Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken Discusses Why Many Charities Shouldn't Take Their Futures For Granted

By Bethany Ivie

November 20, 2020

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken (Right) and Heifer President and CEO, Pierre Ferrari (Left) during their Zoom conversation.
Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken (Right) and Heifer President and CEO, Pierre Ferrari (Left) during their #HeiferTogether live chat.

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken works to help organizations that help other people. Namely, international non-governmental organizations or INGOs. Her book Between Power and Irrelevance: The Future of Transnational NGOs is co-authored by George E. Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz and argues that NGOs founded in the global north shouldn’t take their future for granted.

During her recent #HeiferTogether chat with Pierre Ferrari, Heifer International President and CEO, Bruno discussed organizational effectiveness, leadership and culture in international non-governmental organizations as well as the role of NGOs in the future of development. You can watch the full discussion in the video above. 

In Between Power and Irrelevance: The Future of Transnational NGOs, Bruno focuses on the increasing gap between talk and action in many mid to large-sized INGOs based in the global north. Bruno notes that, for many of these organizations, rhetoric has shifted from a focus on small, ameliorative steps to promises of huge, structural change, often with little follow-through. She argues that, with a siren's song of seductive comfort, the legal model of charity and its limitations are a major cause in holding organizations back from true effectiveness. 

“The charity model provides a lot of what we call seductive comfort and, therefore, it may be hard to extract ourselves from that," said Bruno. "The demands on us, are relatively low. We have to minimize overhead we have to not distribute profits to our board members, and we have to avoid financial and other kinds of scandals.”

So, how do we correct this? According to Bruno, it's time to disrupt the nonprofit model in four key ways.

  1. Organizations need to break the "overhead myth," the belief that low fundraising and administrative costs are indicators of mission effectiveness, and invest in leadership and organizational infrastructure.
  2. INGOs need to foster a culture that insists on measuring success and impact. “We need to also drive culture change to get better at measurement," said Bruno. "But the problem is, again, that the expectation that is embedded in the charity structure doesn’t incentivize us to pay more attention to measurement."
  3. Relatedly, it is essential that charities in the global north raise their standards and to encourage donors to hold them to it. “We’re saying that, collectively, as a sector, we need to change the cultural expectation from government and from our donors around these more strategic areas of impact that we want to be assessed against rather than are we avoiding scandal, are we not increasing our overheads too much, etc.," said Bruno. 
  4. Finally, and most importantly, INGOs based in the global north need to learn their place, which is as a complementary partner to organizations in the global south. "I think that global north-founded NGOs need to move towards roles where they are really, in a respectful way, complimenting what the global south civil society contributes," said Bruno. "So, for instance, I can see NGOs moving into a role where they are primarily the backbone org for a network of global south-founded organizations."  The key, Bruno notes, is that NGOs in the northern hemisphere must complement, not duplicating efforts of their southern partners.
Sign up today to attend the next #HeiferTogether chat with Danielle Nierenberg.
Sign up today to attend the next #HeiferTogether chat with Danielle Nierenberg.

This conversation with Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken is a part of a speaker series, #HeiferTogether, which is about the state of farmers around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. In the live, 20-minute virtual conversations, Ferrari talks to experts about the present and future of our global food and farming systems, small farming in the United States, tech in agriculture, farming as it relates to the environment, and more. 

Upcoming webinars include conversations with Danielle Nierenberg, president and co-founder of Food Tank, on November 20 and Laura Reiley, national food and business reporter for Washington Post on December 4, 2020.