Burkhard Gnärig

5 January, 2016

2016 – Year of transformative change in ICSOs?

I am sure that the conversation below is not happening in any of the international civil society organisations (ICSOs) we are working with. Nobody aims to “decline into obsolescence”.
However, “risking anything new” doesn’t look like an obvious choice of our sector either. Still, I believe that this is really the choice we have: either risk innovation or slowly fade away. So, why not make 2016 the year of exciting innovation, the year of prudent risk taking, the year in which transformative change takes hold in your organisation?Cartoon_Blog_Social_Media

Here are three courageous ideas which may help you start the transformation in your organisation:

1. Empower your key stakeholders

All of today’s major ICSOs have been founded at a time when representative democracy was the only viable option of democratic decision making. With the rise of the Internet, direct democracy is becoming more and more popular. Representing others, taking decisions on behalf of others, doing things for others rather than empowering them to act by themselves are approaches that often are no longer required and increasingly rejected as paternalistic.

What does this mean for ICSOs? For instance, service delivery ICSOs should turn themselves from organisation “for” (young women, children, the poor, the disabled, etc.) into organisations “of” their so-called beneficiaries. Equally donors are getting used to having more, and more direct, influence on how their support is being used. Connecting donors and recipients of aid directly is the hallmark of many recently founded Internet based organisations. In order to empower their key stakeholders, service delivery ICSOs need to significantly reduce their role as intermediaries and transfer much of the power they hold to the people they aim to serve.

2. Turn your organisation into an effective global actor

Millions of national and local civil society organisations are doing great work around the globe. But there are only a few handful of ICSOs, civil society organisations with a global mission. Usually organised as federations of national affiliates, they often appear helpless in front of global challenges. With most of the power held by their largest and most wealthy national affiliates – still mostly from the Global North – ICSOs all too often are tempted to go with ineffective compromises between diverging national interests. Many ICSO leaders complain that decision making in their organisations takes too long and leads to unsatisfactory outcomes.

Any ICSO that aims to play an effective role at the global level needs to develop a governance which produces strategies driven by our planet’s limitations and opportunities rather than by national preferences. It also needs to come up with management structures that are able to consistently implement global policy at regional, national and local levels.

3. Turn your ICSO into a carbon neutral organisation

At present, climate change poses the single largest threat to a just, peaceful and sustainable world. It directly affects the missions of all ICSOs, no matter whether they work on environmental issues, poverty, children, disability or human rights. This means that any major organisation that is serious about its mission needs to have climate change at the centre of its strategy. But giving climate change high strategic priority is only the first step on the journey: implementing the strategy both inside and outside the organisation will make the difference.

Taking the decision to turn your ICSO into a carbon neutral organisation would be a courageous step in the right direction. Obviously, in a world, which is still very much dominated by fossil fuels, achieving carbon neutrality is a medium term objective. But stating the aim and starting the process would be an exciting first step which will excite and energise especially the younger members of ICSOs’ staff, those who are becoming increasingly aware that they will be the first generation who will have to pay for my generation’s failed policies.

The list of transformative approaches is much longer. But no matter which one you chose, it will most probably entail a power shift in your organisation. Whether power holders in today’s ICSOs are willing to accept the transfer of (some of) their powers will decide whether their organisations will be able to risk “anything new” or “decline into obsolescence”.

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