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Whole-Sector Analysis: The Organizational Ecology of TNGOs

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On December 14th, Jesse Lecy, a PhD candidate at Maxwell and a TNGO research assistant, presented his dissertation work at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs. The presentation can be found here

ABSTRACT:  The past three decades have ushered in a period where political scholars are more interested in governance than government and public administration scholars are declaring death to the bureaucracy, long live the network!  Core government functions have been decentralized and outsourced as citizens demand market-based solutions to complex social problems.  This new era has created a reliance on the non-profit sector and private contractors for the delivery of core social services and the execution of policy processes.  Despite this fundamental shift, there is still much to learn about managing networks of autonomous service-providers.  Is it possible for policy-makers to scale services easily since the government does not provide them directly, for example?  How is accountability ensured?


Transnational NGOs are a special case of this broad trend.  The sector is utilized by governments and other international donor agencies to deliver humanitarian relief following disasters or periods of conflict, build capacity in societies with institutional vacuums, and provide support when local governance is weak.  As the demand for these services increases it is important to understand the nature of delivering services through decentralized networks of NGOs. 


Most research on transnational NGOs is based upon case studies or small samples, but examining the behavior of an entire sector requires mesa-level analysis.  Financial data from the entire US population of international NGOs over a 20-year period is used to build an ecological model of the sector.  Of particular interest is a period where sector funding increases rapidly because it provides a natural experiment of sorts for determining the effects of scaling-up efforts.  The influx of resources influences organizations in a couple of prominent ways.  First, the largest and most established organizations are able to capture a significant proportion of the new resources, thus increasing inequality in an already unequal sector.  Second, we observe an increase in new NGOs entering the sector during this time period.  Both changes lead to fiercer competition for resources causing smaller organizations to fail at higher rates.


This research has important implications for the governance of global civil society.  A few large organizations are becoming really large with revenues of $1 billion or more, but the median size of organization is only $180,000 and falling.  This means that a few NGOs can potentially dominate the conversation about regulation and strategic direction of the sector while the majority of small organizations are excluded.  Also, little protection is afforded to nascent organizations, although there are many more small agencies than there are big fish.  Finally, it is also not clear that bigger is better in terms of efficiency or effectiveness.  Through this kind of ecological research this goal is to better understand these important issues and find policies that support robust and efficacious non-profit sectors.

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