Do the Right Thing: The Impact of INGO Legitimacy Standards on Stakeholder Input


Political Science and International Affairs

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International nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) are frequently criticized for failing to adequately represent or engage with grassroots stakeholders. Yet most explanations of this shortcoming have focused on factors external to the organizations, e.g., economic pressures that privilege donor interests. What has been largely lacking is an examination of the role of internal INGO characteristics. We address this by examining INGOs’ legitimacy standards: how INGOs understand themselves to be doing the right thing and seek to convey that righteousness to others. Drawing on the literature from business ethics and organizational behavior, we show that organizations’ self-selected standards of legitimacy are key drivers of behavior. Using an analysis of 57 American INGO websites, we identify 11 legitimacy types and examine their usage. We find that while most INGOs make a series of technical legitimacy claims that seem designed to attract donors, they simultaneously employ additional legitimacy standards that do not seem to be externally dictated. These additional standards generally prioritize adherence to a cause rather than stakeholder input. The findings suggest that challenges to INGO representivity or responsiveness result not only from external pressures, but also from INGOs’ own choice of values.

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