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.