries (the most common historic model) and 2) organizations that were founded initially as INGOs, with representatives of a number of countries.

For organizations in the first category, there are often transitional phases as the organization expands its international program and/or operations. Initially an organization may have a modest international program with a few projects, such as information exchanges with colleague organizations or interested individuals in other countries, a joint venture (such as a conference) with a colleague organization, or participation in international conferences, such as those sponsored by the United Nations. These activities have limited staffing allocations: one dedicated person, or a staff member who carries the international portfolio along with other responsibilities. An example of this first stage is the National SkillShare Association, an Australian-based employment training network of 400 plus community organizations and local government authorities which operate skills training projects. In 1993 SkillShare began an association with colleague organizations in Vietnam and in late 1995 sent a staff member to participate in a seminar on the SkillShare program in Hanoi. Currently less than 10% of one staff person's time is devoted to this international work, but the organization is considering continuing and expanding this program, perhaps looking to share the SkillShare model in other countries.

A second stage, as an organization continues to expand its international operations, is to also expand the resources allocated to these activities. This may include the creation of an international division or department.

A third phase is membership expansion to other countries. This movement implicitly or explicitly will commit an organization to internationalism, as the commitment of a multinational membership to the organization will inevitably bring with it changes in the character of the organization.

In some cases, organizations will skip the first two phases, and move initially to expanding their membership in other countries. When this is done, an organization will be best served in the long run if they anticipate and prepare for some of the organizational changes that may be necessary to keep these members committed to the organization (e.g. leadership opportunities, membership benefits that are appropriate to more than one culture, etc..)

For example, in the case of Zonta International, an organization that works to enhance the status of women worldwide, founded in 1919 in the U.S., as its membership began to grow in other countries, it moved to have its biennial meeting held in different parts of the world (holding the first one in Germany in 1976. ) These meetings are now rotated on a regular basis throughout the world.

Finally, as an organization expands its international operations and/or membership, it will progress to making the goal of treating its members and operations in all parts of the world equally, a priority for the organization.

Organizational structure issues

No matter what organizational structure an organization might choose, to function as one organization, there must be some unifying ties, usually resting with a headquarters' operation. Except in rare circumstances, this headquarters' operation (no matter how weak), will be located within the boundaries of one nation.

Thus, the challenge for the headquarters' operation is to look after the interest of members or constituents who are not residents of that nation, in a way equitable to those that are. An organization that is truly striving to operate as an international entity will make this one of its priority goals. How an organization functions in reality, will generally be somewhere along a spectrum. The end point of this spectrum would be operations that could be transferred to any other part of the world and not change dramatically.

Carol Kinsey Goman in Managing in a Global Organization describes two different organizational structures for international business: 1) ethnocentric - with centralized decision-making and tight control of foreign subsidiaries from domestic headquarters and 2) polycentric -with less headquarter authority and more decentralized interconnected facilities with greater authority and local control. In the middle, she describes global management as a "tight-loose" affair, with local subsidiaries making many decisions, but with centralized headquarters in control of core issues.

As with private sector organizations, INGOs have a choice along the spectrum from decentralized to centralized in the running of their operations. The choice of where to land along the spectrum may be particularly acute for INGOs, however, given their historic drawing of their legitimacy from their members and constituencies. This characteristic might argue for structures that maximize the continued closeness of the organization's decision-making structure to its constituent groups wherever in the world they may be located.

Community Aid Abroad (CAA), founded in Melbourne, Australia in 1953 is a good example of an organization committed to the participation of its far flung constituent groups. After beginning its operations with one project in India, by 1995 it had field offices in nine countries in Asia, Africa, and Central America and operations in 26.

Although CAA has the challenge common to many INGOs of providing participation opportunities to members, staff and local partners alike, CAA does have this goal of participation in mind. According to Laurie Zivetz in Doing Good: The Australian NGO Community, "CAA believes its organizational structure should reflect its participatory development philosophy - that it should encourage members to participate in decision-making processes, as well as in fundraising, educational and advocacy work."

