NGOs and reputations

A couple of weeks ago I was at a workshop at Oxford about NGOs and reputations. The workshop was sponsored by the Centre for Corporate Reputation and gathered scholars from a number of disciplinary backgrounds to explore how NGOs create and maintain reputations. In addition, we were interested in examining the reputational consequences that result from their interactions with corporations. At the end of the workshop I shared some of my takeaways.

It occurred to me that a number of the papers in the workshop conceptualized NGO reputation in a similar way to how we think about corporate reputations. For example, we assume that reputations are shared perceptions that reflect how an organization (successfully or unsuccessfully) differentiates itself from competitors, or we learn that organizations strategically try to manage the impressions of their key audiences in order to create a positive reputation. But if NGO reputations are similar in most ways to corporate reputations, do we learn anything new by studying NGOs that we couldn’t learn by studying for-profit organizations? Do NGO reputations differ fundamentally from corporate reputations?

I think they are different in at least one really important way: NGOs are valued because we believe they are somehow more morally authentic than other kinds of organizations. Therefore, a NGO’s reputation is grounded in how well it meets its audience’s expectations for moral authenticity. Two questions might come to mind as I try to make the link between moral authenticity and reputation. The first is, what does it mean to be authentic anyway? It’s quite possible that the term is too fuzzy to be analytically useful or perhaps we only ascribe authenticity to organizations in a post-hoc way. And second, why should NGOs be expected to be any more morally authentic than other organizations?

To answer the first question, I agree that it’s important to be precise about our definition of authenticity if it’s going to give us any leverage in explaining reputations. So, I borrow from Carroll’s and Wheaton’s definition of authenticity when they say that authenticity reflects that an organization is “true-to-type,” – i.e., it represents a pure expression of a particular category. But I would add to true-to-type another distinguishing dimension of authenticity – true-to-self. The latter conveys the idea that the organization is internally consistent or true to its own commitments to others. True-to-self is closer to Selznick’s definition of organizational character, in the sense that he believed organizations developed specific characters as they evolved over time and made value commitments to their constituents. Being true-to-self means that an organization is consistent in living up to the expectations created by past commitments.

To answer the second question, I would say that yes, NGOs are expected to be more moral than for-profit corporations. Being a moral actor is seemingly built in to the definition of a nonprofit organization, and this is because NGOs, and nonprofits in particular, are believed to have a social mission that rises above their basic functions. The social mission is the value-added to being a NGO. This is also the main reason I emphasize “moral authenticity” rather than authenticity, more generally. A for-profit corporation could be authentic inasmuch as it is true-to-type and true-to-self, but moral authenticity adds an extra layer of expectations. Being morally authentic means that the organization represents a pure expression of the social mission that NGOs of their category are expected to pursue and that they are consistent in their adherence to a certain value system.

Expectations of moral authenticity underlie NGO’s interactions with others as well as how their audiences evaluate their performance. One reason Americans tend to trust NGOs more than they do other types of organizations is because they think they are more morally authentic. Adherence to some sort of moral code distinguishes them from for-profits. It is this moral authenticity that other organizations seek when they try to form partnerships with NGOs. Collaborating with a NGO is one way that a corporation can cleanse itself from past sins and restore lost confidence following a controversial event. At the same time, NGOs are careful in which other organizations they collaborate with because they recognize the consequences it will have for how others perceive them. Collaborating with the wrong partner can undermine the moral authenticity of the organization. The risk of damaging its moral authenticity is one reason that Greenpeace has a policy not to take money from any corporation or government.

For these reasons, I think there is great potential in studying NGOs as distinctive kinds of organizational actors. There are a lot of interesting theoretical questions one could address in this context, especially in looking at how reputations are constructed, maintained, and transformed. Most research on reputation has focused on corporations, and so this seems like fairly fertile ground to me.

Written by brayden king

July 30, 2014 at 10:19 pm

9 Responses

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  1. I liked this essay but it is also sad to see that you feel the need to justify studying organizations that are not for-profit businesses. I’m sure you would agree that NGOs are an extremely diverse set of organizations, ranging from unincorporated collections of volunteers with shifting and ill-defined membership criteria who run whatever finances they have through somebody’s personal checking account to very large bureaucracies. Seems to me it would be interesting to compare for-profit and non-profit organizations of comparable sizes.

    On the main point of reputation, it does seem like the only thing a nonprofit has to “sell” to attract donors/resources is its reputation, while a for-profit has other things to sell as well.



    July 31, 2014 at 12:26 am

  2. Thanks OW. Just to be clear, I wasn’t trying to justify studying NGOs. As you know well, there is a thriving literature on NGOs of different types, including advocacy organizations like SMOs. I am, however, trying to justify studying NGO reputation, which as far as I can tell is woefully understudied and not well understood. And as I say, I don’t think we can just assume that reputation works exactly the same way in NGOs as it does in for-profits.

