Internal democracy within transnationally operating non-governmental organisations: are we as democratic as we think?

Guest article by Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, Director, Transnational NGO Initiative, Syracuse University, USA

Civil society organisations tend to pride themselves on having strong internal democratic practices - and many, though not all, indeed have such practices - at face value, at least. In fact, for that particular section of civil society that I mainly work with - transnationally operating non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - their organisational cultures are often highly consultative and deliberative. But this raises some key questions: does this get in the way of decisiveness and agility, in a complex, uncertain and volatile world where scanning the external environment and adaptability are constant needs? Do such NGOs have the leadership and management capacities in place to manage such complex and demanding organisational structures and cultures? Based on my observations, that is quite frequently not the case, resulting in suboptimal outcomes. And does the large amount of deliberation actually produce higher quality outcomes? This is a question that is difficult to answer, but there is certainly reason to be somewhat sceptical, as I explain below.

While the consultative practices of NGOs suggest a high level of internal democracy, their organisational culture often undermines the formal processes of deliberation. Let’s take a close look at some of the characteristics of these organisational cultures.

Organisational culture - some definitions and how it shows up

But first, what do I mean by ‘organisational culture’? We do not primarily mean national or subnational cultures here. ‘Organisational culture’ is a concept that is increasingly used in NGO parlance, yet is not necessarily that well understood. In fact, organisational culture is often misunderstood for organisational strategy. The phenomenon is also often prematurely dismissed by many a senior leader as being ‘too touchy feely’, too vague and abstract to spend their scarce time on. Thus, in our work in the TNGO Initiative, when we observe big organisational change processes, we tend to see an attitude of ‘we will get to that when we have time’ - which may be never, or only when it is too late.  

By organisational culture we refer to the patterns of behaviour guided by deep, shared beliefs about ‘what is right’ and ‘what works’.[1] We refer to the DNA, personality, or mindset of an organisation.[2] Organisational culture manifests itself through visible behaviours based on invisible beliefs, values and assumptions (‘the way we do things around here’). The organisational culture of an NGO thus provides guidance - whether intentional or not - on what is done, or is not done; how it is done, if it is done; and why it is, or isn’t, done.[3] In other words, we are talking about the set of shared beliefs that shape behaviour within NGOs by identifying what is desired, valued and rewarded. These are self-sustaining patterns of behaviour in NGOs that have worked for the organisation and its staff in the past and thus have been reinforced over and over again. This creates instinctive, repetitive habits that are quite tenacious and foster inertia.[4]

Culture clearly works at the unconscious level as well as at the conscious levels of staff in NGOs. At the conscious level, you can see culture in declared goals, published policies and procedures, and organisational philosophy statements. These are deliberate attempts by leaders to shape values and behaviours. Culture, however, primarily works at the level of the unconscious, through informal ground rules or unofficial guidelines of ‘how to succeed here’.[5]

Some examples of how I have seen organisational culture in international NGOs I have worked with include:

  • Some ideas are shared automatically, others are de facto ignored;
  • Some behaviours are repeatedly rewarded, even though they are in tension with the officially proclaimed culture;
  • Some NGOs encourage ‘touchy feely’ behaviour while others encourage intellectual behaviour and tough ‘sparring’ of minds;
  • Some voices are called upon first in meetings, by leaders, while some will not be sought out actively.

To what extent can NGO organisational culture conflict with internal democracy?

So what aspects of the organisational culture of mid-to-large-size transnational NGOs conflict with the aspiration to be internally democratic?

The insularity of the sector can be quite striking. Academics use a concept called ‘ingroup versus outgroup orientation’: an ingroup is a social group with which a person psychologically identifies as being a member. An outgroup is a social group with which an individual does not identify.[6] NGO staff, in my observation and that of some other analysts, “prefer and have strong affinity for one’s ingroup over the outgroup, or anyone viewed as outside the ingroup.”[7] This means there is a culture of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. This is noticeable within civil society, where many NGO staff and leaders claim that their organisation is ‘unique’ in its theory of change, programmatic approaches and ways of working, while for outside observers this ‘uniqueness’ is not nearly as obvious.

Strong ingroup bias can lead to a tendency to only see information or views from within the NGO field, which directly limits the scope and diversity of views and perspectives that are discussed, thus limiting internal democracy.  

Related to this, a strong ingroup preference also limits NGOs’ abilities to work with ‘strange bedfellows’, both internally and externally. By this we mean the ability to work with ‘un-likeminded’ actors or perspectives, or ‘rebels’ who are brought into organisations often with the explicit purpose of changing those organisations from within.

As has been expressed in practitioner discussions on culture change, NGOs can have ‘strong antibodies’ against people from outside the sector. [8] This restricts, again, the inflow of new information and new perspectives, since NGOs are very busy with their own worlds.

