Pooling the power to influence

The enormous challenges humanity is confronted with will require equally impressive replies. No government or business, not even the most powerful ones, not to mention CSOs, will be able to tackle them on their own. Major change can only be brought about by a range of key actors working together strategically on the basis of long-term objectives. For ICSOs this means that they have to look beyond their own capacities and find allies in the outside world for the changes they want to contribute to. Developing more effective ways to cooperate – both inside and outside the sector – is a basic condition for ICSOs to fulfil their mission. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines is the most impressive example of what ICSOs can achieve when they work together effectively. Sadly, since the success of that campaign, no other campaign has achieved a comparable breakthrough.

We will first look at the campaign to ban landmines as an example for what our sector can achieve if we are willing to cooperate. Then we will explore why successful joint campaigns are so rare by taking a look at the issue of branding. We will review multi-stakeholder partnerships and ask what we can learn from past failures and successes. We will sketch new forms of cooperation, Transition Alliances, as tools to help bring about the transition to a sustainable and equitable world. And, finally, we will discuss the possibility of mergers as a step towards more effective and influential organisations.

All together now

Opposing war and promoting peace has always been one of the most important objectives of organised civil society. Successes range from Henry Dunant’s fight for the protection of the victims of armed conflicts which lead to the First Geneva Convention, to the successful disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of child soldiers and from the CARE packages which helped Europeans survive after the World War II, to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines which achieved one of the most impressive successes resulting from cooperation between civil society organisations worldwide. The campaign is a good example of what CSOs can achieve if they strategically work together putting their particular interests aside. Here is a brief recap of how the ban on landmines was achieved:

The banning of landmines was initiated and finally brought about by a campaign, which started with a fax between two activists in 1991, leading to a meeting of six CSOs in 1992 and comprising over 1,000 organisations by 1997 when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.56 Even at that time the campaign didn’t have a formal structure or even a bank account to receive the prize money. How did such a loose network of CSOs bring about a significant breakthrough against the powerful interests of the international weapons lobby in only a few short years?

In the early nineties, despite a 1980 UN Convention which had tried to bring these weapons under control, globally some 80-110 million mines had been planted, and every year about 2.5 million new mines were added, while only about 80,000 mines were being cleared. Every month about 2,000 people were either killed or maimed by mines globally. The campaign started by raising global awareness of the size of the problem, systematically working with the media, using emotive messages and the simple demand to ‘ban mines’. It called for consumer boycotts against companies manufacturing mines and systematically lobbied politicians to support a ban. The decision regarding strategies at national level was left to the different national coalitions, and approaches varied widely from country to country. Mine Action Canada started sending letters to different ministries until the government asked them to stop because they couldn’t cope with the quantity of mail. Handicap International and the French Red Cross “created a shoe pyramid in front of the Eiffel Tower to symbolize those who had lost limbs by landmines”.57

As a result of the various national activities several governments started taking measures against landmines ranging from export moratoria to a total ban. In January 1996 the Dutch campaign invited representatives of 22 governments which had shown themselves sympathetic to a ban to a meeting in Geneva. Representatives of eight countries attended: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Mexico, Norway and Switzerland. Participants left the meeting encouraged and with the feeling that as a group of CSOs and governments they could jointly make some progress. As a result of this meeting the Canadian government decided to shift its policy to endorsing a total ban and invited governments and CSOs for a strategic conference. This conference took place in October 1996, a few months after a formal review process of the 1980 UN Convention, which concluded in May of that year, had failed to achieve any significant progress. Fifty countries were officially represented at the conference in Ottawa. On the last day of the meeting   the Canadian Foreign Minister announced that Canada would host a meeting in December 1997 at which governments would be invited to sign a treaty banning landmines. The Austrian government was tasked with preparing a treaty text. And indeed, after a year of frantic negotiations between 2-4 December 1997, 122 countries signed the treaty in Ottawa.

