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Feb 23, 2012 CSRHub Blogging

So what happens to NGOs?


By Ashley Coale

There’s no question that the CSR and business responsibility fields are alive and growing – with clear signs that they’re here to stay. We’ve seen many companies adopt whole systems approaches to retooling their business model. We’ve seen executives like Unilever’s Paul Polman turning away investment from sources that don’t buy into Unilever’s equitable and sustainable model. Furthermore, we’ve seen corporations shift from sources of philanthropy to active participants in implementing and participating in projects that give back.

NGOsSo, you may be asking, what’s wrong with all this? Well, in some ways, not much. But increasingly, as we’ve heralded the blurring of the public and private, I have to ask, so what happens to NGOs? 

The rise of civil society in the latter half of the 20th century dramatically changed the landscape of social and environmental activism. In fact, the pure numbers of NGOs grew astronomically from 176 in 1909 to nearly 5,500 in 1996. When you think of some of the most successful campaigns for everything from dolphin-safe tuna to non-discriminatory hiring, somewhere there is an NGO to thank.

And very importantly, when it comes to corporate social responsibility and transparency, NGOs have held companies accountable, helping the public to understand the reality of business behavior. A significant share of CSRHub’s sources of data come from independent NGOs – of the 142 sources of CSR ratings data, over 70 are NGOs. The Human Rights Campaign, the Carbon Disclosure Project, and Greenpeace provide transparent ratings of corporate behavior on hiring practices, carbon emissions and sustainable seafood.

We relied upon NGOs to find the means and methods for pressure and whistle-blowing where it was most needed. They provided research, expertise and funding. And they exerted political pressure, often advocating for those without a voice. In the old days, if there was no money to be made – business was out.

But business isn’t “out” anymore. As we have come to expect more from our corporations, they have come to deliver more. There has been a shift in what Doug Guthrie has called our social contract with business. The expectational paradigm of what makes a positive non-governmental actor is evolving towards not just an NGO, but also a for-profit enterprise that provides and works for good in its community, the environment and the world at large.

Further complicating the non-profit and for-profit dichotomy, traditional sources of international NGO funding, such as the US Department of State and USAID have increasingly emphasized private sector participation. Social enterprise – development as implemented by entrepreneurs and small start-ups – can’t seem to stop building buzz. With the empowerment of the corporation as the next locus for social and environmental progress, will NGOs become relics of the past?

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s overly simplistic to see NGOs as the ONLY significant engine for change. I’ve never been one to subscribe to the simplistic categorization of cultural theory: the good (NGOs), the bad (government) and the ugly (business). In fact, usually I’m actively arguing for disrupting this old structured assumption – and I know there are many with me. This old model may have gotten us to trust and rely upon NGOs, but it has done little to empower and expect more from business.

But as we go about our disrupting, and changing the role for business, we can’t let the NGO model drift by the wayside. We must not allow the NGO of the 20th century to disappear. As David Weiss cautions, we can’t let them become victims of mission creep or exploitation. And most importantly, we still need the objective checks on reporting and accuracy that NGOs have long been able to provide.

Photo courtesy of Brande Jackson



Ashley Coale has a long-standing passion for business sustainability and the impact that strong, effective communications campaigns can have in catalyzing change. As the Social Media Editor, Ashley manages social media and communications outreach at CSRHUB. She is responsible for crafting and implementing content and strategy. Her communications experience includes a wide range of causes including international development, human rights, and federal and municipal sustainability policy. She holds a bachelors degree from Wellesley College and a masters degree from the London School of Economics. A native of Portland, Oregon, she now makes her home in Brooklyn, New York.



Published by CSRHub Blogging February 23, 2012