9 International Organizations

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Understand the scope of the international nonprofit sector.
  • Define the roles of international nonprofit/nongovernmental organizations.
  • Discuss the unique ethical concerns facing international nonprofits.


9.1  Chapter Introduction

Much of this book has been focused on the nonprofit sector in the United States – although much of the content can be applied or adapted to international organizations as well. However, this chapter will look outside the borders of the United States and explore the diversity of nonprofit organizations that are active internationally. Many of these groups are registered in the United States (or another “western” country) as nonprofit organizations, but many others are founded and registered in the countries in which they work.

In an international context, nonprofits are often called NGOs, or nongovernmental organizations, signifying their roles as independent of both the state (government) and market sectors, much like nonprofits in the United States. They can be very large, multi-billion dollar organizations that work across multiple countries or small community-based organizations (CBOs) that work only in a single community or region.

Bound Together Bookstore, a wall full of alt political posters and bookshelves.

A word on vocabulary:

When discussing the work of nonprofit organizations internationally, it is easy to fall into using language that can perpetuate stereotypes in the “developing world.” I prefer to use the phrase low-income countries to describe nations that struggle with poverty and inequality. There are historical reasons why these countries struggle with economic and political development – reasons that have often been outside their control, including colonialism.

If you’d like to read more about this issue, here is a good source for some background on these terms from the World Bank, as well as a strong argument for updating our vocabulary, published by NPR (National Public Radio).

Image: “Bound Together Bookstore * San Francisco Sessions 2001 *” by Sterneck is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


9.2  INGOs Versus NGOs

Similar to nonprofit organizations in the United States, the types of nongovernmental organizations globally are diverse, although internationally many groups work on humanitarian aid, economic development, environmental protection or human rights. International NGOs (INGOs)[1] are groups that work across borders – sometimes by working in more than one country, sometimes because they raise money in one country (such as the United States) and spend that money in another country. One example of an INGO is CARE International, an organization founded after World War II. This group now works in more than a dozen countries around the world providing humanitarian relief, economic development and working towards social justice.

Watch the video of CARE International UK in Mozambique as they assist in the humanitarian response to a hurricane in 2019.



NGOs, on the other hand, are organizations that work, raise money and are headquartered in a single country. Equitable Cambodia is an example of an NGO, based in Cambodia, working for peasants rights and social justice causes.

Although INGOs and NGOs are often used interchangeably to describe nonprofit organizations around the world, it’s worthwhile to distinguish them as either those who work across borders (INGOs) or those that are based and work in a single country (NGOs).

Because the registration of NGOs is different from country to country, it is very difficult to get a handle on how many NGOs and INGOs are active around the world. One recent estimate suggested there are at least 75,000 International NGOs, and on a country-by-country level NGOs can run in the millions. In 2009, it was estimated that India had over three million NGOs, while China has an estimated 460,000 registered NGOs.[2] Tracking employment in the INGO and NGO sector is also difficult, but it’s clear millions of people are actively working as either volunteers or staff for INGOs and NGOs globally.

9.3 Theories of International NGOs

Like the nonprofit sector more broadly, NGO and International NGO formation can be defined by the same theories we discussed in Chapter 2. That is, they are impacted by market and government failure, contract failure and voluntary failure. However, in many lower-income countries, the scale of government failure can be more significant than it is in the United States or other wealthier nations, as communities struggle to provide basic needs like clean water, sanitation, schools or hospitals.

Social Origins Theory[3] is another helpful theory to use to compare the nonprofit sectors across countries. This theory suggests that the shape of the nonprofit or NGO sector in each country has been defined by the historical, social, political and legal contexts of that nation. For example, a country that provides a stronger social safety net for its population may offer less of those types of NGOs than a country that has no social safety net whatsoever for its poor population.

9.4 What INGOs and NGOs Do

NGOs play a variety of roles in development, humanitarian and social justice work. Lewis[4] describes three primary roles: implementer, catalyst and partner. These terms are not mutually exclusive, and organizations can engage in more than one role at any given time.

  • Implementer organizations gather and distribute goods and services to those in need. This covers a wide swath of organizations engaged in humanitarian aid responding to disasters, groups that are contracted by governments to provide particular services or those that grant charitable dollars to other organizations.
  • Catalyst organizations seek to bring about social or political change. Change can be focused on helping to empower local communities or bringing about change with government, with businesses or among funders.
  • Partner organizations work in collaboration with other organizations, including government or other NGOs. This role recognizes that NGOs are rarely acting in a vacuum.

care logoAbove you watched a short video about the work of CARE International UK in responding to a humanitarian crisis. Take a few minutes to reflect on the video and review their website.

