Yale School of Management

NGOs Must Innovate, Says Mercy Corps’ Neal Keny-Guyer ’82

Becton Fellowship Program

According to Neal Keny-Guyer ’82, CEO of Mercy Corps,  long-standing conflicts like the civil war in Syria are perhaps the greatest challenge facing humanitarian organizations. Aid groups and NGOs have standard protocols for natural disasters, but a war presents new tests.  

“Clearly from a moral imperative, we need to be there to alleviate immediate suffering,” Keny-Guyer said during a November 3 Becton Fellowship Program lecture. “However, that is no longer enough, and one of the biggest drivers we face is conflict. Conflict is the driver of rising fragility and extreme poverty… All of these challenges are clustering together in fragile states divided by conflict.”

Keny-Guyer, who joined Mercy Corps in 1994 as its CEO, said that aid organizations now try to balance meeting short-term needs with tackling long-term issues. That is the only way to create true change and not simply provide a Band-Aid for social and societal problems, he said.

“We have to look at the root causes, not only what we can do today,” he said. “How can we move the needle toward stability and build long-term resilience? We can’t act in the short-term without being mindful of the long-term challenges.”

Organizations may need to shift their focus and learn to operate beyond the scope of the traditional roles of NGOs and nonprofit groups, he said. There is a need for innovation, but aid groups don’t face the same imperative for change as companies that are competing for profits.

“I think we haven’t gotten the kind of innovation that is needed around social change,” he said. “Leveraging technology, for example, [and] new kinds of business models, which means being indifferent about whether it’s for-profit, not-for-profit, or a B-Corporation… We get hung up on our categories too much. We haven’t felt the urgency around innovation.”

One important innovation is using digital technologies to collect and distribute cash quickly to people on the ground, Keny-Guyer said. International relief efforts are shifting away from providing specific services or goods for refugees and instead providing them with funding directly, so they can begin buying what they need most.

“The use of cash has power to be disruptive technology in itself,” he said. “We are forcing ourselves to rethink how we are using cash. It’s more empowering, creates dignity among recipients, and reduces the need for procurement logistics... It will allow us to take advantage of more mobile networks around the world.”

About the Event

Neal Keny-Guyer '82, CEO of Mercy Corps, will be on campus for a Becton Fellowship lecture on November 3. The Becton Fellowship Program brings prominent leaders in a variety of industries to the school to share their insights.

Mercy Corps' mission is to alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression by helping people build secure, productive and just communities.

This event is open to the Public. Registration is required.


Neal Keny-Guyer is a social entrepreneur driven by the belief that a better future is possible.

Since 1994, Keny-Guyer has served as chief executive officer of the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. Under his leadership, Mercy Corps has grown into one of the most respected international relief and development agencies in the world, with ongoing operations in more than 40 countries, a staff of 4,000, and global revenue of roughly $450 million. Fast Company ranked Mercy Corps one of the most innovative social-change organizations in the world, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls Mercy Corps “a first-rate aid group.”

A native of Tennessee, Keny-Guyer started his career working with at-risk youth in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. After attending business school, he moved to Thailand to aid Cambodian refugees with CARE and UNICEF.

In 1982, Keny-Guyer began his tenure with Save the Children, rising to become Director of Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. He designed and implemented high-impact relief and development programs in some of the most war-torn and politically sensitive regions on earth—including Lebanon, West Bank/Gaza, and Sudan.

In 1990, Keny-Guyer undertook his toughest assignment—as a stay-at-home father for his first child—while consulting businesses, foundations and non-profit organizations on strategy and organizational development.

Neal holds a B.A. in public policy and religion from Duke University, a master’s degree in public and private management (M.P.P.M.) from Yale University, and an honorary doctor of humane letters from Portland State University, Oregon.

A former trustee of the Yale Corporation, Keny-Guyer remains very involved with the university, currently serving on the Yale President’s Council on International Affairs and the Board of Advisers of the Yale School of Management (SOM).

Keny-Guyer also serves as chairman of the board of InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international NGOs. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the Humanitarian System, and of the Council on Foreign Relations.

He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Alissa, who is an Oregon state legislator. They have three adult children.