ICSO 2025 – three possible scenarios

If you think through each of the different fault lines, take a choice among the alternatives each of them presents, and put your choices together in one concept you will come to a wide range of rather different future organisations. Let us play a little bit with different alternatives along our fault lines and develop three possible scenarios – those we consider the most likely ones among the many different options which emerge.

Disintegrating into independent national organisations

Some years ago, we brought together the international Human Resources Directors of many of the leading ICSOs. They had never met before and started by introducing themselves, their organisations and the role they played in their organisations. A very surprising picture emerged: while some of the HR Directors were responsible for between 50 and 100 colleagues others were responsible for up to 44,000. These differences were not primarily caused by the different sizes of the organisations but by the different forms in which they were organised internationally. While some of the HR Directors were responsible for everybody who worked for the organisation worldwide others were responsible for only parts of the employees – for example: those working at the international secretariat and in international programmes – and others again were only responsible for those who worked at the international secretariat. Looking at the different international HR Directors’ job specifications provides a very good indicator for how well each ICSO is integrated internationally. In fact some of the mid-size ICSOs do not even have a HR Director as they have only a handful of employees working at the international secretariat.

While the national affiliates enjoy the benefits of a relatively strong global brand, they are not willing to invest in maximising their common impact at the global level. These ICSOs sometimes do not have a global strategy, and if such a strategy exists, it exists in parallel with – and often unrelated to – the different national strategies of the affiliates. At important international gatherings these ICSOs are often represented by an affiliate which sometimes promotes the national perspective rather than the international one. The national affiliates of these ICSOs are barely bound by any international rules, and often the secretariat does not have the power to enforce the few existing ones. Given the very limited interdependency between national affiliates these organisations are the first candidates for disintegration in times of crisis and major strain. However, even in the ICSOs that show a much greater global consistency there are strong forces at work promoting national interests over the global ones. As most ICSOs generate the bulk of their global income at national level and under the responsibility of national affiliates, the power of money resides there. And as a result, practically all ICSOs are under permanent internal pressure from national interests wanting to overturn the global direction.

In addition we can observe growing criticism from local and national CSOs which find ICSOs too dominant both at national and international levels. At present the sector-wide debate about the distribution of power between local, national and international CSOs seems to be heating up, which will play into the cards of those national affiliates that want to be left alone by their international secretariat. I am worried about this debate as I find our sector lacking any significant power to influence the global agenda. In-fighting about the little power we have will only help those who want to continue overexploiting our planet and endangering our future. However, both the pressure from national affiliates within the ICSO and the pressure from local and national CSOs from the outside may very well work together to weaken ICSOs’ international strategies, structures and impact.

If we add disruption to these centrifugal forces some ICSOs may disintegrate quite fast. For instance, once ICSOs’ traditional intermediary role finally becomes obsolete, and both individual and institutional donors use different channels, their income may go down dramatically. If the ICSO as a whole should not be properly prepared, panic may set in, conflicts between different national affiliates about the best response may arise, and an organisation-wide agreement on a joint response to the income crisis may prove impossible. In such a situation a ‘run for your lives’ feeling may take control with different affiliates following different strategies. Especially in relatively loose federations, national affiliates are likely to prioritise their national interests over the international ones. Such a position will be enforced by the fact that in most ICSOs national governance and management are better equipped than the international ones to take fast decisions followed by consistent action. As a result, the appearance of the organisation may look even more heterogenic than before the crisis. If we go back to the fault lines: in our first scenario all affiliates will prioritise the national over the international perspective. Once that occurs each affiliate will chose whether to take a corporate or an activist way forward and whether to focus on addressing symptoms or causes of the emerging global crisis.

Some years after the disruption takes hold of the ICSO we may find that some affiliates have gone down and disappeared, others have taken a more corporate route addressing the symptoms of the crisis and others may have turned into activists fighting for the transition. Rebuilding one credible and effective ICSO on that basis will be hard if not impossible to do. It is more likely that the organisation will have to accept that they have disintegrated into national organisations and find a way to allocate ownership of the brand and conduct a successful rebranding in the different national contexts. At this point the ICSO will have ceased to exist as a legitimate and effective international actor.