  • Would you consider CARE to be an implementer, catalyst or partner in the work that they do? Why?



9.5 The Management of INGOs

One way to think about the management of INGOs is that “the global is local.” That is, effective NGO managers must recognize the political, social, cultural, technological and economic context in which they are working as well as understand the management skills needed to run an organization. Below is one way to consider the different dimensions of INGO management.

Political Factors (P)

Key Question: What aspect of a country’s political and legal environment could be beneficial or detrimental to our mission, strategy and operations?


Economic Factors (E)

Key Questions: What aspects of the economic environment will enable or constrain our work? What micro and macro economic factors do we need to consider?

Socio-Cultural Factors (S)

Key Questions: How will the society, its traditions and culture affect our mission, strategy and operations? How is the host country’s socio-cultural landscape different from ours?



Technological Factors (T)

Key Questions: How is the country’s technological environment going to affect our mission, strategy and operations? What innovations are available/unavailable?



Adapted from Aguilar, Francis J. (1967) “Scanning the Business Environment”. Macmillan. 

  • The political environment – INGO leaders need to be conscious of the different political structures and regimes that are active in the country in which the organization is working. Take, for example, Gaza Sky Geeks in occupied Palestine. This organization does its work to enable STEM education and entrepreneurship in one of the most politically contested areas of the world and has to negotiate with both the Palestinian Authority and the government of Israel. Their work in the region relies upon managing the political context successfully.
  • Additionally, INGO managers should pay attention to local politics, as many lower-income countries struggle with political instability that can lead to changes in the country’s leadership, civil unrest or even violence.
  • Economic Issues – INGOs need to be conscious of the economy of the country in which they are working. If they are raising money in the U.S., they may need to consider the volatility of exchange rates, the average wage of the country’s population and the cost of operations there. For example, Argentina has struggled with high inflation rates for the past several decades, leaving the U.S. dollar more powerful, but making basic needs much more expensive for the communities that organizations may work with. This may also impact the economic security of the staff you employee in the country.
  • Socio-Cultural IssuesDifferent people around the world approach problems differently and have different communication styles, gender norms, religious beliefs, social needs and ideologies. Cultural awareness must also take into account how relationships, networks and trust are manifested among different groups of people. Someone who is not from a particular country may not only experience culture shock, but may also struggle to implement plans and goals that are not seen as relevant or appropriate culturally.
  • Technological Issues – Many lower-income countries without a solid infrastructure may struggle to offer their citizens consistent electricity, telephone service or internet access. The population may have little to no access to consumer banking as well. Some INGOs seek to focus on these infrastructure issues.

Engineers without borders USA

Activity: So You Have an Idea

Looking at the problems facing the world, particularly in low-income countries, it’s easy to think you have struck on an idea that can make a difference. Yet, there are thousands of failed projects scattered around the world. Why does this happen? What can you do to avoid similar pitfalls?

Watch this video and then discuss the following questions:

  • Do you think that “aid has failed?”
  • What are key lessons that aid and development workers should consider?
  • (Feel free to review Engineers Without Borders website: https://www.ewb-usa.org/)


9.6 Ethical Considerations of INGOs

INGOs may seem like saviors or heroes, addressing key needs of communities around the world; however, some scholars and practitioners have criticized INGOs for enabling an unequal status quo. Rather than being advocates for changes to political and economic systems that prevent community empowerment and participation, they simply add a salve to deeply rooted inequities and injustices.[5]

It’s important to reflect on some of the more controversial aspects of INGO work around the world. At a minimum, INGO employees, volunteers and donors should recognize these tensions and seek to mitigate the challenges these critiques provide.

