Kyle Nelson and Dr. Ralph Brown, Sociology
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have become one of the foundational mechanisms of social change and development. International NGOs count in the thousands and are the hallmark organizational form involved in poverty alleviation, human rights empowerment, and social innovation. Therefore, understanding these organizations is important in understanding how development impact comes about. However, no organization works in in a solitary universe, especially in the collaborative and multi-dimensional world of social change, and thus to appropriately comprehend the NGO we must also study their relational context with other organizations. Thus, my research project explored the dynamics of inter-organizational relationships (IORs) between NGOs in Southern India. I explored partnership formation, how partnership leaders defined success for their partnership efforts, and what determinants of partnership success seemed most relevant in this unique organizational context.
In order to study these dynamics, I undertook a case study of an international volunteer organization (IVO) based in the United States that sends a team of two managers and 15 volunteers to Southern India each year between May and August. This IVO, called “Serve Intl” in this report1 was an appropriate reference point for my research agenda as (a) it logistically enabled me as a researcher to fit in as an observer-participant in the entire partnership process, and (b) the IVO development model is ideally suited to studying partnership given the dependence international volunteers have on local NGO partners in order to participate and be successful in development work. Without effective partnerships, foreigners who do not know local customs, languages, and community needs are helpless in their aim to contribute to development practice. Therefore, Serve Intl has established partnership practices that are central to its development model. This ensured that I would be exposed to NGO-NGO relationships that were at the focal point of development efforts.
The case study included observational notes over three months of time in Southern India where I attended partnership formation and negotiation meetings and observed the 15 development projects Serve conducted with 11 different partners in their design and implementation phases. Furthermore, I interviewed senior executives at Serve, all of its volunteers, and NGO leaders and volunteer liaisons with Serve’s local partners. These interviews were semi-structured in nature as my research approach was inductive and exploratory in nature, allowing respondents to openly discuss the meaning, formation, and outcomes of their partnership experience with Serve.
Analytically, I approached the data from my observational notes and interviews with a grounded theory approach, coding the transcripts for themes that emerged in vivo from the text. This allowed first-order concepts to speak for themselves inductively rather than deductively testing established theory. This approach was chosen because the context of NGO-NGO partnerships, particularly with IVO’s, is so unique relative to corporate partnerships that dominate current research. The aim was to allow this particular experience to speak for itself. Therefore, from the first-order codes that emerged from trends in the interviews, I developed second-order themes that helped to make sense of the patterns in Serve’s partnership experiences.
The data illustrated that in the case of Serve Intl and its local NGO partners, inter-organizational relationship formation was a matter of network preferences and organizational bias. While each NGO faced a great degree of resource constraint, their approach to selecting partners favored those organizations who came to them through their established network or based of a past history of working with similar organizations rather than through an objective assessments of how well the target organization appropriately matched the NGO’s needs. As a result, multiple partnerships formed between Serve Intl because it was able to connect into an established relationship network with a number of NGOs in India, but not all of these relationships were ideally suited to Serve’s or the local NGO’s actual needs.
Thus, when it came to the NGO’s conceptualization of partnership success, there was often a mismatch between Serve’s aims and its local counterparts. Serve hoped to contribute directly to development impact whereas local NGOs conceived of partnership success in terms of organizational development and learning rather than directly on social impact. Local organizations were excited about the opportunity to innovate and discuss development approaches with Serve and thus improve their organizations. Therefore, they often preferred to have volunteers play an evaluative role and to participate in trainings for their current staff. On the other hand, Serve hoped to enable its volunteers to get their hands dirty implementing actual programs.
Because these partnerships formed without going through a process of careful evaluation and defining shared goals for partnership outcomes, only five out of the eleven partnerships reported high satisfaction with the results of their relationships with Serve. These organizations tended to be the smaller, grass-roots NGOs that were benefited by volunteer’s direct service, whereas the larger organizations’ preference for organizational learning over development impact were not compatible with Serve’s approach.
This case study was unique in that it involved international volunteers, and short-term projects as the base of these partnerships. Therefore, future research should investigate how partnership formation criteria differ between international NGOs and their local NGO partners. It is important to understand if the connection between network preferences and organizational bias towards partnership also interfere with forming better-matched partnerships in other NGO-NGO contexts, and thus confirm the emerging theory in this study that formation criteria should be adjusted to include matters of structural compatibility in order to aim towards more effective partnerships.