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Fifty private conversations with CEOs of international NGOs, on the challenges they currently face, and what their organisations (and the aid and development sector as a whole) might look like by 2030.

For more than a century now international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) have played a vital humanitarian role, delivering emergency relief and longer-term development assistance.Many have grown into powerful, complex, international organisations with global reach.

But there is a widespread feeling within the INGO community that this is a period of transition, when INGOs need urgently to find new ways of working in the face of rapid change. A time to reassess their roles, with questions being raised about their legitimacy, their core identities, their income streams, their relationships with donors and the people they help: in short, their relevance in a fast-changing world.

This survey gives an unprecedented ‘peek behind the curtain,’ showing what leaders of INGOs think about the purpose of their organisations, the challenges that they face, and their visions of the future.

With its emphasis on rich, qualitative data, the Leadership Survey offers a uniquely vivid picture of the lived realities of INGO leaders, and the challenges that they face: both the challenges to their organisations and the challenges that they face as individuals, in providing leadership in uncertain times.

The Leadership Survey was conducted by Nuffield College, University of Oxford, in partnership with the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership and Save the Children UK.

"INGOs are still dominated by Northern-founded bits struggling to achieve global balance and reinvent themselves to be more representative of the world. The question for us is whether we can create a more globally balanced, more globally democratic set of institutions that don’t feel like the anachronistic manifestations of the old world order."

INGO leader


More than 50 leaders of INGOs (of different sizes, structures and mandates) offered their frank opinions in hour-long interviews about their organisations and the wider sector. The leaders were able to speak freely and informally in one-to-one conversations which ranged widely, meaning that their individual opinions could be given space.

The interviews were semi-structured in nature, exploring six key themes:

  • The future of the aid and development sector
  • The legitimacy of aid
  • ‘Your organisation’
  • Leadership for the future
  • Future finance, and
  • Disruption to the aid and development sector

2030 Vision

INGO leaders were asked to articulate their visions for the aid and development sector by 2030. What should the sector look like in order to meet the challenges that it faces? The most frequently cited vision was of an aid and development system in which:

  • INGOs are less dominant, and operate through a more diverse range of actors
  • The power dynamics have shifted in order to make the sector more ‘localised’
  • Relationships are more networked than hierarchical
  • INGOs are more proactive in meeting the needs of communities
  • INGOs are more connected with their stated purposes.

This research has been supported by Nuffield College, University of Oxford, as part of the INGOs and the Long Humanitarian Century: Legacy, Legitimacy, and Leading into the Future research programme. The survey of INGO Leadership has been carried out in partnership with the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership and Save the Children UK.

Download the report  [PDF opens in a new window]

Photo:UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka meets with Ayla Göksel, CEO of ACEV Mother Child Education Foundation, Turkey. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

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