Disrupt & Innovate

When we admire decentralised power in other NGOs but we struggle with it in our own

17th September 2019 by Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken

NB: While Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken penned this blog post, thanks goes to Long Tran, the author of the article discussed, who reviewed and had input into its content.

The question

What is the influence of our organisational structure on our NGOs’ effectiveness? Many mid to large size NGOs have built complex, ambitious, often multi-layered organisational forms in the last decade or so, but do they offer enough value in return for tradeoffs such as greater transaction costs, less agility and other unwanted side effects? Centralised, unitary INGO structures tend to lead to more efficient but less democratic decision making than in decentralised structures. Has the pendulum swung too far, not enough, or are things just about right? And what do leaders candidly think about this?

Long Tran, a colleague in my former ‘pracademic’ life and PhD student at American University, USA, recently produced an interesting article about how leaders think about (de)centralised structures (pay walled, citation below), and how it impacts effectiveness in their perception. Long used an INGO leadership interview data set that a team of us at the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University (USA) had produced some time ago. We had interviewed 152 top leaders of US-registered (though not always US-founded) INGOs about their perspectives on effectiveness challenges — among others.

What Long found

How NGO leaders think about centralised versus decentralised structures in peer NGOs is not the same as what they perceive about their own. Long studied the connection between an INGO’s level of centralisation and its effectiveness reputation, as perceived by leaders of peer NGOs. Perceptions about reputation matter, because they can shape future opportunities and risks. As Long writes and I concur “civil society sector appears culturally averse to concentrated power as a matter of principle”. From this perspective, compared with centralised INGOs, decentralised INGOs may enjoy more legitimacy and, thus, a better effectiveness reputation. Hence, one would expect that INGO leaders would rate their decentralised peer INGOs better than centralised peer INGOs in terms of legitimacy. Long found this expectation to be true in his data.

On the other hand, a centralised structure can be expected to reduce transaction costs, and help leaders feel more confident about their organisation’s effectiveness. Long thus hypothesized that, compared to leaders of decentralised INGOs, leaders of centralised NGOs would rate their own effectiveness higher. This was indeed borne out by Long’s analysis.

Overall, centralised, unitary INGOs thus tend to have stronger internally perceived effectiveness but weaker externally perceived legitimacy than decentralised INGOs do. For example, as one of the interviewed leaders described, “the tension you accept when you accept a confederated structure is you are going to have high transaction costs; the flip side of that is if you were to have a command and control architecture you make other kinds of compromises such as in terms of legitimacy and credibility”. And while academics have argued endlessly about definitions of NGO effectiveness and performance, most agree that these are ‘socially constructed’ – that is, they are defined and negotiated between stakeholders of the NGO and are not absolute.


Several questions arise from these findings:

  1. It is notable that leaders often praise decentralisation when commenting on the INGO world, yet perceive various challenges of implementing decentralisation when it comes to their own organisations! Can we surmise that leaders support the general norm around the value of decentralised organisation, even if they don’t want it or struggle with it in their own organisation? Is there some hypocrisy in this – or at least a clear tension? Does this point to a gap between our aspirations as a sector versus our real in-use practice?
  2. Will we see a return to a more corporate hierarchical models or a further split between, on the one hand large ‘families’ of decentralised (con)federated and networked NGOs, and those who buck that trend and keep their organisational form simple and unitary – particularly because agility is considered as very much needed in a rapidly changing environment and highly competitive civil society ecosystem ?

What leaders can do 

  1. Promote an open discussion within your board and mid to senior managers and leaders about the tradeoffs between centralised and decentralised structures, without anything being ‘taboo’ or off the table. Importantly, this needs to include stakeholders with country level perspectives and experiences.
  2. Consider whether lack of efficiency in deliberation really is due to the structure, or rather due to the behavior of the people who work in the structures? For instance, I have observed some NGOs who have little discipline when it comes to decision making: they will allow for extensive consultation, then finally come to a decision,  to then turn around and  allow for that decision process to be opened up once again for further deliberation.
  3. Experiment with digital deliberation tools for focused yet inclusive globally distributed deliberation processes. These are already in use by digital campaigning platforms in civil society. One example is Loomio.org, and advisory agencies such as thehum.org and Ethelo specialise in supporting these processes. Our sector has to catch up with these developments.
More resources

Twitter: @Tosca5Oaks

You can follow Long Tran on Twitter to stay in touch with his interesting research.

His article which I draw this post from (with his permission) is regretfully behind a paywall; here is the citation:

Tran, L. (2019). International NGO Centralization and Leader-Perceived Effectiveness. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 0899764019861741.

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken

Principal Consultant

Five Oaks Consulting

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken has worked on international development and civil society issues for 30 years, in practice, in academia and as independent consultant. Before launching her consulting practice, Five Oaks Consulting, Tosca was the Director of the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University, USA. She focuses on NGO change management, leadership development and organisational culture. She has served as board member of InterAction, Public Interest Registry, ProLiteracy and Cadasta. Early in her career, Tosca worked as development practitioner for NGOs, the UN, the World Bank and at a think tank based in the Netherlands, Tosca’s country of birth.