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Gaspar, B.;  Moreira, A.C.;  Cercas, C.;  Queirós, R.;  Campos, S. The Internationalization of Nongovernmental Organizations. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 24 April 2024).
Gaspar B,  Moreira AC,  Cercas C,  Queirós R,  Campos S. The Internationalization of Nongovernmental Organizations. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed April 24, 2024.
Gaspar, Beatriz, António Carrizo Moreira, Carolina Cercas, Rafaela Queirós, Salomé Campos. "The Internationalization of Nongovernmental Organizations" Encyclopedia, (accessed April 24, 2024).
Gaspar, B.,  Moreira, A.C.,  Cercas, C.,  Queirós, R., & Campos, S. (2022, November 02). The Internationalization of Nongovernmental Organizations. In Encyclopedia.
Gaspar, Beatriz, et al. "The Internationalization of Nongovernmental Organizations." Encyclopedia. Web. 02 November, 2022.
The Internationalization of Nongovernmental Organizations

Internationalization is one of several growth strategies adopted by both profit and nonprofit organizations. Although the internationalization of business firms has been intensively studied, the internationalization of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is still in a growing-up stage as NGOs are focused on serving specific social interests. They may not only be influenced by social, political, and economic goals, but also cater to social or humanitarian services dealing with health, environmental protection, and human rights.

NGOs nongovernmental organizations internationalization social movements

1. Introduction

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can be defined as private nonprofit organizations that aim to address specific social interests by focusing on supporting social, political, and economic goals, including equity, education, health, environmental protection, and humanitarian causes that serve social or political goals (Martens 2002). They are characterized as organizations that provide services and/or functions of a social or humanitarian nature and are nonprofit and independent of governments or states, playing major roles in international aid, development, and philanthropy. In this sense, they do not share profits among members, but use them to promote their goals (Galkina and Yang 2020).
In contrast with other organizations that compete in the business arena in order to generate profits, NGOs are legal entities—e.g., business associations, cooperatives, social clubs, and churches, among others—that are organized to serve public and social benefits. One important characteristic of these nonprofit organizations is that any economic surplus that results from their activities and exceeds their expenses needs to be reinvested in the organization (Anheier 2005). As such, NGOs are normally nonprofit organizations but not all nonprofit institutions are NGOs.
NGOs assume an important role in combating the problems of the neediest communities, adopting measures to raise awareness and educate public opinion (Lan 2018). One of the strongest characteristics of these organizations is the fact that they are independent of the government or commitments to other entities (Junkui 2012; Porto and da Rocha 2021).
The complexity of the international environment is growing with the influences of a variety of social, cultural, political, and business perspectives. This plural and intertwined world has been analyzed from several perspectives.
Businesswise, internationalization has been studied taking into account how different business and economic theories explain/address the international paths of countries, multinational firms, and small and medium-sized firms as a result of the increasing interest of the academic community (Etemad 2004; Ietto-Gillies 2012; Jones et al. 2011; Ribau et al. 2015, 2018).
Internationalization is one of several growth strategies adopted by both profit and nonprofit organizations (Ruiz 2012). International development involves a number of socio-economic factors and political development activities sponsored by developed countries or multilateral agencies to help developing and underdeveloped countries (Lan 2018). Some NGOs actively engage in foreign affairs and eventually become internationalized. However, while the literature on business internationalization is vast, the literature on the internationalization of social enterprises or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is somewhat scarce (Alon et al. 2020).
The increase in NGOs is explained by reasons such as the weakening of national/domestic policies and the growing complexities of global socioeconomic emergencies, with these organizations going global with the aim of finding new donors, expanding their resource pool, and increasing their competitiveness (Lee and Han 2020). In this sense, Galkina and Yang (2020) define international NGOs as those that expand their operations beyond national borders. However, Marchisio (1985) and Mauri (2013) claim that an international NGO must meet five requirements: be an international organization that encompasses working with foreign countries; have an open structure with readiness for multi-domestic membership; have multinational objectives; be a nonprofit organization; and have permanent headquarters.
Despite their relevance in almost all aspects of aid and development and as actors in global governance, the internationalization of NGOs has received little attention in the international business literature, (Porto and da Rocha 2021; Teegen et al. 2004), namely combating crucial problems such as climate change, access to education and healthcare, poverty, and human rights, activities that have allowed them to gain huge global impact and significant political influence (Galkina and Yang 2020).
Although there are several theories explaining the different paths used by firms when internationalizing (Ribau et al. 2015, 2018), the Uppsala model is used extensively to explain the incremental perspective tha tfirms tend to use to become gradually involved in international markets through a series of evolutionary stages (Chetty and Campbell-Hunt 2003; Johanson and Vahlne 1990; Ribau et al. 2015). However, with the growing market globalization, agile and flexible firms, known as early internationalizers or born globals, have implemented new internationalization models (Coviello 2006; Coviello 2015; Ribau et al. 2015). However, if international NGOs are not new, their internationalization process is under-represented (Sinkovics et al. 2019), and the way international NGOs deploy their resources, strategies, and responses are still not clearly analyzed in the way that they differ from those of for-profit firms (Buckley et al. 2017).

