Innovation diffusion within large environmental NGOs through informal network agents


The Sustainable Development Goals present opportunities for environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) to address new challenges. Such innovation requires dynamism and adaptability that large ENGOs may lack, and flatter organizational structures common to large ENGOs may limit the efficacy of top-down diffusion of innovative ideas or approaches. Instead, diffusion may occur through informal networks. We conducted a network experiment to estimate the role of informal boundary spanners—individuals who cross internal organizational boundaries (for example, departmental or geographic) via their informal social networks—for diffusing innovations in a large ENGO. We find they are four times more likely to diffuse innovations than non-boundary spanners, although organizational positions (for example, formal organizational hierarchy) can moderate this behaviour. We also find evidence they play a role in changing attitudes in favour of the innovation. These findings highlight how informal boundary spanners can drive organization-wide diffusion of innovations in ENGOs to strengthen capacity to address pressing sustainability challenges.

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Fig. 1: Sociograms for treatment and control operating units within the North America region of TNC.
Fig. 2: Adjusted predictions of diffusion by number of direct reports and organizational hierarchy.


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This research was supported by David and Lucile Packard Foundation grant no. 2014-40349. We thank T. Dietz, J. Goldstein and M. Wallace for their thoughtful comments and feedback.

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Y.J.M., Y.L., S.M.W.R. and K.A.F. designed the research; Y.J.M., Y.L., S.M.W.R., K.B. and J.R.B.F. performed the research; Y.J.M., Y.L. and K.A.F. analysed data; and Y.J.M., Y.L., S.M.W.R., K.A.F., K.B., J.R.B.F. and J.M. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Yuta J. Masuda.

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Masuda, Y.J., Liu, Y., Reddy, S.M.W. et al. Innovation diffusion within large environmental NGOs through informal network agents. Nat Sustain 1, 190–197 (2018).

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