    And yes, I totally agree with you about the importance of reputation to NGOs. Without a positive reputation a NGO is nothing.


    brayden king

    July 31, 2014 at 2:25 am

  3. I should add that one of only social movement scholars to study the reputation of SMOs is Dean Rohlinger. See, for example, this cool article in Mobilization about the consequences of an organization’s reputation for its advocacy outcomes. And, lucky for us, Deana was one of the scholars at the NGO/reputation workshop.


    brayden king

    July 31, 2014 at 2:29 am

  4. Thanks for the post. I’d love to see any papers that are available. 1-2 years ago on a survey 80+% of Chinese trusted info from scientific bodies and the government (two separate choices) about climate change, but only 40+% trusted info from NGOs. Increasingly in China, the state is not the obstacle to NGOs emerging, but rather making it clear to the general population why they should even exist is the biggest challenge. In China it can be a case of not trying to distinguish oneself from competitors but simply trying to establish a space separate from the state and the economy for discourse and action; carving out a public sphere.

    Related, what does it mean if NGOs lose the moral authority they have established? Do we lose a space for discourse and ideas that are independent of the state and the economy? What does this mean for the delivery of goods and services?


    chris eberhardt

    July 31, 2014 at 3:12 am

  5. I’m not an expert on this, but two questions come to my mind: first, are NGOs perhaps granted with higher degrees of reputation and/or trust by stakeholders initially, more or less regardless of actual behavior, partly because of the assumption of their moral authenticity? And secondly, is misconduct or deviance from this norm punished even more harshly compared to for-profit organizations, again because stakeholders might feel betrayed and react strongly to this breach of social (and moral) norms?

    Also, what I find interesting to think about is how the reputation of a particular (for-profit or not-for-profit) organization is influenced by the particular relationships it has to other organizations, and their various degrees of reputation. And what happens to the broader network of organizations if one particular organization within this network loses its moral authenticity, for example due to serious misconduct? How are corporate organizations and NGOs influenced by this in distinct ways?

    So, it seems to be a promising field indeed …

    By the way, since you mentioned Greenpeace, this might be of interest:

    And this provides some more background:


    Johann Fortwengel

    July 31, 2014 at 5:28 am

  6. I really love the suggested dimension “true-to-self” of moral authenticity. In my view, NGOs are particularly distinct from for-profit organizations especially in that dimension. They are not only loyal to their own plans and mission but also to the audiences they serve. However, being true-to-self can sometimes be different from being true to own commitments with others, even in the case of NGOs. For example, under inventory shortages NGO’s providing medical supplies will need to leave some communities and audiences unserved. Is this then morally in-authentic?

    Also, I think there are other kind of organizations that can be morally authentic, also in the true-to-self dimension. Let’s think of organizations that are heavily embedded and rooted in their local communities like the leather makers or wine producers in Italy. These organizations are not only true to the type/category they represent but they also play an important role in their communities: they keep these traditional professions ongoing. The moral authenticity of these organizations relies on producing and reproducing goods that have historically characterized their communities, also in building community identity based on what the organizations produce, e.g. in leather districts such as Florence, leather makers are insignia of the communities they are embedded in.


    Margarita Cruz

    July 31, 2014 at 9:49 am

  7. Do NGOs get a pass on some pieces of their identity because of the authenticity? For example, Greenpeace will work to prohibit governments and organizations within undernourished countries from using food products that are GMO or importing GMO seeds, even those that are optimized for their poor soils, desertification, etc. They are seen as a moral organization, though they contribute to poor nutritional attainment.



    July 31, 2014 at 7:12 pm

  8. Thanks for all of your responses and for posing really interesting questions. I’m glad that you see some potential in my very early-stage framework for NGO reputations.

    For those of you who are interested, the Centre’s Scholars Corner page has posted the thoughts of a few of the other participants in the workshop. You can find it here –


    brayden king

    July 31, 2014 at 8:58 pm

  9. Very interesting post. Following up on Johann’s comment about NGO reputation and the influence relationships have on reputation. In my dissertation looking at nonprofits in the US, I found that certain nonprofits (mainly human service oriented) in the US were isolated or relatively peripheral from networks of interlocking directorates (interestingly, from a moral authenticity perspective, the most left-leaning and right-leaning think tanks were relatively peripheral too). I looked at the largest public charities, foundations, think tanks, major corporations, and government federal advisory boards. In the discussion section, I talked a bit about how nonprofits choose their board members. For me, seeking only certain “types” of people might prevent some nonprofits from having access to networks of power and influence. But here there are choices and negotiations between access to other power brokers and the management of reputation and moral authenticity.

    My sense is that reputation management and the need to remain morally authentic is part of this equation. Though, I certainly never considered it in my dissertation. But I think there might be some real advantage and analytical payoff by examining board member composition and selection (both aspects of external relationship building) through the lens of reputation and moral authenticity.


    Scott Dolan

    August 1, 2014 at 11:46 am

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