2. Evolution of NGOs

The history of international NGOs goes back to the abolitionist movement, where peace, labor, and free trade were major issues and activities related to charity, education, health, women, and children were carried out by Western religious organizations and charity groups in overseas colonies in the 19th century. The two world wars in the early 20th century gave rise to some humanitarian aid NGOs and the period between the 1960s and 1970s was an important phase. Against the backdrop of post-industrial economic development, frequent international conflicts of the Cold War, and increasing crises, movements for human rights, feminism, peace, and environmental protection began to emerge and various social forces asserted their influence. These movements stimulated public interest and NGOs emerged in large numbers in Western countries and became involved in situations at the international level (Lan 2018).
After the Cold War, between 1980 and 1990, NGOs experienced exponential growth (Lan 2018), a result of the investments made by the European Union (Siméant 2005) and the organizational capacity of civil society (Lee and Han 2020). The internationalization of NGOs began in the 1980s, but was hastened in the 1990s with the founding of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Office (ECHO). ECHO coordinated and monitored the European Union’s emergency activities and became the main supporter of European humanitarian NGOs. With the confidence of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, there was an increase in public and private funding directed to humanitarian NGOs and, in the process, a corresponding increase in attempts to obtain these funds (Siméant 2005).
The increasing number of NGOs is now changing the way they interact with their public, using new technological and communicational advances. Globalization has caused many organizations to internationalize, and their leaders are opening their minds to new areas, such as building a global brand and the importance of consumer trust. These brands focus on strategic positioning and advertising and are concerned with how homogeneous the brand identity and image are understood throughout the different countries where NGOs are present. Typically, the more relevance and visibility that organizations have, the bigger the challenges for both the trust and value that the NGOs want to convey, which will help them create a brand identity in order to display brand meaning and a clear brand positioning. In some cases, situations such as scandals, bad associations, or criticisms can damage the long-term image and brand value of the organization (Laidler-Kylander et al. 2007).
An NGO brand needs to display the present mission of the organization because it embodies the reason behind the NGOs’ existence. Moreover, taking into account the different stakeholders NGOs are involved with—individual donors, institutional donors, employees, volunteers, beneficiaries, and potential partners—all their upstream and downstream activities that are focused on fundraising and program implementation need to be tuned to the brand image and values that NGOs stand by. Some characteristics such as decentralized structures with low control by headquarters, an informal hierarchy and a culture based on consensus-building by workers make the implementation of a strong global brand identity a challenge. Finally, it is important to note that any international NGO that wants to effectively create a global brand identity should follow four principles (Laidler-Kylander et al. 2007): encouraging the sharing of the best practices and knowledge between countries; supporting the process of commonly planning a global brand; allocating responsibilities to create synergies; and performing brand-building strategies to the best of their abilities.

