International non-governmental organizations (INGOs) espouse principles of participation and empowerment, for the most part applied to INGOs' beneficiaries rather than their staff. Evidence from a study of seven INGOs operating in Kenya indicates that beneficiaries participate much less, and staff somewhat more, than INGO rhetoric would suggest. Although participation of both groups was limited, beneficiary involvement was episodic at best, whereas staff had continuous, albeit constrained access to regular meetings and other fora. The need to be accountable to donors was a major limiting factor. However, all stakeholders, including donors, share an interest in achieving long-term results, and the evidence from the literature and our own empirical findings is that participation facilitates achieving those results. Thus, our study suggests that the ‘two participations’ can be reconciled through a focus on the long-term interests of INGOs' intended beneficiaries. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.