Growing into a global company

Over the last two decades all ICSOs have accepted and applied some corporate knowledge, tools and structures. I remember how we slowly, and with a lot of suspicion, had to learn that, at a certain size, our organisations needed external advice – and that we would have to pay for this. Accepting the help of Boston Consulting Group, Egon Zehnder, PricewaterhouseCoopers and other consultancies which predominantly work for the for-profit sector was quite a challenge for ICSOs, their culture and identity. And with corporate advice came corporate approaches: ICSOs started using IT systems developed for corporate purposes; they adopted corporate bookkeeping, controlling and auditing; their fundraising increasingly borrowed ideas from corporate marketing; they learned to calculate returns on investment; they even hired more and more senior staff with a corporate background. And all of these and many more individual decisions came together to significantly change the character of ICSOs. However, enthusiasm for learning from the corporate sector is very unevenly distributed among the different ICSOs. While the most advanced adopters of corporate know-how today have leadership teams with a majority of senior managers brought in from the for-profit sector, organisations at the other end of the spectrum sometimes still see corporations as the embodiment of evil.

With advancing professionalisation accommodating activism became a growing challenge. Many activists, who usually work on a voluntary non-remunerated basis, complain that the ICSO only wants them to implement decisions the salaried structure has taken or to fulfil tasks employees don’t find the time to take on. In many ICSOs bridging the gap between the salaried and the volunteer part of the organisation has become very difficult. One of the main dividing lines between salaried staff and volunteers is often the different perspective on money. While employees, whose well-planned programmes – and continued employment – depend on the ICSO’s income, are more likely to focus on growing the organisation’s revenues, volunteers often reject income as a benchmark for the organisation’s success. We can assume that with further professionalisation and corporatisation the gap will further widen and finally prove impossible to bridge. At that point the ICSO will have to take the decision whether they want to be corporate or activist. Those organisations which are most advanced in employing corporate approaches are the most likely ones to choose the corporate option.

Here is another reason why I believe that this will be the case: the ‘more corporate’ ICSOs place more importance on growing their income than the ‘more activist’ ones, and focussing on income growth will most likely lead to ever more corporate behaviour. Where will increasing revenues come from? I see three major sources: firstly, in geographical terms Asia, and later Africa, still hold significant resources ICSOs can aim for. Systematically developing new fundraising markets is an approach the most successful ICSOs have followed for a decade or more, and it is likely that this approach will deliver global growth for many years to come. Secondly, governments, large international institutions such as the World Bank, the EU, etc. and major foundations are likely to outsource service delivery on a major scale. Bidding for very large service contracts e.g. for providing health or education or community development services may be a major activity for some ICSOs to expand their sources of income. Thirdly, as the global crisis unfolds and humanitarian crises emerge at an unprecedented level; enormous resources will be made available to manage the disasters and support the victims. ICSOs which globally exploit these sources of income may easily grow to reach a US$ 10 billion level.

When looking at these potential sources of major income we find that all have more to do with mitigating the crisis than with avoiding it. Managing the transition from today’s unsustainable global development path to tomorrow’s sustainable one does not offer obvious sources of major funds. On the contrary, aiming to change the status quo and opposing those who benefit most from the present state of things will endanger existing sources of income immediately while not necessarily opening up new ones. Therefore, ICSOs focussing on financial growth will most probably end up trying to cure the symptoms rather than addressing the causes of the global crisis.

Lately a growing number of donors are running a bidding process to identify the cheapest – and supposedly best – partner for implementing their programmes. And increasingly ICSOs find themselves competing with for-profit companies. As outsourcing of services further increases globally, both in long-term programmes and in short-term emergencies, more companies will enter this market and ICSOs will permanently find themselves in competition with for-profit business. Driven by this competition ICSOs will have to bring their costs down while increasing their efficiency. This will make them look even more like a business. If ICSOs manage to become competitive and regularly outbid business, they will probably face demands from their business competitors to secure a level playing field. Eventually governments may give ICSOs the choice of either giving up their tax-exempt status or being excluded from the bidding process. At this point some ICSOs may decide to turn themselves into for-profit companies rather than losing access to attractive markets.