3. NGOs’ Internationalization and Institutional Characteristics and Factors

NGOs are considered third-sector organizations and present a strong diversity of national and international institutions and organizations, making it difficult to reach a consensus as to their definition. Globalization and the interactions that NGOs have with the state have complicated this issue, where the internationalization of NGOs emerges as a response to ongoing globalization. The state is not immune to global influences and ends up interacting through supranational bodies to address issues that cross national borders. NGOs, in turn, seek some support from government entities (Bouget and Prouteau 2002). When it comes to the global business environment, this is characterized by dynamic collaborations between public and private actors, as well as non-profit organizations.
There are various patterns of interaction between NGOs and the state, from independence, where NGOs operate relatively autonomously, to the strict control that states have over these organizations (Bouget and Prouteau 2002). History reveals that it was not until the 1980s that NGOs were able to gradually break away from the private sector to move into the public sector. In the first instance, NGOs worked independently, without any government intervention. However, NGOs began to play a role in aid projects promoted by the American government and took over some public functions. Subsequently, there was a change in the trajectory of NGO activities, which evolved from direct charitable aid to public policy advocacy to change the environment of the community system after the 1980s, coupled with efforts to formulate public policy around the world, starting in 1990. Additionally, in this context, the values by which NGOs were governed shifted from sympathy, mutual aid, philanthropy, dignity, and voluntary spirit, to public values such as democracy, law, participation, and government (Lan 2018). From the state’s perspective, NGOs are increasingly seen as efficient and effective actors capable of providing social services to disadvantaged populations (Bouget and Prouteau 2002).
This relationship forces a mixture of states’ political ideologies with NGOs’ universal values of kindness and humanitarianism, which can somehow hurt their credibility. Despite this, their cooperation and growing presence from the private to the public sector is inevitable. As such, it is possible to ask: In what ways can NGOs maintain their independent discourses and behavior, but expand into the public sector represented by the government? The relationship between NGOs and the state does not mean that NGOs lose their independence, only that they need to grow and develop, which leads to a diversification of behaviors. Thus, it is expected that there will be a diversification of activities within NGOs as well as among the various NGOs. Furthermore, even if NGOs rely on government funding, they still depend on private sector resources. Thus, unilateral dependence on government-based resources does not necessarily mean a loss of independence. In cases such as the U.S. and Switzerland, the proportion of government funding is so high that NGOs retain the ability to affect government aid (Lan 2018).
The internationalization process of NGOs has been very dependent on states, given that government entities maintain a strong influence on the identity of NGOs and on the reasons that justify their internationalization (Siméant 2005). The Internet and new communication technologies have aided in the growth of international NGOs, which has fostered the development of alliances and, in certain cases, favors the international path vis-à-vis the national one (Bouget and Prouteau 2002).
The relationship between NGOs and the state also appears to have a negative side, marked by frequent tensions in which organizations exert pressure on governments. This tension brings with it some repercussions for employees, highlighting the issue of mistrust and conflict in relations between volunteering and the public sector. Another negative factor is the fear of state control, derived from the historical facts that have marked the NGOs’ past. In this sense, it is necessary to establish a certain degree of trust until NGOs can integrate themselves into government service-delivery systems and political debates, ensuring some representativeness on the part of NGOs. The greater the political presence and representativeness in constituencies, the greater the willingness of governments to listen to NGOs and treat them as legitimate partners (Bouget and Prouteau 2002). Clearly, working together in cooperation and continuous interaction is necessary to establish a symbiotic relationship (Lan 2018).
Although most NGOs are considered non-profit organizations, they look for ways to collaborate with private and public sectors involving multinational enterprises (MNEs) as well as the states of each country. NGOs seek to protect welfare interests and facilitate the creation of value in the global exchanges of collective goods. This phenomenon results from the inability of states to provide collective goods—what is called “institutional voids”—the supranational venue of these collaborations, and the lack of institutional legitimacy in the public and private sectors. As such, NGOs are considered the ideal institutions to facilitate, engage, and leverage social relationships between states and MNEs, while they create value for various stakeholders. They help bridge the relationships between organizations and others, and the bonding concerning the relationships among members of a specific organization or aggregation (Boddewyn and Doh 2011).
Collective goods are considered rivalrous and exclusive and are characterized as commodities, functions, and services that provide positive externalities such as health, education, transportation, water, communication, and electricity to local communities, being fundamental for modern life (Boddewyn and Doh 2011). These goods are less readily available in countries with emerging economies due to deficits and institutional gaps, where collaborative participation of companies and NGOs help overcome these problems, while strengthening or replacing public bodies. This allows the development of various types of collaborations, at the national and international levels, between these three parties—enterprises, non-governmental organizations, and states (Boddewyn and Doh 2011).
These collaborations can take different forms. Factors such as the asset specificity of the investment needed to supply the necessary collective goods, institutional characteristics such as the type of ordering system prevailing in emerging markets, and pressures for legitimacy and tensions between corporate and national cultures can negatively affect this type of collaboration, and it is essential to work together to overcome them (Boddewyn and Doh 2011).
Collaborations bring benefits to all of the stakeholders. For companies, more specifically MNEs, it is essential to ensure the supply of local collective assets, from the safety of facilities to the training of workers, as it will allow them to carry out their commercial activities and develop the places where these goods will be supplied. Non-profit actors such as NGOs can accept various types of donations and gain greater political influence, and there is an incentive for future collaborations between non-commercial public agencies, states, local communities, and private companies (Boddewyn and Doh 2011). In general, social relationships become valuable to their stakeholders when they are converted into goodwill or social capital through the adequacy of social structures, which refers to the ability to leverage relationships with others for the benefit of the institution. The bridge that helps with converting social capital into benefits is constructed through information, influence, power, and solidarity. For this transaction to happen, three conditions are required: firstly, an opportunity or an appropriate occasion to apply social relations; secondly, a specific motivation or will between both parties to engage; and lastly, the capacity or ability to meaningfully engage in social relationships to produce valuable results (Teegen 2003).
Volunteerism is extremely important for NGOs, as a large part of their workforce is supplied on this basis. Investors also play an important role; however, the high dependence on these two stakeholders limits the transparency practices of NGOs (Lan 2018). The institutional theory proves that public access to information on all aspects of the organization is the best way to meet the information needs of its stakeholders (Gálvez-Rodríguez et al. 2014).
As NGOs grow, they are more project-oriented and incorporate more professionals compared to the number of volunteers. They also rely more and more on local partners, spending much of their time and resources on managing these projects. The more NGOs incorporate professional managers and business-like management tools, the more they seek to achieve social and organizational goals. As a result, development support funds concentrate more on large, highly professional NGOs (Lan 2018).
In recent decades, NGOs have been moving away from both traditional values and their reliance on voluntarism. Professional organizations have sought to invest in social enterprises and in the training of professionals and specialists. This transformation has only been possible with the increase in development aid funds, mainly from states, and with the involvement of increasingly specialized management professionals (Lan 2018).
This growth of NGOs leads to a greater separation between members of the organization, coupled with greater cooperation between international NGOs and local community entities, which makes the relationship with societies increasingly indirect (Lan 2018). In the process of NGO growth, NGOs begin to present a global scope, becoming more visible and vulnerable to public scrutiny; thus, proactively disseminating information may be the solution to strengthen their image across societies (Gálvez-Rodríguez et al. 2014).
As national NGOs gain strength and experience and begin to look beyond borders and establish relations with civil societies abroad (Bouget and Prouteau 2002), the integration of international NGOs with the government is increasingly prominent and has become a tool for promoting diplomacy (Junkui 2012). The line between the public and private sectors becomes increasingly tenuous due to the privatization of public bodies, the deregulation of economic activities, the liberalization of national economies, and the increase in non-governmental organizations; all of these are factors that provide more opportunities for the growth and internationalization of non-governmental organizations (Boddewyn and Doh 2011).

