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TNGO Updates

Recent happenings from the TNGO Initiative

Corporate Abuse of Charity Ratings

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The American Beverage Institute (ABI) complains that 'Mothers Against Drunk Driving' (MADD) received only a 'D' from the American Institute of Philantrophy. Slate Magazine already ran a story about the obvious: ABI's efforts to weaken MADD is all about the alcohol industry's bottom line and profits. And if MADD was indeed 'ineffective' as the rating suggests, then ABI would likely not bother to even attack it. So, what is happening here? Why go after a charity that seems to fail in its mission?


First, many advocacy organizations naturally spend more resources on overhead and difficult-to-measure activities, scoring typically lower than service delivery organizations (such as foodbanks). MADD is at 61% program spending, and AIP sets a 75% expectation for highly efficient charities. Second, efficiency ratings tell donors nothing about the actual impact of an organization. As we have argued elsewhere, financial efficiency is, at best, a weak proxy for effectiveness and, at worst, weakens the nonprofit sector significantly by forcing organizations to neglect organizational growth and engage in a 'race to the bottom.' 


Charity watchdogs, including Charity Navigator, are currently changing their ratings to include more meaningful information about individual organizations. This will still include financial data, but also provide more information about what organizations actually do. Measured by the attention received by your corporate opponents, MADD is a good investment for donors.          

TNGO Initiative hosts the inaugural Transnational NGO Leadership Institute in September

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The TNGO Initiative will host the first Transnational NGO Leadership Institute next month, September 14-20. The inaugural module in the Institute, which offers executive leadership preparation programs, is for invited NGO leaders only, and will focus specifically on leaders who currently work at the second tier of responsibility in their organizations and who wish to prepare themselves for top leadership. This focus came out of the realization that leadership succession and transition remain a difficult issue for the TNGO sector. We hope to offer this module, as well as future additional modules, annually.


 The Institute is guided by an impressive Steering Group of external NGO practitioners, and has a cohort of 16 participants with great regional, sector and gender diversity. Excellent Maxwell faculty and NGO leaders are contributing to the program content. For a full update on participants, contributors and program, please visit Applications for the 2012 Leadership Institute will open late this fall.

The TNGO Initiative moderated and took part in a panel on Outcome Accountability at the InterAction Forum

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During the past InterAction Forum in Washington DC, August 10-12, the TNGO Initiative hosted a panel on "What Really Matters: Perspectives on Organizational Evaluation, Disclosure and Learning". The panel focused on outcome data generated and disclosed by INGOs: to what purpose should this be done? Is it feasible and even desirable to come to standardization of outcome related data, and if so, who should take the lead?


Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken moderated the panel, while George Mitchell, Assistant Professor at City College of New York (part of CUNY), and TNGO Initiative Fellow presented on "Outcome Accountability: How Far Are We Willing To Go?", which provided a solid foundation to the discussions, and asserted that most NGOs as yet do not have a consistent policy or practice on outcome evaluation, let alone disclosure ofsuch data.


 Ken Berger, CEO of Charity Navigator (CN), the influential US web-based rating intermediary, offered an update on the important ongoing changes in their rating system in the areas of transparency and accountability as well as results reporting. These changes will greatly incentivize NGOs to improve their generation and disclosure of outcome data. Ken agreed with George's assessment regarding the vast majority of NGOs ("there is no there there"), and mentioned that most individual donors give to nonprofits based on loyalty considerations and earlier connections to the organization concerned, and not based on good data about outcomes. He also mentioned that 40% of the charities rated by CN will see changes in their rating as a result of the current re-rating based on the new transparency and accountability standards.


 Matthew Forti, Program Measurement Lead at Bridgespan, the well-known US consulting and training group for nonprofits, did a presentation that offered some of the answers to the questions raised above. Matthew mentioned the new website Charting Impact, which offers the beginning of such outcome accountability, although he agreed that it has some limitations in terms of outside verification of information offered, and offers no assurance on the quality of evaluation data offered. He stated that only those standardsetting initiatives that help organizations improve their effectiveness and which contribute to organizational learning will survive and thrive, while those that focus foremost on donor accountability will not. Also, it is crucial that institutional donors financially support the significant investment costs that NGOs face in terms of evaluation capacity. Finally, any standardization in outcome data generation and disclosure should be encouraged, not mandated.