Another cultural facet that practitioners reflect upon is a culture of ‘niceness’, which can otherwise be described as a culture of conflict avoidance.[9] This is particularly prevalent, it seems, in the development field, and it limits the possibilities of discussing a broad range of perspectives. The ‘social contract’ - the set of norms on how to behave, dress and so on to ‘fit in’ - in this type of NGO, as voiced by a participant in the International Civil Society Centre’s task force on culture change, is that “we are all nice people and we are all doing our best.” This attitude may have a negative impact on strengthening outcome, rather than process, orientations, but it also has the potential, once again, to limit the scope of democratic discussion within NGOs.

In comparison, some campaigning and membership-based NGOs, such as Oxfam and Greenpeace, self-report they do not have conflict avoidance as part of their culture: their culture seems to be one of vigorous debate among a range of options, although what the range of those is remains a question worthy of investigation. Their issue may more be one of how to have creative and constructive conflict, rather than destructive or open-ended conflict.

Internal ‘politicking’ is about the organisation as a ‘jungle’[10] in which actors compete for resources, power and attention from and access to leadership. These behaviours have a significant impact on internal democracy and transparency. Examples of this can be seen in strategic planning exercises, which in the case of many mid-to-large-size transnational NGOs can be characterised by significant consultation processes, but in which all this input ends up in an organisational funnel or ‘sausage machine’. What comes out at the other end of this political process is suddenly less transparent. Initial deliberations may appear extensive, but participants may have very little idea about what happened to their input in the end. 

To what extent do NGOs really allow for cognitive as well as social diversity?

To have healthy internal democratic cultures, NGOs have to have sound organisational diversity strategies, yet these are not as evolved as one might imagine, given their size and the fact that their programming takes place in very diverse settings. When we interview NGO leaders and heads of human resources or organisational development about their approaches to diversity, the overwhelming focus tends to be on the diversity of staff in terms of global south and global north balance, and in terms of gender. Other dimensions of social group diversity (as different from cognitive identity, which we will discuss separately), such as age, (dis)ability, social class, education, sexuality and gender identity, do not seem to loom large for NGOs. This is surprising, given the progressive nature of many NGOs.

The diversity of views - especially the cognitive diversity[11] - represented in NGOs also impacts on the internal democracy of deliberations. By cognitive diversity, we mean “differences in perspectives or information processing styles,”[12] and more specifically, how individuals think about and engage with new, uncertain and complex situations. Cognitive diversity consists of two dimensions: how we process knowledge and what perspective(s) we prefer to take. When NGOs have less cognitive diversity, this makes them less versatile and creative in approaching tasks.

Cognitive diversity is less visible than ethnic or gender diversity, which makes it harder to detect. Organisations can “create cultural barriers that restrict the degree of cognitive diversity, even when they don’t mean to.”[13] Because of a strong mission focus, cultural pressures to conform can be quite strong.

Equally, among the group of 25 or so of the largest transnational NGOs, the almost incestuous rotation of senior leaders has the potential to further enhance this conformist culture. Examples of this are the rotation of some executive-level leaders in the last 10 years among Amnesty International, ChildFund, Greenpeace, Oxfam, Save the Children and other such large NGOs. Is the pool of candidates applying to such jobs really this limited, or are we talking about a less than healthy tendency to go for like-minded people we feel comfortable with, therefore furthering the ingroup bias discussed earlier?

NGOs - like any organisation - run the risk of recruiting staff in their own image. People gravitate toward other people who think and express themselves in a similar way. As a result, “organizations often end up with like-minded teams.”[14] Reynolds and Lewis equate this with low cognitive diversity, because this “…stifles the natural cognitive diversity in groups through a pressure to conform.”[15]

One solution to this, in any training or coaching on team leadership and mentorship, is to emphasise the importance of building teams’ sense of ‘psychological safety’: the need to make it safe to try different modes of thinking.[16] Psychological safety refers to the shared belief that a team is a safe place for interpersonal risk-taking. In other words, to be “able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.”[17]

Taking a step back, overall NGOs, as part of civil society, are ‘schools for citizenship’[18] in which citizens - staff and volunteers - practise how to be an engaged and skilful part of the governance of their country and the world. Sometimes, however, given the heavy emphasis on internal consultation and deliberation, albeit emanating from a somewhat limited range of ideas and persons, one may ask the question: ultimately, for whom are NGOs really a vehicle? For poor people and programme participants, or for the NGO staff to provide them meaning, purpose and a ‘warm glow’? Has the balance in this equation shifted too far towards a focus on consultation processes and participatory management styles? Where is the awareness of the significant transaction costs - in terms of time, money, energy and opportunity costs - of all the internal staff and volunteer meetings? Or of how certain voices may be stifled through conformative cultures, or not even be let in?

What can transnational NGOs do to take away these cultural impediments to full internal democracy?

