Considering a Headquarters Location for your Multistakeholder Initiative (MSI)

If an MSI elects to create an independent secretariat, it will need to select a city and country in which to locate its headquarters.  It is not always easy for a global initiative to decide this, as there will be a multitude of factors and these will rarely point to one location.

Could a distributed secretariat without a specific location would be feasible?  My own view is that one secretariat location would be necessary, at least in the first number of years, to bring together a cohesive team that is best equipped to work together to deliver results, and move the MSI forward under the clear direction of an executive director and a board. Opening a satellite office or allowing employees to telework might be feasible some years after the team is functioning well within an executive director-led structure.

One method that many other MSIs have employed to determine the city/country in which to locate, is to develop a process to ask participating governments for expressions of interest in locating the organization in their jurisdiction. It is hoped that governments in such situations may compete and offer inducements, such as promises of financial or in-kind support.

The expressions-of-interest process has at times worked well, such as with the GRI, but also in many cases has led to difficulties and sub-optimal decisions. Boards may feel obliged to go with the best offer, even if other factors are lacking in that jurisdiction. Government priorities may change, and generous contributions may dry up after a number of years.

This blog (excerpted and edited from a larger report) lists some questions that may be relevant to the decision-making process on where to locate an MSI Secretariat. 

Will the MSI be able to recruit and retain the most talented staff to this location?

Effective recruitment is a make-or-break issue for small organizations. The MSI will greatly benefit from a highly qualified and competent executive director and/or other senior positions. Organizations located in smaller centres (New Haven, Oslo, and Ottawa, for example) have reported more difficulties in persuading potential candidates to move there. Factors such as standard of living indicators (access to services, cultural attractions, crime rates, air quality, etc.) and employment opportunities for spouses can play important roles in decisions to relocate. Overall, it is simply easier to recruit highly qualified staff to large centres with high standards of living such as New York, Washington DC, London, or Paris than to smaller centres. Additionally, the pool of candidates already living in those cities is larger.

Is there an existing, dynamic hub of comparable experts already in this location?

It is very beneficial for an organization to be located in a dynamic place with lots of talented people working in similar fields. These offer opportunities for collaboration, cross-fertilization of ideas, strategic partnerships, and easier recruitment if there is already a talented pool living there. Conversely, it can be quite isolating for an organization to be in a city without the possibility of forming strong relationships with many organizations in proximity. The Hague is an example of a global hub in international law, to the extent that virtually every new international law organization seeks to be established there.

Is this location seen as legitimate given the subject-matter of the initiative?

The location should make sense given the objectives and stakeholders of the MSI.  For example, an initiative focussed on international development issues may wish to locate in the Global South.  Dynamic cities in the Global South include Jakarta, San Paolo, Johannesburg, and Bangalore, however their suitability would depend on the nature of the initiative and other factors.  The city should also be reasonably accessible to a large proportion of the membership of the MSI. 

What is the cost of living and doing business in this location?

Expensive cities increase the required expenditures for both salaries and living expenses, such as rent. Sometimes exchange rates of local currencies can mean that funds raised in US dollars do not go nearly as far, especially in places such as Switzerland, Japan, and Australia.

Is the political and legal climate of this location favourable to a successful Secretariat?

The laws and political climate of each jurisdiction can impact the ease of doing business for the secretariat. It is important to select a location which would allow the MSI to flourish. Regulations applying to non-profit organizations may facilitate or hinder the MSI’s everyday operations. Some jurisdictions may impose complex red tape, or in the worst cases, unacceptably impede the work of MSIs through intrusions on their financial freedoms, security, or autonomy. Jurisdictions in which governments are excessively opaque in their own dealings with their citizens would not be a good fit either. Arbitrary decision-making by the government or the lack of a rule of law would also present a red flag. The MSI will want to recruit the most talented senior staff members from around the world and will expect that with an offer in hand, they will be able to obtain work visas in a reasonably expeditious time frame. Because elected governments come and go, there may be some ebb and flow when it comes to the political and legal climate of any particular jurisdiction. It is recommended that the assessment look at the longer term record of each location as a more reliable measure rather than short-term trends.

Concluding thoughts

Of all the factors listed, my own leanings would favour the ease of recruitment and retention of senior staff, given its supreme importance in assuring the future success of any MSI. That said, each MSI and its participants will weigh the factors differently, bring other factors into play and ultimately come out with different result.  A Board committee that includes a diversity of membership can help to consider options and make recommendations to the MSI decision-makers.

Mora Johnson, October 2017

This blog is excerpted and edited from a longer report prepared by Michael Lenczner of Powered by Data and me on the long-term governance of an MSI, found at