Coming back to our fault lines: The ICSO we describe here has chosen to go down the corporate path. It eventually accepts losing its activist part and eventually becomes a company. On the way it has decided to address the symptoms of the global crisis rather than driving the transition. So where will this ICSO be on the trajectory between national and international? Providing large scale services will require cooperation with national governments and managing humanitarian crises will also mostly be a national or regional affair. Therefore the ICSO needs to have an effective presence at the national level. At the same time, most of the companies ICSOs will have to compete with will be global entities and economies of scale will often be the decisive factor in winning or losing a contract. Therefore the ICSO may find that, like their business competitors, they need a fully empowered global leadership that may transfer power to the national level as and when required. The predominant features of such an organisation are: addressing the symptoms of the emerging planetary crisis – through a corporate approach – globally (and nationally).

Driving the transition

Most ICSOs started by addressing a specific problem, filling in for a service nobody else would supply such as health service for the victims of war, food for hungry children, homes for the homeless, etc. After working in their field for some years they found themselves still providing the same services to the next generation of suffering people. They started to understand that they were addressing the symptoms and not the causes of the problem. At this point many ICSOs complemented their programme work with advocacy which focussed on the causes. And while the symptoms very much stay the same, recently the causes are increasing in number and complexity. As our planet’s boundaries come into sight the causes become more disturbing. Let us take poverty as an example. To date one of the main reasons for poverty is lack of access to land. In the future the reason will be lack of land. While until now there has been plenty of land which should have been more justly allocated, in a world of 10 or 11 billion people all wanting to live affluent lives, there will just not be sufficient arable land to distribute. Similar points can be made on many other resources.

Environmental and poverty reduction ICSOs will feel the emerging planetary crisis first: how we use our planet’s limited resources will be at least as important as how we grant everybody fair access. Starting with a sober analysis of the emerging planetary crisis those ICSOs may find that their mission obliges them to predominantly address the causes rather than the symptoms of the crisis. Rather than focussing on emergency intervention they will focus on emergency prevention and rather than feeding the hungry they will focus on securing sustainable food supply for today’s and future generations. These organisations will only focus on symptoms if it helps with explaining the causes and with rallying support behind addressing these. It will be interesting to observe ICSOs which are not primarily focused on protecting the environment or fighting poverty. They may feel that they can continue ‘business as usual’ for still some time and it will take enlightened and courageous leadership to move these organisations into transition mode. Possibly the most fascinating sub-sector to observe may be children’s ICSOs. On the one hand they can continue providing education, health services and many other valuable forms of support to today’s children. On the other hand today’s children will be the first generation having to pay for the unsustainable development we continue driving. Saving today’s children while maintaining and promoting an untenable development paradigm isn’t a convincing option. Sooner or later all ICSOs will have to deal with this contradiction.

The ICSO in this scenario will decide that they need to focus on the causes rather than the symptoms. Given the global nature of the causes the organisation needs to have a convincing global strategy and a global structure, which can secure global consistency. Therefore the ICSO will have to allocate power at the global level. Given most ICSOs’ federated structure, with power held predominantly at the national level, this looks like a very tough ask. On the other hand, decades of very limited success in addressing challenges at the global level and the frustrating experiences of so many ICSOs with their federated governance, moving towards a globally focussed approach seems the only way forward. However, addressing the causes of the global crisis requires in-depth changes which the vast majority of existing institutions in all three sectors will be unwilling to support. Like other revolutions before these fundamental changes will have to be driven by civil society activists. This means, only if the ICSO is able to attract a strong activist basis will it be able to contribute to the changes which are required. While power in this organisation resides at the global level it is completely dependent on large numbers of individuals who chose to use the specific organisation in order to further their demands. The power of this organisation is the power to serve.

Given the dimension of the changes ahead, civil society activists on their own will hardly secure the transition. They need allies in the government and business sectors. A key role of the ICSO will be to establish relationships with other actors from the ‘old world’ that are willing to transit into a new reality. Being attractive to large numbers of activists and at the same time being able to partner with progressive forces in the other sector will be one of the hallmarks of the transition ICSO. The predominant features of such an organisation are: addressing the causes of the emerging planetary crisis – through activism – globally (and locally).