I had lunch with 15 leaders of non-governmental organizations at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week. I was asked to present the latest Edelman Trust Barometer data on NGOs, then to provide my views on how the sector can improve its reputation. I told the group that NGOs had led in trust for 19 of the 22 years of our study, that government had emerged as the leader at the beginning of the Pandemic in 2020, then business had become the most trusted in the past two years. I said further that NGOs had the highest ranking for ethical behavior, but that competence was the key differentiator versus business. I noted that NGOs had lost standing because their work had become politicized and that they were better critics than debaters. Finally, I suggested that NGO leaders had become bureaucrats instead of public figures, that it was difficult to identify even the heads of the most prominent NGOs as they are no longer important voices in the media. 
The NGOs made the following points:

  1. Local NGOs Doing Better Than Global in Reputation—Local NGOs undersell their ability to deliver services to the community. This is an opportunity area for business to work with NGOs. 
  2. Trust Issues with Global NGOs—The campaign against the Open Society Foundation hurt the entire sector. NGO work was politicized and unfairly maligned by right wing politicians, starting in Eastern Europe but magnified by the conservative press in the U.S.
  3. NGOs Not Used to Fighting Back—We must use our voice to win in the court of public opinion. We need to talk about the good we do and how we do it. Everything has become politicized. The revolving door of talent between government and NGOs is not helpful. 
  4. NGOs Do Not Invest in Marketing—We need to be loud and proud. Boards of NGOs must allocate resources to communications as much as to service delivery. We need to activate proxies, the experts who can position ideas in the public space.
  5. Young People Find Community at Work—In the prior generation, there was connection by volunteering for causes or by going to church. Now work is the center of the millennial life; fewer people are volunteering. 
  6. Fake NGOs Set Up in Brazil and India—As part of a program to undermine civil society, there are ersatz NGOs that put out misinformation. This contaminates the perception of the sector.
  7. Need to Work with Business—Business has the power to scale, NGOs have the mission and credibility. We cannot give away too much to brands, which expect a tangible return on sponsorship. Business has not intervened in Brazil as NGOs have sought to keep the government accountable on the Amazon rain forest. 
  8. Business Has Seized the Purpose Banner from NGOs—This may be the most important finding from the lunch. Civil society leaders feel preempted by business, making claims of solving societal problems as part of the normal activities of the enterprise. 

I am a big believer in the NGO movement. It has a unique capacity to provide credible information at a time when media is shrinking under financial pressure. It can be a partner to both business and government in local service delivery. Its watchdog function is invaluable, assuring proper behavior by other institutions. The fundamental question to be answered by the sector is whether it is willing to take the risk of partnering with business. The traditional answer of NGOs has been no; we prefer to go it alone. That is the wrong response today; society demands solutions that can only be provided by cooperation with a business community that has fundamentally changed, that sees its own mission as societal and financial. There is a way forward together; it is time for civil society to take this new road. 

Richard Edelman is CEO.