Diversity in NGOs

Diversity and inclusion are values whose importance almost all NGOs recognise. To understand the degree to which this recognition is reflected in the governance of major NGOs, I carried out in 2013, an initial evaluation of The Global Journal’s Top 100 NGOs and subsequently suggested what NGOs should keep in mind to appoint sound and appropriate Executive Boards. In 2015, I evaluated the 2014 ranking of the Top 500 NGOs.

2013 Top 100 NGOs: Methodology and Results

Different ways might be used to measure the extent to which NGOs reflect adequately the experience and diversity of those they seek to serve.

I decided to look at the composition of NGO Executive Boards, because they play a central role in an organisation’s governance, and (in most cases) Board membership is publicly reported.

There are millions of NGOs around the world, which differ vastly in scale, capacity and organisation. To establish a sample, I chose to analyse the 2013 edition of the Top 100 NGOs, a list of what The Global Journal considers to be the most impactful, innovative and sustainable NGOs. I chose to work with this list not necessarily because I endorse it, but because it provides a reasonable sample. (One organisation was left out of the study because no data, other than the location of its headquarters, could be collected.)

To compile the data, the following variables were considered: the location of headquarters and activity of the NGOs; the gender, ethnicity and educational qualifications of Board members; and selected professional affiliations of Board members. Other data such as age, ability and funding were not included for practical reasons: time and resources.

I chose to adopt categories that are broad and therefore imperfect. Roughly speaking, I divided the world continentally. With respect to ethnic descent, I used categories that are similarly continental. In the case of people of black African descent, it proved more difficult to apply a single model. In certain respects, I considered them to be a single group but wherever relevant I separated them out regionally. In general, I opted for ‘ethnicity’ rather than ‘race’ because it is the term most frequently used on national censuses.

Responses on ethnicity: some respondents were unable to confirm the ethnic breakdown of their boards because they only register members’ nationality. Yet nationality clearly does not capture the social significance of ‘whiteness’ in, say, South Africa or Mexico. Others tried to reassure by suggesting that their staff is more diverse than their Boards—an argument that simply confirms the persistence of hierarchies dominated by lighter skin shade. One respondent contended that race no longer “really matters in terms of work, especially in the business world where you just put the right person in the position”. An organisation refused to share such information, stating that the role of its Board is to define strategies and intervention principles and not to ensure the representativeness of its constituencies. It suggested that achieving wide representation would be too complicated and might create conflicting and competing expectations.

With regard to gender, the conventional use of two genders was considered because no transgender individuals were identified (either by the NGOs or through my research); considering other genders is beyond my competence.

Educational backgrounds of Board members were evaluated to see the representation of different socio-economic classes. Here I am primarily talking about perceived and social attributes of people who have higher education and not about social mobility resulting from education.

With regard to professional affiliations I set out to understand how many NGOs have Board members who are affiliated to the tobacco, arms and finance industries. Affiliation means that a Board member is a founder, employee, board member, partner or investor in these industries, or provides professional (legal, marketing, audit or tax) services to them.

Arms industry: any of the top 10 largest arms-producing and military services companies listed on SIPRI’s 2011 ranking.
Finance industry: credit union, bank, investment fund, stock brokerage, private equity fund, venture capital fund, angel investment, or credit card, insurance or consumer finance company. Excludes ethical banks.
Tobacco industry: included are Altria Group, British American Tobacco, Philip Morris.

I made an initial analysis on the basis of published information and then invited each organisation to confirm the numbers that I had reached or provide corrections where necessary. With respect to professional affiliations, I asked NGOs to verify the connection of their Board members to the finance industry. I did not ask them to do so for the tobacco and arms industries because I included these industries after the first contact survey.

Response rate. Over 50% of the NGOs surveyed responded; of these, 47 either confirmed the data or provided corrections; seven either confirmed or provided corrections for all the data except ‘ethnicity’; one, which does not share its list of Board members, provided partial anonymous data; and two refused to verify the data because they do not share such information publicly. For organisations that did not respond, data was marked as ‘unknown’ when it was not publicly available. In a few cases, I contacted Board members directly to obtain data concerning them. Very few responded but the ones who did, responded promptly and openly.

I deliberately chose not to name NGOs, except to share some positive findings. I am aware that this may seem unfair to those that have taken measures to address issues of diversity and inclusion. I made this choice for two reasons. First, much improvement is still needed even from the more progressive NGOs. Second, I did not wish to engage in naming and shaming. Instead, I hope that this analysis—and others like it—will encourage the concerned NGOs to move beyond paying lip service to diversity and inclusion, and to become far more transparent, accountable and ambitious.




I would like to thank the following NGOs, which were particularly transparent and supportive: Apopo, Ashoka, CARE International, Center for Digital Inclusion, Cure Violence, Danish Refugee Council, Dhaka Ahsania Mission, FrontlineSMS, Gram Vikas, Greepeace International, Helen Keller International, Instituto Da Criança, International Planned Parenthood Federation, KickStart, Libera, Marie Stopes International, Medical Relief International Charity, One Acre Fund, Operation ASHA, PlanetRead, Project WET Foundation, Rare and Saude Crianca. I am also grateful to Aplin Clark for the graphics above.


My inquiries for the Top 500 NGO ranking ranking have been less detailed because a much larger number of NGOs are listed thank for the previous ranking. However, the methodological process I followed was similar, with the following differences:

  • I looked at each NGO’s Board but stopped when I found any Board members affiliated to the tobacco and weapons and finance industries.
  • I evaluated the ethnicity, gender and education of CEOs rather than Board members.
  • I contacted NGOs only when I had a doubt or question about the data.
  • This year I looked at NGOs’ websites to see how they portrayed people the NGO served. I did not do this in 2013.

I would like to thank the following NGOs, which were particularly transparent and supportive: Adarshmay, CRIN, Desmos, Future Code, Kariega Project, KinderUSA, Liberty Asia, Mother’s Right Foundation, OpenCorporates, NISGUA, Plades, PRISMA, Proderechos, Public Concern, Simpol, Volunteer4Greece and Women’s Empowerment International.

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