Reputation & NGOs Workshop Opening Plenary: How do NGOs think about reputations?

by Amanda Moss Cowan

At the opening plenary of the Reputation and NGOs workshop, representatives from Amnesty International, Oxfam, and INTRAC shared their thinking about the challenges NGOs face in managing their reputations. Concerns about accountability, impact, and risk topped the list of concerns. Increasingly, where accountability is concerned, NGOs face potential damage to their reputations if they are not seen to be accountable to the people on the ground in the locations where they operate. Impact was discussed in terms of achieving results, and then demonstrating that the organization is meeting its objectives, its core purpose. Reputational risk is inherent to NGO operations, and most salient around the dangers of mission expansion. This mission expansion was expressed in terms of increasing organizational size, increasing globalization of NGOs, and increased trends toward inter-organizational collaboration, including public-private partnerships. Larger organizational size can bring on mission creep. Greater globalization reduces sensitivity to local cultures and thus ties back to the accountability questions NGOs currently grapple with. Collaborations involve taking on partners’ reputational risks: As Jack Lundie concluded, “Collaborations require eyes open regarding your partner’s reputation and how what you do will affect your reputation. Today reputation is hard won and quickly lost.”
Their contributions sparked some interesting questions from the audience, that deserve further exploration:

  • As NGOs are more dependent on funders than ever, does this introduce tensions with other stakeholders, such as end users? Do funders demand things of you that make you uneasy?
  • Do you think about how you manage the reputation of NGOs collectively? There is a limited pool of mindshare, money, involvement. When you find you have common interests with another group, how do you cooperate, work together, and compete in that shared space?
  • How do NGOs think about generational differences? With mass media, online forums, you're reaching fundamentally different communities. How do you deal with that when constructing and maintaining reputations?
  • To what extent do you leverage social media to gain legitimacy with mainstream media, to raise the pressure on corporations?
  • In the past, NGOs’ distinct role in civil society made it easy to know what side you’re on. But now public-private partnerships offer more complex choices. How do you convince people that you are part of the coalition that has the right answer?