15 years later the campaign can look back on an impressive success: 160 states58 – more than three-quarters of the world’s states – are party to the Mine Ban Treaty. The Landmine Monitor 2012 identifies only one government, Syria, using anti-personnel mines, and in six countries non-state armed groups used mines. The number of new casualties caused by mines decreased to one third of what it was a decade ago. Only four countries are known to still produce anti-personnel mines: India, Myanmar, Pakistan and South Korea but 87 countries have destroyed all anti-personnel mines in their possession, a total of 46 million mines.

What are the key elements of this impressive success? Firstly, a large number of CSOs were prepared and able to work together to initiate and conduct a global campaign on inter-national disarmament. CSOs did not need any formal structure to achieve this success. Cooperation was voluntary, flexible and used a broad range of campaigning and advocacy tools. Different national coalitions approached the issue very differently, devising the best possible campaign for their specific national situation. And there was a functioning global coordination, drawing all the different elements together. Secondly, CSOs managed to capture the global imagination with stories and pictures of human suffering and the simple message “ban landmines”. This led to a global stigmatisation of mines. The resulting public pressure was sufficient to motivate some governments, which had no major stake in mine production or use, to take this issue forward and initiate the process towards an international treaty. Thirdly, CSOs and governments worked together at a new level of partnership. The process of devising this treaty took place in a spirit of mutual acceptance and cooperation between those governments and CSOs which were driving the ban. The Nobel Committee saw this cooperation as “a model for similar processes in the future.”59 And fourthly, the resulting treaty was different from most international conventions, it was clear and concrete and left little room for signatories to avoid full implementation. This was achieved by a negotiation process which prioritised the “total ban on landmines” over accommodating states which were not ready to support a total ban.

Sadly, the Nobel Committee’s hope that this campaign would become a model for future campaigns has not yet been fulfilled. There are a number of obvious reasons why such a unique and uniquely successful cooperation between a number of governments and a broad coalition of CSOs could not easily come about a second time; the emergence of strong global ICSO brands is one of them.

Admirable brands hamper effective cooperation

Many of today’s best known ICSOs have been working internationally for several decades, however, their names were usually only known in the neighbourhoods of their programmes or fundraising activities. Global brands were limited to the corporate sector and brand awareness and ideas of brand value in our sector were either non-existent or very patchy. Only with the successful global campaigns of Amnesty International and Greenpeace has this started to change. Some ICSOs developed global brands without specifically aiming for this and found themselves in a world which so far had been determined by the corporate sector. There was, and partly still is, a significant degree of scepticism about the pitfalls of branding. Nathalie Kylander and Christopher Stone, who interviewed a number of CSO leaders, list four main concerns60: the concept of branding is closely related to the commercial world where brand is often elevated over substance; brand management draws clear limits to what an organisation can and cannot do and thus limits space for discussions and fosters top-down management; branding can serve “the vanity of an organization’s leadership rather than the needs of the organization”; and, finally, “that one organization’s powerful brand will overshadow weaker brands, reinforcing rather than correcting imbalances of power among partners”.

While some of the scepticism towards branding still exists, today the benefits of owning a strong global brand have become obvious: It strengthens the brand owner’s influence and impact globally and supports motivation and cohesion internally. “At every step in an organization’s strategy and at each juncture in its theory of change, a strong brand is increasingly seen as critical in helping to build operational capacity, galvanize support, and maintain focus on the social mission”61. There is only a handful of ICSOs which own a globally recognised brand, but all of them are very aware of the value of their brand and are ready to defend and promote it.

