The Change Imperative: Creating the Next Generation NGO

Ronalds, Paul
Kumarian Press, Sterling, VA, 2010, ISBN: 9781565493254, 232 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Bruce Britton

This well researched and elegantly written book aims to map out the challenges that development and humanitarian NGOs must overcome if they are to continue to play a significant role in our twenty-first century globalised world. The author, Paul Ronalds, draws on his years of experience as Director of Programs and Deputy CEO for strategy of World Vision, Australia and illustrates many of his arguments using a sometimes forensic examination of that organisation's policies and practices.
The subtitle of The Change Imperative suggests a wide readership for the book. Whilst those managing smaller, national or local NGOs and also students of international development will find much of interest here, it is large INGOs that are the author's main target audience.
Ronalds' book comprises three main sections. The first section examines the global context in which large INGOs work. In the second section the author identifies the external and internal challenges facing INGOs. The final section describes the author's understanding of organisational change, makes the case for INGOs to embrace transformational change and explains what is needed to achieve this. Navigating the book is helped by having a short ‘Key Points’ box in each chapter and twelve wide-ranging case studies from the private, state, and civil society sectors.
The Change Imperative begins with a context-setting chapter on globalisation and NGOs. In under 50 pages, Ronalds provides an invaluable overview of the increasingly complex working environment of INGOs. This and the following chapter describing ‘A New Era of International Relations?’ provide a highly readable summary of the sometimes bewildering influences facing senior INGO managers.
In the second section of the book, the author identifies and examines four external and six internal organisational challenges facing INGOs. The external challenges he addresses are: the grassroots demand for good governance; the effects of human-induced climate change; balancing sustainable growth with food security as we approach peak oil; and finally responding to the challenges of urbanisation. To these are added a discussion on the challenges of working in a highly politicised operating environment that includes the militarisation of aid and competition with private sector providers.
Six internal organisational challenges facing INGOs are identified, ranging from legitimacy to becoming better at learning. Ronalds examines the implications of each of these challenges in detail. His analysis of the main sources of INGO legitimacy, in particular, is very enlightening but likely to make uncomfortable reading for the majority of senior INGO managers who, according to Ronalds, are unable to describe what they believe are the sources of an INGO's legitimacy, let alone are actively involved in protecting or enhancing those sources.
While The Change Imperative provides a well-argued and comprehensive analysis of the internal challenges facing INGOs it is not fully convincing in its proposals for how these challenges can be addressed. Indeed, it is in the pivotal chapter which provides the book's title that Ronalds' analysis loses some of its earlier clarity. The author identifies three types of organisational responses to the challenges they face – strategic adjustments, strategic reorientation, and transformational organisational change. He then uses his experience with World Vision Australia to illustrate this typology of change with wince-inducing frankness. However, at times his examples of each type of change are ambiguous. For example, a shift away from child sponsorship is used by the author to illustrate transformational change but could it not equally be viewed as a strategic reorientation? I was left wondering whether it is the nature of the change that determines which of the author's three categories can be applied, or the context within which the change occurs.
It is also unclear at times what represents a successful INGO for the author – what the standard is to which INGOs should be aspiring. In an interesting aside, Ronalds explains that many of the INGOs around today existed for many decades. In the corporate world this would be seen as an outstanding achievement and evidence of adaptability in a turbulent environment. Yet Ronalds views those same INGOs as examples of the need for transformational change.
In the face of daunting challenges, it is understandable that the author wishes to provide perplexed INGO managers with a checklist of critical factors for achieving successful change. However, such lists give a misleadingly optimistic impression that change is more manageable and achievable than his reference to the 30% success rate for organisational change processes in the corporate world suggests. Given this poor record for achieving radical change in the business world, and the recognition that INGOs work in a considerably more complex environment than their corporate cousins, one wonders how realistic it is of the author to expect a higher success rate for organisational change processes in INGOs.
Recent writing about change in the realm of INGOs has usefully examined the relevance of complexity and emergence in an attempt to explain the inherent difficulties in bringing about planned organisational change in such large and complex organisations. It is surprising in such a well-researched book to see little explicit reference to this important body of work.
The author suggests that the unique competitive advantage that INGOs have over all other development actors is that ‘No other players are as dedicated to empowering people to be agents of their own destinies and to promoting the public good, even if their execution in this regard sometimes leaves much to be desired’ (p. 193). Ronalds provides ample evidence that this competitive advantage is losing its traction.
The assumption underpinning The Change Imperative is that INGOs can be the source of their own salvation if they embrace the need for transformational change. With the evolution of other organisational forms such as social businesses and new philanthropy foundations, and with growing evidence of the militarisation and commercialisation of the delivery mechanisms for aid, the INGO as an organisational type is becoming increasingly sidelined in the struggle against poverty and social injustice in the twenty-first century. Ronalds' makes an uncomfortably convincing case. Indeed, an unstated and, doubtless, unitended conclusion of The Change Imperative could be that the INGO as an organisational form is in terminal decline. Ronalds' conclusion about the future of INGOs is cautiously optimistic but he is uncompromising about the need for ‘genuine and dramatic’ change to address ‘the valid concerns of donors, beneficiaries and critics’.
Early in this book, the author expresses a concern that the scope of his task – bringing together the disciplines of international relations, development studies and management – may limit the depth of his discussion. He need not have worried. Overall, Ronalds navigates with great skill the difficult job of synthesising these disciplines and showing how organisational development and change in INGOs must and can be based on a thorough analysis of the organisational challenges they face. The Change Imperative is a courageous, challenging book and an important addition to the literature on managing NGOs.