Some observers[19] claim that radical new leadership is critical to bringing about culture change, including to make NGOs more internally democratic. I am sceptical of this for two reasons. First, if we look at efforts to change the culture across the private, government and civil society spheres, single leaders are not able to achieve much change unless they form strong, broad-based and politically savvy ‘change coalitions’[20] and unless they can maintain a strong sense of urgency over a sustained timeframe. This is all the more so in the highly consultative cultures of NGOs, which also sometimes seem ‘leadership averse’.[21] By that, I mean averse of the exercise of strong, directive, ‘hero styles’ of leadership. Second, as discussed earlier, NGOs tend to have ‘strong antibodies’ against ‘rebels’ and other forms of outsiders,[22] which makes me doubly sceptical that radical new leadership can change culture.

A word of caution is also in order because, according to some research in the private sector, somewhere between 30 to 40 per cent of big organisational change efforts fail,[23] and another 30 per cent or so only succeed partially.[24] So we have to go into any organisational change effort with our eyes wide open. And this is even more the case for culture change efforts: in my discussions with NGO leaders, I encounter frequently the views that culture can be changed in overt ways - through frequent official communications, the use of banners, philosophy statements, and so on - while actually culture is much more covert and subconscious and therefore subtle in its inherent inertia. This is about behaviours that worked in the organisation in the past and thus were reinforced time and time again and have become habitual.

Where does that leave us? In my observation, we need to work on multiple levels, do so consistently and over sustained periods of time - in the range of five to seven years at least, rather than the one to two years that some leaders seem to have in mind - if we want to make our NGO cultures more open to ‘difference within’. This can include changing the ways in which we use material objects in our office environments - the artefacts of our organisation, if you wish. We need consciously to hold up, reward and celebrate social group identity diversity as well as cognitive diversity within NGO staff. We also need to hold up - both formally and informally - those staff and leaders who encourage a true democracy of perspectives as discussed above. At the same, it is equally important consistently to discourage behaviours not aligned with this quest for greater diversity. The holding of individual staff or units accountable for behaviours, or performance, is not a traditional strength of NGOs, so this requires concerted attention.

It can be helpful to replace old rituals with new ones that signal the wish to allow for a true diversity of perspectives and world views. Equally, it can help to reformulate teams, by bringing a more diverse range of perspectives. And when we bring in ‘outsiders’, we need to protect them carefully from being ‘spit out again’ by the organisation, so that we prevent stories (‘folklore’) from developing about what happened to the last few newcomers. And of course leaders - both formal and informal ones, inclusive of champions - need to model this new culture in their actual behaviours and do so consistently.

Finally, with a greater diversity of perspectives and world views comes not just greater internal democracy, creativity and innovation, but also likely additional challenges in fostering trust and collaboration, and greater risk of generating conflict. NGOs therefore will have to invest in better individual conflict management capabilities in their staff as well as in their organisations if they wish to reap the benefits of greater internal democracy.


[1] ‘Organizational Culture and Leadership’, Edgar Schein, Jossey-Bass, 2016.

[2] ‘10 Principles of Organizational Culture’, Jon Katzenbach, Carolin Oelschlegel and James Thomas, Strategy + Business, 15 February 2016,

[4] ‘The Practice of Adaptive Leadership’, Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow, Cambridge Leadership Associates, 2009.

[5] Conner Advisory, op. cit.

[6]Human Groups and Social Categories: Studies in Social Psychology’, Henri Tajfel, CUP Archive, 1981, Chapter 1, p. 369.

[7] ‘When Employees Feel Betrayed: a Model of how Psychological Contract Violation Develops’, Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison and Sandra L Robinson, Academy of Management Review, 1997, Vol. 22, No. 1.

[8] For example, in discussions of the Task Force on Culture Change, held by the International Civil Society Centre in 2015, in which the author participated.

[9] Personal communication of James Whitehead, Head for Innovation, Oxfam Great Britain.

[10] ‘Reframing Leadership: Artistry, Choice and Leadership’, Lee G Bolman and Terrence E Deal, Jossey-Bass, 2017 (6th edition).

[11] ‘Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse’, Alison Reynolds and David Lewis, Harvard Business Review, 30 March 2017,

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] In the Transnational NGO Leadership Institute and the Senior Leadership Development Program (SLDP) which we deliver, psychological safety provision is therefore a focus of our team leadership component.

[17] ‘Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work’, William A Kahn, Academy of Management Journal, 1990, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 692–724.

[18] ‘Democracy in America’, Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835.

[19] Such as some participants in discussions of the Task Force on Culture Change, held by the International Civil Society Centre in 2015.

[20] ‘Leading change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail’, John P Kotter, Harvard Business Review Press, 1995.

[21] As expressed among others by Burkhard Gnärig, former head of the International Civil Society Centre and well-known civil society observer and analyst.

[22] Personal comment made by participants in discussions of the Task Force on Culture Change, held by the International Civil Society Centre in 2015.

[23] ‘Reengineering the Corporation’, Michael Hammer and James Champy, Nicholas Brealey, 1995.

[24] ‘What Successful Transformations Share: Outcomes of a Global Survey’, McKinsey & Company, March 2010,