Challenges unique to INGOs in choosing an effective organizational structure include:



Maximizing and maintaining the commitment of local groups and/or members, while retaining core values common to the entire organization.


Maximizing the receptivity of the organization to cultural and regional distinctions


Structuring communication methods that allow all members to have equal opportunities for participation

While historically many INGOs (as was the case in the private sector) had highly centralized structures, current trends appear to be toward more local autonomy. In an article in Voluntas, Dennis Young in the three case studies he reviews, notes that "Two of the three associations [considered] are moving toward a more decentralised structure with greater emphasis on local and regional concerns and on the autonomy and diversity of local affiliates. The direction in which the[third] will move as it expands its international programme is unclear."

Civicus, an organization founded in 1993 to strengthen citizen action and influence throughout the world, has chosen to maintain its global nature by relying on a strong regional structure. A small secretariat (currently U.S. based) is supported by an international Board and six regional conveners responsible for implementing the organization's action plan within its region, with the secretariat's assistance and general supervision.

Green Cross International, an organization founded in 1992 to focus continued global attention on the importance of the environment, is also an example of this apparent trend towards local initiative within the context of the organizational unit. A senior staffer for Green Cross describes the organization's goals as "striving for a balance between grassroots action and global vision...a pliable structure seeking to be both bottom-up and top-down to achieve a workable balance."

A corollary structure issue that is often faced by INGOs that have made the commitment to representing their constituency as equitably as possible is whether the headquarters' secretariat should remain in one location or rotate to different countries. Although many organizations have determined that any benefit gained is offset by the time and cost of hiring and training new staff, locating new office space etc...and have chosen to remain in one location, others have chosen to move.

The International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE) is an example of an organization that has successfully moved its secretariat. The IAVE was founded in the U.S. in 1970 and currently has members in over 60 countries and a Board of Directors representing 14 different nationalities. The IAVE's original headquarters were located in the U.S., moved to Bogota, Columbia when its president came from that country from 1984-88 and since 1988 the five volunteer staff members have been housed in Sydney, Australia in the offices of its current president. The presidency is scheduled to change again at the end of 1996 and the option of a permanent secretariat is under review.

The newly created Oxfam International is a example of a new model being tried by some INGOs. Although, Oxfam affiliates have existed for a number of years in several different countries, it has been just recently that these national groups have decided to strengthen their affiliation by founding Oxfam International and working more closely together in areas such as advocacy work, program harmonization and emergency response.

To maintain its decentralization and sense of globalism, the organization has been incorporated in the Netherlands, has a small secretariat in the United Kingdom, an advocacy office in Washington, D.C., USA, and its current chair resides in Australia. Its structure will be reviewed in three years, including whether the secretariat should be rotated to another location.

The A-B-C Indicator Model, tried by the International Institute for the Urban Environment (IIUE) in 12 European cities (and described by Dr. Valerie Brown in her discussion paper "Measuring Local Sustainability: linking rhetoric to reality") poses an interesting model for INGO practitioners reviewing organizational structure issues in the future to consider.

The model includes Area-specific, Basic set and Core indicators. The area-specific indicators are relevant only to a specific local area, the basic set of indicators are agreed to and used within an entire region and the core indicators are a small set of indicators common to all regions and essential for national policy development. INGOs wishing to decentralize their operations to a greater degree, allowing more local autonomy, could separate out indicators which can differ among local entities, from those that must be core to the entire organization regardless of geographic location.

The Role of Board Members in International Organizations

Effective Board membership includes responsibility for oversight of the organization's administration, policy development, vision setting, and ensuring financial stability (often including a fundraising component). These roles within a nationally-based NGO are well documented in other sources. How might these roles differ when the organization being considered is an international one?



Global perspective - A member of an international Board needs to think globally. Each Board member (as in a single-nation organization) will bring his or her own experiences to the table, which lends an important diversity to the discussions. However, in an international organization it is especially important for each Board member to base his decisions on the welfare of the entire organization, not just the needs of his own national constituency. This global perspective, will help to minimize the strength of national identifications which could serve to inhibit the group's decision-making.


