Building Trust in NGOs*
Simon Heap, INTRAC

Amongst the general public, there is greater trust of groups who do not place profit as their number one goal. NGOs are therefore more trusted than companies. Winning major public debates on Genetically Modified Food, pushing for the abolition of child labour, and advocating reform of global institutions, an NGO’s ‘Unique Selling Point’ of trust is a crucial ally to its arguments: trust is a non-displaceable and vital part of relationships and image. It is, in fact, a cornerstone of interactions with citizens as supporters or clients (Fowler 2000). Public trust of NGOs comes from two main sources: performance and accountability. By performance is meant the useful social value placed on projects which support positive and enduring change. This article explores one aspect of the accountability debate: how NGO codes of conduct might help.

NGOs should adopt codes of conduct on two counts. Negatively, they can be a necessary defence against criticisms that NGOs are secretive, not transparent about sources of funds, have less than rigorous management procedures and practices and that there is a lack of democratic processes within some prominent NGOs. Positively, by establishing definite standards of ethical behaviour, corporate governance and financial transparency, codes would enable NGOs to build their support bases and give them greater credibility and authority in their activities.

NGOs in several countries now work under codes of conduct. In the Philippines, the semi-independent umbrella body, the Philippine Council for NGO Certification, monitors NGOs with a Code of Conduct and can recommend withdrawal of registration and tax privileges from NGOs who fail to comply.

Seventy international NGOs belonging to ACFOA (Australian Council for Overseas Aid) have a Code of Conduct. Adherence to the Code is a requirement for any NGO seeking funding from the Australian Agency for International Aid. The Code contains many reasonable points such as financial reporting and disclosure and prohibiting an NGO from making misleading or false statements about other agencies. This is ahead of the UK, where the agreement of a compact on a new approach to partnership with government only covers those funded to deliver domestic welfare and other services.

One of most interesting attempts at self-regulation comes from the Mauritius Council of Social Service (MACOSS), an umbrella group for 112 local organisations, who passed a code of conduct in 1999 which:

Aims at fostering accountability, harmonisation, networking, good governance, better planning, professionalism, efficiency, effectiveness, solidarity and acts as a guidance to keep the organisation on the right track (MACOSS, 1999).

In South Africa, a 1998 law to facilitate the establishment of NGOs in the post-apartheid era also provides for a voluntary register of NGOs and sets out standards of governance, accountability and public access to information. The accreditation of NGOs to conduct electoral education, be considered for state support or be able to receive public or private funds is not without its drawbacks: one observer put it recently, ‘I cannot see the point of this type of accreditation and validation - and can see a number of disadvantages relating to questions of control, financial and information gatekeeping and abuse of power by states’ (Graham, 2000).

Yet, unlike shareholders for businesses and elections for governments, NGOs have no convenient way to hold themselves accountable. With stories of high administrative costs and corruption, greater public trust may be built by adopting codes of conduct.


Fowler, A. (2000), ‘The Ties that Bind: Civic Development and the Importance of Trust’. Keynote address at Resource Alliance’s Building Capacity for Sustainability International Conference, Nairobi, Kenya, 21-24 November.

Graham, P. (2000), International Society for Third Sector Research (ISTR) e-discussion list, 10 October.

MACOSS (1999), Code of Conduct for NGOs. Port Louis, Mauritius: MACOSS

*First published in ONTRAC (the newsletter of the International NGO Training and Research Centre, Oxford), 17, p. 7.

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