 Carlisle Levine, former evaluator at CRS and CARE US and co-chair of InterAction's Working Group on Evaluation, offered detailed comments on the three presentations from her practitioner experience. She highlighted the fact that on the one hand, some of the larger INGOs are investing in outcome accountability ("there is a there there"), while NGOs in general face significant constraints in improving their accountability. What to do with federated and/or highly decentralized NGOs, where coming to consensus on what is the right outcome data to collect and disclose can be difficult? How do we apply measures to diverging forms of NGO activity, such as advocacy, capacity building and service delivery? If we (only) measure what we can easily measure, then we are probably not measuring the right things. And what is the right time frame for such measurement?


Overall, the panel was attended by a good size audience, included spirited discussions and well well reviewed by participants. Tosca has been invited to join Charity Navigator's Advisory Panel to help guide CN's changes in how it rates NGOs towards a greater focus on both transparency and accountability ('CN 2.0') and results reporting ('CN 3.0').

Does rights talk romanticize the poor? A response to Pranab Bardhan's 'Who Represents the Poor?'

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Economist Pranab Bardhan takes on the rights-based approach in the Boston Review and gets applause from Chris Blattman. There are many important and valid points in the essay, but much of the critique is based on inaccurate assumptions and generalizations about the development sector. Bardhan claims that many activists somehow "romanticize the poor" and that rights-based approaches in a weak state are "hollow and promoting them breeds cynicism" because court orders are not implemented and enforced. While such problems may be real in specific contexts, they are hardly representative of the broader movement. These charges not only misunderstand the sincerity of many development professionals dedicated to eradicating poverty, but fundamentally miss the larger point of rights-based mobilization. Litigation is but one strategy in the RBA tool set, which is most effective when deployed simultaneously at different levels of domestic society. RBA strategies are primarily about raising consciousness and empowerment at the local levels as well as accountability at the state level. For NGOs as external actors using RBA, the strategy is not just about pitting the people against the state, but is requires complex analyses of all forms of inequality and discrimination, especially those prevalent within local communities. Development workers do not admire “the pristine life of the poor and the indigenous,” as Bardhan puts it. Instead, RBA is designed to focus particular attention on community members who have traditionally been disenfranchised, including the poorest.

Of course, much remains to be done and RBA is very much an unfinished agenda. Our recent evaluation of RBA efforts of Plan International finds limited evidence of rights holders successfully holding duty bearers accountable through electoral or other mechanisms. Most development agencies have yet to establish systematic guidelines for how to apply RBA in different contexts as well as systematic methods for evaluating the efficacy of such activities. Most importantly, NGOs often have difficulties developing holistic strategies that simultaneously target community-, civil society- and state-levels. In this sense, Bardhan is right. Winning a single court battle is not an end to the war against poverty. But it is one step towards broader social mobilization which diminishes the role of external actors and increases the influence of domestic democratic forces.

Article 'Non-Governmental and Not-for-Profit Organizational Effectiveness' accepted for publication

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Written jointly by Jesse D. Lecy (Georgia State University), Haley Swedlund (Radboud University, Nijmegen), and Hans Peter Schmitz, the article 'Non-Governmental and Not-for-Profit Organizational Effectiveness: A Modern Synthesis' has been accepted for publication by Voluntas. International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations. The article provides a structured and interdisciplinary literature review on the topic of not-for-profit effectiveness.   


Abstract: While the issue of NGO/NPO effectiveness remains a prominent topic for scholars and practitioners, the literature on this topic is increasingly fragmented along disciplinary lines. We address this issue by presenting a comprehensive and interdisciplinary review of the literature on NGO and NPO effectiveness using citation analysis. In order to uncover communalities across disciplines concerned with questions of NPO/NGO effectiveness, we deploy a structured literature review using snowball sampling within citation networks. This approach limits author biases, fosters an interdisciplinary perspective, and adds a different methodological approach to conventional content-based literature reviews. Our review uncovers three trends: (1) there is broad scholarly consensus that uni-dimensional measures of effectiveness are not useful – even though such measures are commonly used by NGO/NPO rating agencies; (2) the scholarship on NGO/NPO effectiveness is dominated by conceptual works, while empirical studies remain rare; (3) a consensus on how to operationalize effectiveness remains elusive. These results suggest that progress in our understanding of NGO/NPO effectiveness requires crossing disciplinary divides, adding more empirical analyses, and increasing efforts to develop shared categories and methodologies.

Multi-level Evaluation of Rights-Based-Approach in Plan International

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A paper presented by Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken at INTRAC's 7th Evaluation Conference in the Netherlands, is posted here. The paper draws on results from the first comprehensive review of Plan International's adoption of rights-based strategies, completed by the TNGO Initiative in July 2011.
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