Chapter 4: Choosing influence over control

All major ICSOs are well-established institutions. They have a formal hierarchical set-up with a clear – even though not always effective – allocation of tasks and responsibilities, a management structure with a CEO or Executive Director at the top, governing bodies that supervise the management and set the organisation’s strategic parameters and a brand they build and protect. ICSOs follow the rules of good governance, standards of accountability, labour, tax and charity laws and an impressive set of internal rules and regulations. They have employees, members, activists, partners and donors – all with a clear brief about the role they are expected to play in the organisation. Everybody is either part of the organisation or not – there is no in-between. ICSOs aim to control everything that happens and everybody who works under their name. I remember a fight I had with a group of volunteers who partnered with an organisation from a country our ICSO did not formally work in. We considered this as unacceptable and spent a lot of time trying to stop the group doing supposedly good work which just happened to be outside our self-defined range. Demarcating ICSOs so clearly promoted a silo mentality inside the organisation. Programmes, campaigns, advocacy, fundraising and finance, or the different local and regional activist structures, or the different national affiliates: all of them have created their own silos. And the silo mentality gets in the way of effective cooperation. Who in the sector hasn’t witnessed paralysing conflicts between different departments, vicious fights between different groups of activists, open disagreements between different national affiliates?

On the other hand we hear a lot of complaints that the present generation of potential activists, unlike their predecessors, do not enter into long-term commitments. They are not keen on becoming part of one of our silos. They rather engage on open platforms where they can come and go as they like and are not tied into commitments they haven’t determined themselves. As a consequence, many ICSOs are running out of activists. Digital communication has empowered individuals to spontaneously create their own platform for cooperation. They no longer need to choose between different existing institutions. Occupy, protests in Turkey and the ‘Arab Spring’ are examples of dynamic movements which took shape without the basis of an established institution. Rather than waiting for the present generation of activists to change their minds and come back into ICSOs’ existing structures – which they will not do anyway – ICSOs need to come out of their silos and attract support by turning themselves into open platforms set up in such a way that they are attractive to today’s activists.

At the same time as the activist base of many ICSOs shrinks the challenges ahead are increasing. Coming to grips with global poverty and growing inequality, with climate change and other planetary boundaries is an ‘all out’ affair. It means rallying support throughout our societies and not just inside the ICSO. It means providing a platform accessible to all those who want to come on board, and that again means providing opportunities for co-shaping the transition. However, accepting that an open platform of many unrelated individuals co-defines the organisation’s direction is an enormous challenge for any established organisation, their board, management and staff. It means sharing power and relinquishing control.

The sea change we are aiming for will not happen inside our silos. However, getting out of our silos and building open platforms would not only increase ICSOs’ potential reach and influence but it would also mean foregoing much of the control of their activities, strategy and brand. But if they are willing to trade in much of the control on the direction of their organisation for greater influence and impact, they may be able to contribute significantly to driving the transition. In the following chapters we will explore five main building blocks of a future ICSO aiming to drive the transition towards a sustainable fair and equitable world.