From an organisation ‘for’ to an organisation ‘of’

What we have discussed in this chapter is nothing less than a complete reinvention of ICSOs: They need to identify and implement a whole range of new business models, they need to undergo in-depth culture change which will question some of their core values, they need to drastically reduce their governance, streamline their management and empower their activists, they need to become fully transparent and accountable in line with external demand, they need to get out of their silos and engage in alliances both inside and outside the sector. In short, they have to give up control in order to gain more influence.

I believe that the very foundations our sector rests upon are eroding and that we have to take note of the process and react. The concept of charity demands that those who have food, clothes, housing and other essential resources share with those who don’t. This laid the foundations for the donor-recipient rela-tionship development cooperation has at its core. Most ICSOs have been founded in that mould: development ICSOs collect money from the rich and pass it on to the poor, human rights organisations rally support from citizens in democracies for the oppressed in dictatorships, children’s and young people’s charities are run by adults who care for the young, disability organisations raise support from the ‘able-bodied’ for the ‘dis-abled’, etc. Most ICSOs are organisations ‘for’ a so-called target group and not organisations ‘of’ those who face a specific challenge.

However, two developments are questioning this perspective: the emergence of rights-based approaches in the wake of the human rights movement and the communications revolution brought about by the internet. At the very start of my time with Save the Children, we had a discussion about the future. We had the ambition to reinvent the organisation and our discussion was courageous and bold. This lead to a point where one participant proposed to drop the name ‘Save the Children’ as it expressed a paternalistic way of seeing children and was not in line with the children’s rights perspective the organisation was standing for: children should be the masters of their fate and we could only support, but not save them. After some seconds of silence the discussion resumed and people tried to argue us out of our dilemma: we considered ourselves a children’s rights organisation and definitely not a charity, but our name clearly had its roots in the organisation’s charitable beginnings. Today all major children’s organisations have embraced the concept of children’s rights and the wider human rights community has established a global understanding of basic rights which have to be guaranteed to every human being worldwide and not offered as an act of charity. The moral obligation of the rich to be charitable and share with the poor has been superseded by the legal rights of the poor to a fair share. Many ICSOs talk about empowering women, children, minorities, the poor, etc. and most pride themselves on doing ‘rights-based programming’. Clearly, they have started the journey towards becoming an organisation ‘of’.

With digital communication and the empowerment of the individual as one of the consequences, this trend is being reinforced. Increasingly poor and oppressed people around the world obtain the means to organise themselves and fight for their rights. They don’t wait for ICSOs to come to their rescue. More and more children and young people form their own organisations, and reject being told by older persons what is right and wrong for them. The times where donors were in control, setting the terms of the cooperation which the recipient had to comply with, are coming to an end. The internet generation is rejecting the concept of organisation ‘for’ and replaces it with organisation ‘of’. Arguments which I still hear today such as: “those whose human rights are under threat are too directly affected to be able to judge objectively, and therefore they cannot be on our board” or: “people under 30 are too inexperienced to run our governance” reflect a – possibly well-meaning – but definitely paternalistic perspective. In times of empowerment of the individual and disintermediation, organisations ‘for’ probably will be replaced by organisations ‘of’ and those aiming to control must make room for those aiming to influence.