From Maxwell Perspective...

Linking Theory and Practice

Maxwell’s Moynihan Institute houses an initiative devoted to better understanding the NGO phenomenon.

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NOG_tngo_logoIn a brilliant career marked by groundbreaking scholarship and leadership in the U.S. Senate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan also served as U.S. ambassador to India and to the United Nations. He possessed a profound understanding of world affairs and politics. It is fitting then that, within Maxwell’s Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs, students pursue expertise in that same realm through the TNGO Initiative. (NGOs that operate in global affairs are often called “transnational” by scholars, to distinguish them from similar organizations that operate domestically—hence the acronym TNGO.) The TNGO Initiative offers a small community of graduate students a unique expertise in understanding the nature and dynamics of NGOs.

“Our approach is interdisciplinary, empirical, and experiential,” says Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, the director for education and practitioner engagement of the TNGO Initiative. “Through NGO-focused course work, students gain new intellectual perspectives. Through research projects, they gain intellectual rigor. And their collaboration on case studies with NGO leaders in residence gives them a worldly understanding of practice.” Interaction with members of the NGO community is enhanced by two lecture series, one of which is presented by an active student group.

One overarching research objective for the TNGO Initiative is to link the leadership characteristics of NGOs with their performance and impact. To advance that goal, researchers long needed a much larger data set on NGO leaders than any that existed. With the support of the National Science Foundation, the TNGO Initiative developed such a data set.

“Leaders from 152 U.S.-registered TNGOs, spanning five major sectors of transnational NGOs, were interviewed, following an interdisciplinary protocol,” explains Bruno-van Vijfeijken. “The interviews have not only given us the data we need, but advanced our research. Already, they’ve led to a more accurate characterization of the methods and objectives of NGOs.” In the future, this research lode may serve as a model for complementary data sets—one built on interviews with leaders of NGOs based in Europe, for example.

Recently, the TNGO Initiative introduced a program to address the needs of second-tier NGO leaders — assistant secretaries general, vice presidents, and their like — who wish to prepare themselves for top leadership positions. It is a one-week, peer-to-peer executive training program expected to draw TNGO leaders from across the world, from a variety of sectors. The first session will be held next fall.

For students, scholars, and leaders of transnational NGOs, the TNGO Initiative is the door to a uniquely dedicated, experienced, and cosmopolitan community.

Among resources available on the TNGO Initiative website are conversational interviews with TNGO leaders. Find them at

— Tom Raynor

Tom Raynor is a freelance writer based in Syracuse. He holds an MIA from Columbia University.
This article appeared in the fall 2010 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2010 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail