The growth of CSO self-regulation

Shana Warren, Robert Lloyd and Jeannet Lingán

In 2005, the One World Trust published an article in Alliance on the effectiveness of self-regulation as a means of ensuring NGO accountability. Four years later, we can testify that the landscape of self-regulation is more populated than previously thought. The debate has permeated the sector, to differing degrees, worldwide. This article is based on extensive research conducted by the One World Trust, which has produced a database of self-regulatory initiatives worldwide. The article provides a global view of the efforts of civil society organizations (CSOs) to regulate and raise the standards of the sector.[1]

Rob LloydAs CSOs[2] have grown in number and influence worldwide over the past two decades, their activities have been subject to greater scrutiny. Questions of representation, accountability to beneficiaries and supporters, quality and effectiveness of their programmes, financial management and governance have been raised by donors, governments, other CSOs, the media and the wider public. In some cases, the criticism is constructive and its intention is to strengthen the sector and its growing role; in others, the criticism aims to curtail the power of CSOs and justify restrictive legislation. In response to these developments, CSOs have begun to work together as a sector to develop self-regulatory initiatives.

Jeannet LingánDrivers of self-regulation in the CSO sector

While CSOs can respond to growing scrutiny and criticism individually by developing new policies and procedures to raise standards, working at sector level enables the sector to speak with a more unified voice to external actors such as the general public, donors and regulators. It also facilitates the sharing of lessons across the sector, lowering the cost and time necessary to develop effective approaches to strengthening quality and accountability.

Such sector-level self-regulatory initiatives have become an important means of increasing CSOs’ credibility and legitimacy with stakeholders; helping to build public trust; protecting the political space for CSOs to operate; and supporting the sharing of good practice and learning.

There are three main forms of CSO self-regulation. The most common is when two or more organizations come together either to define common norms and standards to which they can be held to account or to share good practices so as to improve programme effectiveness. This cooperative effort can address a range of issues from how CSOs are governed to what information they should be making public and how they should evaluate their activities. Less frequently, self-regulation can involve a third party such as a peer CSO or a watchdog undertaking external assessments of organizations. Finally, in certain circumstances, CSO self-regulation can involve the government. In these cases power is partially delegated to an umbrella organization or other association representing CSOs to regulate behaviour or set standards for the sector.

The common thread to all forms of CSO self-regulation is that they are not the subject of legal requirement; at least some aspects of each CSO self-regulatory initiative involve the voluntary participation of the sector in developing and administering common norms and standards of behaviour.

The need to build public trust

In addition to strengthening internal structures and operations, self-regulation can help build public trust in the sector. Making public commitments to clear principles, norms and standards provides a standard to which CSOs can be held to account. Furthermore, self-regulation can help limit reputational damage to the sector caused by the wayward and unaccountable behaviour of a minority of organizations. It also enables participating organizations, or the sector as a whole, to signal trustworthiness and professionalism to donors and the general public. In cases where participation in the initiative is limited, self-regulation can help participating organizations to stand out to potential donors in an increasingly competitive field.

Complementing and pre-empting government regulation

Self-regulation may also seek to fill gaps in government regulation and protect civil society from burdensome and inappropriate government intervention. On the one hand, self-regulation can complement government regulation by addressing the specific concerns of a minority of organizations within the sector and their stakeholders. For example, self-regulatory efforts can address issues such as the ethical use of images or monitoring and evaluation frameworks that would be too specific to incorporate in a broad regulatory framework.

On the other hand, self-regulation can be a means of protecting the political space for CSOs to operate. Where state-civil society relations are tense, claims of inadequate accountability and transparency are often used by the government as the pretext for restrictive legislation. Developing self-regulation can help to minimize this threat as it enables the sector to speak in one voice and indicate its collective efforts.

Types of self-regulation

Self-regulatory initiatives may be either formal or informal. An initiative with a highly institutionalized structure spells out in detail the contents and criteria for participation. It also has the administrative structures, such as a secretariat or committee, to support its implementation. More informal initiatives lack such management systems, and their principles, standards and assessment frameworks tend to be laid out in more general terms. The other axis of analysis of self-regulatory initiatives relates to their compliance mechanisms. While some self-regulatory initiatives have strong compliance mechanisms, in other cases, they are non-existent or rudimentary.

From the 343 [3] self-regulation initiatives compiled by our research, we have identified five broad categories of CSO self-regulation:

  • Codes of conduct and ethics that tend to detail a set of basic principles that guide the behaviour of members. They are typically quite formal, but generally do not include a compliance mechanism. Fifty-one per cent of the initiatives identified fall into this category and it is the most used type of self-regulation among CSOs at the national level (for example, Code of Ethics of the National Association of NGOs of Zimbabwe; NPO Self-Regulation Pledge of Taiwan; Code of Conduct for Romanian Non-profit Organizations).
  • Certification schemes involving self-, peer or third-party assessment of compliance with principles or standards. They tend to be highly formalized with relatively strong compliance mechanisms; they account for 27 per cent of the initiatives compiled by the research. Most of them are based in the US (for example, Standards for Excellence) and the UK (for example, Practical Quality Assurance System for Small Organizations Quality Mark, Investors in People Standards). We also find certification schemes in countries like Uganda (NGO Quality Assurance Mechanism, Uganda National NGO Forum), Mexico (Governance and Transparency Indicators, Mexican Centre for Philanthropy) and Hungary (Trademark of Trust, Civil Society Development Foundation).
  • Information services that enhance transparency by sharing information about CSOs with the general public and across the sector. The information disseminated varies widely and can include, among other things, the activities a CSO undertakes, its administration costs, and its annual accounts. Fourteen per cent of the initiatives studied were information services. Examples include the Chadian NGO Directory, GuideStar India, the Palestinian NGO Portal, and the NGOs Online Database of Mongolia. In most cases, these do not have compliance mechanisms but can make an important contribution, both in countries with an abundance of available information about the sector and in those with a dearth of information.
  • Working groups of peer organizations that come together on a regular basis to discuss, share and define best practice on a particular issue. To encourage the adoption of best practice, they often develop self-assessments, toolkits and guides for their members. Working groups, though they generally do not have either a formal structure or a compliance mechanism themselves, are often the source of such things (codes of conduct, certification schemes, etc) for the sector. Three per cent of the initiatives identified are working groups. Examples include the Quality Standards Group of the British Overseas NGOs for Development and the Group of Reflection and Action of Environmental NGOs of Mali.
  • Awards schemes administered by a peer, umbrella or third party organization. They account for 4 per cent of the initiatives identified and seek to highlight and reward good practice. Examples are the Indian NGO Award and the Third Sector Excellence Award in the UK.

Geographical patterns

CSO self-regulatory initiatives at the international and regional level show a similar distribution. Codes of conduct are most prevalent, representing 40 per cent of international initiatives (for example, the Code of Ethics and Conduct of the World Association of NGOs, the Code of Ethics and Conduct of the African Women’s Development and Communications Network), followed by certification schemes at 25 per cent.

Significantly, international CSO self-regulatory initiatives tend to be concentrated in the development and humanitarian sectors. This is not surprising, given the highly visible and inherently collaborative nature of their work as well as the reliance of CSOs in these sectors on fundraising and public trust in the quality of their work. Furthermore, peer working groups’ evaluations of humanitarian assistance in Rwanda in the mid-1990s and in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami in 2005 have played a role in developing consensus around the need for high standards of practice, methods for assessing programme effectiveness, and accountability to beneficiaries and donors for how relief funds are spent.

At the national level, while CSO self-regulation is everywhere on the agenda, it has been notably more successful in gaining ground in some countries and regions than others. The regions with the highest number of initiatives are North America, the US specifically and to a lesser extent Canada, and Western Europe. While the US has by far the largest number of active initiatives, at over 50, the UK has over 20 with a notably smaller population and CSO sector. Canada, France, Germany, India, Ireland, and the Netherlands also have relatively high levels of CSO self-regulation, with more than five initiatives in each country. Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria and Poland complete this group of countries with high levels of CSO self-regulation with three or four initiatives apiece.

CSO self-regulation has emerged more slowly elsewhere. Central and Eastern Europe as well as Sub-Saharan Africa are regions where CSOs are increasingly recognizing the need to set minimum standards of practice and developing initiatives to support this. There are already 37 CSO self-regulation initiatives in 20 of the 47 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and 32 initiatives in 12 of the 18 countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Furthermore, 40 initiatives have been identified in 19 out of 50 Asian countries. Together with well-known initiatives in Pakistan, India, the Philippines and Cambodia, we find sector efforts in countries such as Mongolia, Taiwan, Singapore and Kyrgyzstan. Finally, Latin America has self-regulation initiatives in 12 of its 21 countries, with Brazil and Chile having the highest number (three in each).

Challenges for self-regulation

The diversity of self-regulatory initiatives reflects the fact that their form is shaped by contextual factors such as the level of development of civil society, the resources that are available, and the nature of relations with the state. The different initiatives represent the efforts of the organizations to raise the standards of the sector and also their accountability priorities. For example, most of the initiatives involving development organizations still give precedence to governance and financial management. There is still much work to do on focusing on beneficiaries and letting them shape priorities.

Another important challenge for the sector is how to raise standards without these being prohibitive for smaller CSOs. Usually, the higher the stringency of compliance mechanisms, the more the time and resources are needed. Certification schemes, for example, are very stringent as organizations are certified and monitored against a known set of standards. However, they will usually require organizations to pay a fee to get the accreditation or label, which smaller organizations are unable to afford.

Self-regulation is a rapidly evolving field, with the vast majority of initiatives having emerged over the past decade and many still currently in development. While the research methodology for building the inventory was designed to minimize oversights, the inventory is a work in progress and will rely on its users to keep it up to date. If you are aware of any initiatives that you think should be included in the database or would like to provide additional information on existing initiatives, please contact us at or visit our portal on

1 This article is based on the briefing paper CSO Self-regulation: The global picture by Shana Warren and Robert Lloyd, 2009. It has been adapted and updated by Jeannet Lingán.

2 Civil society organizations (CSOs) include NGOs, non-profit organizations (NPOs), charities, and community-based organizations (CBOs). For purposes of this project, we have relied on a wide definition of CSOs that also includes religious organizations, trade unions, foundations, and any other institutions outside of the corporate and government sectors.

3 As at October 2009.

Robert Lloyd is projects manager at the One World Trust. Email  
Shana Warren is a former projects officer at the One World Trust and a current democracy and governance consultant.  Email  
Jeannet Lingán is a researcher at the One World Trust. Email

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