Syracuse University Magazine


Nongovernmental organization (NGO) executives from around the world attended the inaugural Transnational NGO Leadership Institute this fall at the Maxwell School.

Gearing Up for International Challenges

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been expanding their work throughout the world during recent decades. As a result, running them requires leadership and management skills not previously associated with the job. The Maxwell School, through the Moynihan Institute's Transnational NGO Initiative, is defining emerging challenges to these organizations, and in an effort to give the coming generation of top management the information it needs, the school launched a new executive certificate program, the Transnational NGO Leadership Institute. "It is all about how to prepare for leadership, succession, and transition at organizations that are playing an increasingly important role in world geopolitics," says Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, director of education and practitioner engagement for the NGO initiative.

Sixteen NGO executives and one personnel recruiter who specializes in the field traveled to campus in September from five continents to participate in the institute's inaugural cohort. They represented a spectrum of organizations, including those with legal, environmental, poverty reduction, democratic governance, health care, human rights, and faith-based concerns. "They are dedicated, accomplished activist-executives who are poised to make the leap to top leadership positions," Bruno-van Vijfeijken says.

Many Americans and Europeans still tend to think of NGOs principally in terms of providing food relief during a famine, or basic health care during an epidemic, but according to Bruno-van Vijfeijken, that perception is too limited. "While delivery services remain an important part of what they do, transnational NGOs have taken on many more long-term functions in nations throughout the Global South," she says. "They help build the capacities of community-based organizations to meet local needs. They perform policy research and engage in advocacy through public education and the lobbying of legislatures. In effect, they are involved in analyzing social problems, putting them on state agendas, and mobilizing societies to solve them." This expansion of activity is reflected in the growth of NGO budgets, some of which exceed those of the UN agencies they work with. Yet even if an executive's diplomatic, political, and fiscal abilities are equal to the task, a successful NGO leader must also know how to attract continuing support from an idealistic donor base, a problem not faced by private-sector CEOs.

Michelle Higelin, deputy general secretary of the World YWCA, found the weeklong learning experience enriching, both personally and professionally. "The institute is a unique opportunity to learn about leadership style and to develop tools for responding to the challenges of leadership in an international environment," says Higelin, who previously served as CEO of the YWCA of Australia. "The strengths of the program are its ability to combine theory with practice and the chance to develop professional peer networks from a wide variety of NGOs. The institute affirms that leadership must be guided by vision, integrity, and focus. It has taught me to conceptualize issues from a broader frame, and that it is incumbent on the next generation of transnational NGO leaders to build legitimacy and foster collaboration in responding to the major issues of our time."

Adam Steinberg, president and CEO of World Learning, was among seven sitting or former heads of NGOs who helped shape the institute in collaboration with participating Maxwell faculty. "Over the next few years, a generation of NGO presidents will retire, creating opportunities for VPs to make the leap," he says. "We need programs that prepare them to do so successfully. The Maxwell School is uniquely positioned to do this." —David Marc