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Maxwell School
Maxwell / Moynihan / Transnational NGO Initiative


Transnational non-governmental organizations (TNGOs) participate in the evolution of global governance and shape the daily lives of Millions around the world. The growing visibility of these organizations has created much debate about the legitimacy and proper role of civil society actors projecting their influence across national borders.

Although academics and the general public are today more aware of TNGOs and their activities, our understanding of their role in global affairs remains limited in three important respects. First, most studies about TNGOs are confined to a specific sector (e.g., human rights, development, or environment) or focus on limited cases of particularly important issue campaigns (e.g., banning landmines). Second, most NGO research is carried out within the boundaries of a particular academic discipline. The results often reinforce the persistence of disciplinary divides and segmented research programs. Third, rarely do studies of TNGOs link an analysis of organizational characteristics to questions of effectiveness and impact. All of these limitations hamper the establishment of a basic descriptive understanding of TNGOs and their role in global affairs. 

Digital NGO Research

Over the last 10 years, the NGO world has witnessed an emergence of digital or virtual NGOs and platforms, which try to accomplish their mission through an emphasis on the use of digitally enabled technologies. On the campaigning side, one can think of Avaaz,, the Ushahidi platform or ONE, for instance. On the fund raising and channeling side, platforms such as Kiva, GlobalGiving and Kickstarter are obvious examples. These digitally enabled NGOs claim to offer distinct advantages over traditional, ‘brick and mortar’ NGOs: that they are faster, more agile and nimble, and more democratic in facilitating broad based citizen agency. Leaders of traditional NGOs are becoming aware of this new component of civil society and realize that this new model offers important challenges to them and may highlight possible shortcomings of the ‘brick and mortar’ model. However, there are clear complementarities as well, and how to collaborate most effectively thus becomes the issue. Meanwhile, traditional NGOs are increasingly incorporating digitally enabled strategies themselves, though their comparative advantage lies among others in their ability to sustain interventions long-term whether it relates to advocacy, capacity building, or service delivery and humanitarian interventions. For additional information on virtual NGO research the TNGO Initiative is involved in, please click here.

Next and Best Leadership Development Practices in the TNGO Sector in Collaboration with the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)

This research attempts to investigate what major TNGOs have found to be the most promising leadership development practices and aims to provide a helpful overview of current best practices for interested practitioners. Our data includes interviews from over twenty senior management and human resources leaders from seven organizations - ActionAid International, Amnesty International, World Vision, Medicine Sans Frontiers, Oxfam International, Plan International and Transparency International.

The TNGO Interview Study

The study and data collection at the core of the TNGO Initiative is designed to overcome these three shortcomings. Leaders from 152 US-registered TNGOs spanning five major sectors of transnational activism were interviewed using an interdisciplinary protocol. Topics of the interviews included governance, accountability, effectiveness, collaboration, communication and leadership. Additional secondary data were also collected. The interview study was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF; Grant No. SES-0527679; 'Transnational NGOs as Agents of Change: Toward Understanding Their Governance, Leadership, and Effectiveness'). For results of this research program, please click here.

INGO Research Group

The INGO Research Group is a collaborative effort across universities and NGOs to foster the study of transnational NGOs. Communication among scholars and practicioners is currently facilitated by a listserv and a ning-page. If you would like to join, please email us or visit the ingo-page

INGO Research Group members regularly meet at the annual conferences of relevant professional associations, including the Association for Research on Nonprofit and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), the International Studies Association (ISA), and the American Political Science Association (APSA).

Rights-based Approaches to Development (RBA)

During the past decade, many TNGOs in the development sector have adopted a rights-based approach (RBA), introducing an explicit rights focus to their strategies and interactions with local communities, civil society, and governments. While most TNGOs use today RBA or related labels to signify this shift, there is no consensus on what defines RBA at the tactical or strategic levels. At the TNGO Initiative, we evaluate the emerging approaches taken by different development organizations and assess which strategies are most promising in employing rights-based efforts as a tool in the struggle against poverty and discrimination. For additional information on this research program, please click here.