Briefcase NGOs: How widespread is this, really?

Definition of a briefcase (or suitcase) NGO: A fraudulent nonprofit organization, set up by only one or two persons, only to obtain money from donors but having no programs on the ground.

I have long suspected that the phenomena of briefcase NGOs is not as widespread as purported. (See robust discussion on the topic of briefcase NGOs via LinkedIn here.) Anecdotal evidence, e.g. “I knew this guy,” is told and re-told in the development sector, and in the process becomes elevated to be considered “typical,” creating an image problem for all nonprofits in poor countries, even when we know that the number and diversity of civil society organizations in any one country is great. For example, there are at least 50,000 community-based organizations in the South African non-profit sector alone. (Manji & Naidoo, 2005).


I also suspect some donors/INGOs have deeper issues with briefcase NGOs than others due to their “partnership” approach. Researcher Eugenia Lee has been thoughtfully writing about this phenomena recently, begging the question as to whether foreign aid itself has driven the rise of briefcase NGOs and perverted the nonprofit incentive structure in countries receiving international assistance. Donors continue to refer to the absorptive capacity needed to implement large-scale programs. As such, aren’t the few organizations that do get access to funding (legitimately or not) implicitly coerced to develop such “capacities” in order to gain access to donor resources? Indigenous grassroots groups embedded at the community level may lack the required accountability mechanisms and sophisticated processes that would make them more recognizable or esteemed in the development sector, but they have a range of capacities and competencies that also distinguish them from other civil society actors – resourcefulness, deep contextual knowledge, community embeddedness, language and cultural capacities, and the ability to operate in a responsive manner to local needs – which are those that international NGOs and donors lack.

And shall we question the deeper reasons for why presumptions of morality do not come first to people’s minds? – In another post…

In the meantime, most “old-school” project-based funding mechanisms and proposal/reporting procedures continue to be so risk-averse that they can easily be exploited by nefarious characters. I have worked with international small grantmakers who have refined their due diligence over the years to successfully weed out or create hurdles for less than legitimate groups. Unfortunately I continue to hear briefcase NGOs as an excuse in larger agencies not to alter or expand their proposal/reporting procedures so that more local organizations can take part.

True accountability is rarely found on paper and the most effective grassroots organizations I know ensure that the communities they serve are ultimately the judge of their success. I agree with Lee that donors need to develop funding mechanisms that will increase NGOs’ responsiveness and resourcefulness, rather than distract them from their constituencies. It is indeed possible for diligent and thoughtful donors to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I’m all for shining bright lights on NGO and government partners, especially as donors talk about more investments in local systems and solutions. Let’s just make sure then that the lights are shined on donors too. Otherwise we’re creating hypocritical exercise and punitive approaches do not breed sound development partnerships.

Regardless of how widespread the phenomena of briefcase NGOs may be (or not be), let’s ensure the aid and philanthropic wealth is widespread, strengthening a larger and more diverse section of people working on behalf of the common good.


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  1. Tariq Ahmad

    I love this so much!

    Important resources to keep close if you want to dive a bit further on this topic.

    Here’s an early piece talking about the limitations on civil society (INGOs and local NGOS) since they have to be confined to the arrangements of donors.

    In Bangladesh, external financing negatively impacted civil society’s ability to mobilize around women’s rights.,d.aWw

    The big research USAID commissions to get into the political of local civil society work. Discusses competition between NGOs that hinders cross-civil society networking and creates issue “poles.” Funding can divert the entire sector away from community driven needs to donor needs.

  2. Respected Sir,

    Wishes from K. Amirthalingam.

    Regarding Brief Case NGOs are working here and there small percentage in international level perhaps large number of NGOs working very brilliant with people cause and result oriented. we do not take all NGOs under one measurement. Even International funding point of view Number of INGOs regularly calling projects as formality and in mean time so many active working NGOs applying those funding agencies but getting No funding at present reply from concern agencies, this is regular activities going on every one perhaps No of International funding agencies promptly doing proper reply and funding to NGOs, So it is two side of Measure on this matter. Any how good active NGOs with money minded doing social works properly with people participation and active.

    Thanking you,

    Yours Sincerely,

    K. Amirthalingam,
    Project Director -Association for Social Solidarity and Empowerment Training Trust (ASSET)

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  4. MJ

    I know of a few briefcase NGOs, but am reluctant to single them out publicly because it would achieve little and cause a lot of unnecessary fuss. I suspect similar concerns may be behind the typically vague descriptions others give, especially, as is not uncommon, if said briefcase NGOs are linked to political interests.

    None of which necessarily invalidates the main point you are making. E.g. I agree that the term “absorptive capacity” can be really quite pernicious. But then the lack of real data on the subject makes it hard to know how bad the problem really is. Normally one would say that those making the claims about the existence or prevalence of something have the obligation to present data to support their claim, not those doing the refuting, but since those doing the claiming are the ones with the money we cannot just ignore them. It seems crying out for a Development Studies student thesis or two.

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