Fundraising - Although different countries have varying approaches to financing voluntary organizations, more international organizations are finding the need to identify additional sources of revenue. Although there is a professional staff role here, Board members with their status in their local community can be an important source for locating potential donors that may not be known or accessible to professional staff members. Fundraising may be particularly challenging to INGOs because they "don't fit into a funding category" for any particular country, and few donors currently exist that focus on the activities of INGOs (see OECD 1993 report for further discussion).


Language abilities/sensitivities - Although many international organizations have chosen to function with English as an operational language, those Board members who speak English as an additional language, may not be as comfortable functioning in English as their Board colleagues who have English as their mother tongue. Board members of international organizations would be well served by having knowledge of at least one other language in addition to their own, or at a minimum recognize the need to speak slowly and clearly when speaking in their mother tongue. The Board chairman should be especially cognizant of the need to ensure that everyone is following the discussion and to stop periodically for clarification or "whisper translations" from one Board member to another.


Cultural styles - Each culture has its unique characteristics. For a multinational Board to operate effectively, there must be a high level of tolerance. When a colleague's verbal presentations or decision-making process appear bewildering or counterproductive to another, the organization may be best served if the Board member does not pre-judge his colleague without first striving to understand more about his cultural background. For example, an Asian member's silence may not be agreement, but merely a desire not to be confrontational. (Note that cultural and personality characteristics can often be intertwined and may be hard to distinguish.)


Public relations - Any organization's ability to accomplish its mission can be greatly enhanced by its public image. The stature that Board members bring to an organization can help play a key role in enhancing and maintaining a public image. Although the media has become increasingly more international, there is often still a local component to an effective media presentation. Thus an organization's public relations will be strengthened if the International Board works with the organizations' professional staff to develop common themes which can be presented as most appropriate in different geographic locations. (Note that this overlaps some of the issues raised in number 2 above. Some Board members may feel more comfortable as spokespeople rather than fundraisers although one can bring benefits to the goals of the other.)


Leadership of the organization - The leaders of an organization must believe in the importance of the internationalism of the organization and work to translate this belief into their everyday actions and decisions. Current global structures encourage nationalism, not internationalism. Cultural, ethnic, religious and increasingly regional groupings also have played a role in the way that individuals define their identity, therefore influencing their decision-making. Thus, leaders need to believe in the benefits internationalism brings, to be visionary and motivational, and to lead sometimes skeptical constituencies. In addition, leaders must strive to be good team leaders, even if their cultural background may not easily point them in this direction. And increasingly, busy professionals need to be kept committed to the time they must expend in their volunteer role as Board members.

Special Staffing Considerations

Working as staff to an NGO that does not operate internationally often calls for a special set of qualifications: ability to work with a wide range of people including volunteers and senior executive leaders, ability to often work with few resources, commitment to the work of the organization, etc... In addition to the special characteristics unique to nationally-based NGOs (well documented in other sources), the staff of INGOs have the special challenge of working with people and organizations of different cultures, ethnics, nationalities and religions.

A preliminary list of skills helpful to the staff of an INGO would include:



International outlook and knowledge


Multicultural sensitivities


"Civil service" philosophy to remain neutral among members of differing cultures, nationalities, political perspectives, etc...


Communication and facilitation skills that will help bring about and implement consensus ideas and actions


Language skills

Iris Varner and Linda Beamer in their book Intercultural Communication note that "The first step in effective intercultural communication is the understanding and acceptance of differences." This understanding does not come easily to many people. Nancy Elder of the American Society of Training and Development in Associations and the Global Marketplace emphasizes that the need for training is important. Her suggestions include incorporating international training into the staff education agenda, including role-playing that enhances sensitivity to cultural differences in a variety of settings and situations, and disseminating information that highlight cultural differences.

It is important that where senior staff managers supervise employees with special skills (such as those listed in #'s 1-5 above) that they share this information within the organization. For example, a listing might be kept of language capabilities of staff members so that when translation needs arise, the appropriate person can be consulted.

Many organizations are now placing increased attention on diversifying their professional staff members, to better represent a diversified membership. Having a multicultural staff that is encouraged to work together, can model for the entire organization effective behavioral patterns.