4. Main Drivers of Internationalization

NGOs are founded for different reasons and pursue different goals. While originally NGOs sought to establish local objectives and did not feel the need to conduct activities abroad, there are also NGOs that set internationalization as their primary objective (Lee and Han 2020).
The international expansion of NGOs is mainly due to the demand to provide their services on wider geographic horizons and to find new donors in order to increase their competitiveness. Equally, there are also structural factors that determine political and social conditions, which have fostered an uneven distribution of NGOs around the world. The global structure and internal conditions are important factors that condition the internationalization of NGOs (Lee and Han 2020).
Although internationalization is considered a careful and linear process, in the case of NGOs, it can also be explained by the need to implement unplanned activities abroad, which result from interactive processes between the NGO’s foreign branches and headquarters (Lee and Han 2020). Thus, it is argued that there is a link between social movements and international NGOs, which is essentially explained through collective actions carried out abroad and oriented toward social change (Galkina and Yang 2020).
The particularity of some NGOs is that their internationalization is completed through projects, where project managers and their personal and practical skills play a key role in the delivery of the services they provide to society, as well as in the international success of the projects (Brière et al. 2015). Moreover, despite international NGO project managers being challenged to solve problems and to come up with tools for effective solutions, they also need to involve stakeholders. Furthermore, the communication and trust between the project manager of local government institutions and the stakeholders within NGOs are considered a success factor (Brière et al. 2015). For that, the following skills need to be considered when undertaking international projects, such as Brière et al. (2015): understanding the perspectives and roles of different project stakeholders; understanding and demonstrating cultural sensitivity; and addressing safety and security concerns/risks associated with the project. For that, beyond organizational, managerial, and technical competencies, human competencies are key for succeeding in the deployment of the international projects with which NGOs are involved.
Social movement theory—which seeks to explain social mobilization and collective actions, their manifestations, as well as possible cultural, social, and political effects—has been used to explain how NGOs have been internationalized (Galkina and Yang 2020). Furthermore, it has also been used to explain the individual, collective, and public identities of social movements. Individual identity is characterized by the personal traits that are internalized and imported into social movement participation. Collective identity, on the other hand, refers to an individual’s cognitive, moral, and emotional attachment to a community, category, practice, or institution. Finally, public identity captures the influences that external audiences have on how social movement supporters think about themselves (Galkina and Yang 2020).
In conclusion, the main reasons that NGOs seek to become internationalized are dissatisfaction with the actual conditions of the global environment and the need to provide more support abroad and develop commitments with local partners. In addition, the collective mobilization of resources, through volunteer work, influences the development of external relations and learning. The internationalization of NGOs seeks to overcome three types of liabilities: the liability of newness, which highlights the need for NGOs to overcome their inexperience and which limits access to resources and networks and restricts their expansion and credibility. This is followed by the liability of smallness, which is related to the lack of resources, which can challenge their internationalization, and, finally, the liability of foreignness, related to the NGO’s needs to overcome barriers to entering new foreign markets and establishing new relationships in these markets (Galkina and Yang 2020).


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