  • North-South Tensions – Most wealthy countries are in the northern or western hemispheres, while most middle and low income countries are in the southern hemisphere. It’s also the case that most southern countries have been colonized by northern powers at some point over the last five centuries. These facts lead to what some scholars call North-South Tensions.[6]

    Watch this video for a short primer on this topic: (note this video uses the first world vs. third world language)



Since northern nations generally fund humanitarian and development efforts in the global south, this can lead to tensions around power and control, particularly over decision-making about where and how the money is spent. Some leaders may resent foreign intervention in their country. As one southern NGO leader stated, “We have come to regard western NGOs as ‘international’ and the rest of the world as ‘local’. When so-called ‘northern NGOs’ engage with ‘southern actors’ it’s rarely a partnership, it’s more of a sub-contract.”[7]

  • Lack of cultural competency – Until relatively recently, many INGOs were staffed by Americans, Europeans or others from higher-income countries. This not only created power imbalances, but also led to organizations employing staff that had very little cultural or practical expertise in the country they were working in. This has started to shift over the past two decades with an increasing number of INGOs hiring most of their international staff from the countries where the organization is working.[8] Some organizations are even starting to move their global headquarters to southern cities, such as Oxfam International’s recent move to Nairobi.[9] The benefit of this approach is to help organizations offer solutions more attuned to local needs. However, diversification can lead to new challenges, including cultural and language barriers between “northern” and “southern” staff, strategic decision-making in multiple contexts, staff from multiple countries working cross-culturally and inequity regarding pay.
  • Paternalism – International NGOs have also been criticized for being paternalistic, believing they know what’s right for the communities they are serving without any feedback or input from the local population. This is related to the idea of white savior complex, which is where a white person, motivated by a sense of superiority, seeks to help or rescue people of color or members of their community.[10] In other words, it’s when a white (or “northern”) person feels that they somehow inherently have the skills, knowledge or expertise to know a better solution to a problem than the people who have been impacted by the problem. While this can be a problem in the nonprofit sector in the U.S., it is exacerbated in the global south when Americans, or other staff members or volunteers, travel to there on behalf of an organization that funds a project. This can lead to significant power imbalances, discrimination and bias in decision-making about the project, which can lead to project failure or even do real harm to the community.

critical practice

International Volunteering

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, up to a million Americans travelled abroad every year to volunteer with International NGOs, faith-based groups and local communities. This type of volunteering is sometimes called voluntourism – as these opportunities often promise authentic cultural exchange within an immersive experience. There are even organizations that will help arrange various voluntourism opportunities for you, for a fee!

Yet, others caution those who may want to travel abroad to volunteer or work. To these scholars, practitioners and community leaders, voluntourists are really the ones benefiting, not the communities being served.

Read this article and watch the below videos.  Then, reflect on the provided questions.



  • Who is really benefiting when you volunteer abroad? What benefits might you gain? What about the community you worked with?
  • What do you think of voluntourism as “social currency?”
  • How can organizations that work with international volunteers leverage the energy and passion of their visitors to also best serve their communities?


  1. Stephen Commins, “INGOs,” in International Encyclopedia of Civil Society, ed. Helmut K. Anheier and Stefan Toepler (New York, NY: Springer US, 2010), 858–64, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-93996-4_556.
  2. David Lewis, Nazneen Kanji, and Nuno S. Themudo, Non-Governmental Organizations and Development, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2020), https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429434518.
  3. Lester M. Salamon and Helmut K. Anheier, “Social Origins of Civil Society: Explaining the Nonprofit Sector Cross-Nationally,” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 9, no. 3 (1998): 213–48, https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1022058200985.
  4. David Lewis, Non-Governmental Organizations, Management and Development (Routledge, 2014).
  5. Jennifer Alexander and Kandyce Fernandez, “The Impact of Neoliberalism on Civil Society and Nonprofit Advocacy,” Nonprofit Policy Forum 12, no. 2 (July 1, 2021): 367–94, https://doi.org/10.1515/npf-2020-0016.
  6. Darcy Ashman, “Strengthening North-South Partnerships for Sustainable Development,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 30, no. 1 (March 1, 2001): 74–98, https://doi.org/10.1177/0899764001301004.
  7. Louise Redvers, “NGOs: Bridging the North-South Divide - World | ReliefWeb,” reliefweb, June 8, 2015, https://reliefweb.int/report/world/ngos-bridging-north-south-divide.
  8. Donna Bryson, “Diversifying NGO Leadership (SSIR),” 2013, https://ssir.org/articles/entry/diversifying_ngo_leadership.
  9. Sebastian Forsch, “Moving to the Global South: An Analysis of the Relocation of International Ngo Secretariats,” St Antony’s International Review 13, no. 2 (February 28, 2018): 159–86.
  10. Murphy, “White Savior Complex Is a Harmful Approach to Providing Help—Here’s Why,” Health, September 20, 2021, https://www.health.com/mind-body/health-diversity-inclusion/white-savior-complex.


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Introduction to the Nonprofit Sector Copyright © 2022 by Dyana P. Mason is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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