Other Considerations

Some of the major areas in which managing an international NGO poses some unique challenges are detailed in the preceding sections - organizational structure, the functioning of the Board of Directors and staff. This section refers to some subsidiary issues that may also be worthy of managerial attention, in keeping with a goal of making the organization as multinational as possible.

Members not unduly penalized for nationality - In addition to the operational structure issues raised above, organizations that obtain a high state of global orientation, make it a priority to analyze many of the specific areas in which geographic location will affect members. The organization's leadership will then attempt to control for this so that no member is unduly penalized.

Areas that may be addressed include currency used for paying dues or making other payments to the central body, language(s) for communicating within the organization, postage costs to communicate with the headquarters' operations, and travel costs to organizationally-sponsored meetings.

Communications - Communicating internally within the organization is an area that calls for special attention for INGOs. Communications should be structured so that all members feel equally included. Fax machines (which are often left on for receiving messages 24 hours a day) and electronic mail (also allowing for 24 hour message receipt) have greatly facilitated communications, as they limit the need to control for time differences around the world. However, there are times when Board members or other within the organization must communicate directly. In this case, time differences should be carefully considered so that no particular area of the world is discriminated against. For example, if the Board is to have periodic conference calls with Board members residing in several geographic areas around the world, the time of the call could be rotated so that the same Board member will not always be taking the call at an inconvenient time of day (or night).

Sensitivity to "geocentric" messages - There are many nuances to global sensitivity that the truly international NGO will strive to understand, in order to make all members feel equally comfortable within the organization. For instance, seasons of the year and views of the globe vary depending on the part of the earth one resides in. Although it may be common knowledge that while it is winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it is summer in the Southern Hemisphere, the "language" of the INGO may be most effective if it eliminates references to seasons of the year and instead refers to calendar months. Thus, a "summer" journal edition (based on summer months in the Northern Hemisphere) would instead be referred to as the June-July-August edition. Or a picture of the globe, if used as a logo or illustration, could periodically be rotated to display different views.

Clarification is almost always useful when any doubt may exist to how information will be understood. An example of this need for clarification would be the labelling of currencies - such as the dollar which exists in a number of countries including the U.S., Australia and Hong Kong and a simple label (i.e. U.S.$) will help to avoid confusion.

Conclusion and Summary

The first half of the decade of the 1990's has seen a growing number of NGOs entering the international arena - both as an expansion of previously existing national groups, as well as new organizations being created as INGOs. The management of INGOs presents some unique management challenges, but fortunately this new activity is providing a wealth of models for practitioners to refer to. Although much of this new activity is currently undocumented, international networks are being created that will increasingly allow the managers of INGOs to consult and learn from each other.

The current trend shows a movement towards decentralized organizational structures, which has as a goal the increased involvement of members or constituent groups regardless of their geographic location. While existing NGOs that are expanding their international programs are looking at ways to share decision-making abilities, newly created INGOs are initially seeking as diverse a representation as possible on their committees, Boards and staffs. As the composition of Boards and staffs become more diverse, leaders are learning important lessons about the dynamics of these multinational groupings.

Bonnie Koenig is the President of Going International, a consultancy practice helping NGOs develop and expand their international programs. From 1990-95 she was the executive director of the INGO, Zonta International.

The author would like to thank the following individuals for their help in preparing this article: Val Alistar (CAA), Margaret Bell (IAVE), Judy Henderson (CAA and Oxfam International), Miklos Marschall (Civicus), Sonja M. Renfer (Zonta), and Paul Samson (Green Cross)


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Svevo-Cianci, Kimberly, 1995. Associations and the Global Marketplace: Profiles of Success, Washington, D.C., American Society of Association Executives Press

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Boston, USA, Irwin Publishers

Young, Dennis, "Organising Principles for International Advocacy Associations" in Voluntas, 1992

Zivetz, Laurie, 1991. Doing Good - the Australian NGO Community, Sydney, Allen and Unwin

[As appeared in Transnational Associations, 2/96]