But this increase in the global influence of individual organisa-tions may be weakening our sector as a whole. In 2011 a study commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ex-amined the reasons why in recent years no really successful global campaigns have emerged. One of the main reasons for the lack of success it identified is an increasing reluctance, especially by the larger ICSOs, to prioritise a campaign brand over their own brand: “The overriding reason for deciding not to build a joint brand is competition between existing brands. This may be competition over funding, influence or visibility, but in all cases it leads to strong incentives to promote one’s own organisational or campaign brand rather than an alternative collective one. This motivation is far from strategic, but it is one that cannot be ignored given the need for individual organisations to build themselves.”62

Kylander and Stone try to overcome this dilemma by introducing the concept of ‘brand affinity’ as part of their proposal on how to manage CSO brands: “Brand affinity means that the brand is a good team player, working well alongside other brands, sharing space and credit generously, and promoting collective over individual interests. An organization with strong brand affinity attracts partners and collaborators because it lends value to the partnerships without exploiting them. (…) Organizations with the highest brand affinity promote the brands of their partners as much as or more than they promote their own brands, redressing rather than exploiting the power imbalances that inevitably exist in any partnership or collaboration.”63 This may be the best conceptual approach to overcome the dilemma of strong brands hampering the cooperation with others and endangering the success of joint campaigns. However, a change of behaviour will only occur if ICSOs can see tangible benefits from cooperation outweighing their branding considerations. One constellation in which this could be the case is a strategic partnership with an organisation which does not compete directly with the ICSO’s brand. For example, Greenpeace and Global Witness could join forces on specific campaigns with Global Witness providing research of a quality Greenpeace may find difficult to reach and Greenpeace securing much better visibility for the campaign. Another option would be a truly ambitious campaign which would be visible enough to provide several ICSOs with sufficient exposure. However, if we look at the meagre success of the latest joint campaigns we note that the top brands do not seem to have fully embraced this pers-pective yet.

Multi-stakeholder partnerships

The concept of multi-stakeholder partnerships can already be found in the Agenda 21 adopted by the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Ten years later, at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg the concept re-emerged as a central element for the implementation of the summit’s outcomes. In the follow-up to the summit, a registry was set up where over 340 multi-stakeholder partnerships registered themselves. In 2012 a group of researchers examined these partnerships.64 They found that only about 20% of the partnerships were successful. In a paper written for the Centre they review the causes of the failures and successes, and provide guidance for creating successful multi-stakeholder partnerships.65 One of the main reasons why partnerships fail is the lack of commitment by some or all of the partners: “approximately 40 percent have no measurable output”. This means, after having been launched, often with great fanfare, nothing more has happened. Another main reason is lack of resources: without personnel specifically dedicated to coordinating the partnership and securing the implementation of decisions, the probability of failure is very high. Unclear goals, lack of an effective conflict resolution mechanism and lack of transparency and accountability are other reasons why multi-stakeholder partnerships fail.

Avoiding these mistakes and learning from successful partnerships will increase the probability of building more effective multi-stakeholder partnerships in the future. The paper identifies nine building blocks for successful multi-stakeholder partnerships66:


1. Leadership

  • Create momentum
  • Guide process
  • Foster group cohesion

2. Partners

  • Combine the right resources and skills
  • Create comparative advantage
  • Prioritize inclusiveness


3. Goal-setting

  • Create common vision and goals
  • Ensure high ambitions and precision
  • Align with global goals and norms

4. Funding

  • Seek innovative funding solutions
  • Diversify funding sources
  • Monitoring, reporting, evaluation and learning

5. Management

  • Establish independent Secretariat
  • Invest in full-time professional staff
  • Ensure professional process management

6. Monitoring, reporting, evaluation and learning

  • Strive for transparency
  • Create robust and measurable indicators
  • Learn from mistakes and adapt behaviour


7. Meta-governance

  • Set minimum criteria for partnerships
  • Entrust institution with vetting procedures
  • Explore linkages with partnerships

8. Problem structure

  • Acknowledge differences in problems
  • Adapt expectations
  • Design according to problem structure

9. Political & social context

  • Identify problems (e.g. corruption)
  • Engage in capacity building
  • Chose most favourable context

Given the challenges ahead ICSOs on their own do not have enough power to significantly influence the future turn of events. They need partners in the other sectors, meaning that multi-stakeholder partnerships will be an indispensable instrument. Using the nine building blocks when setting up future partner-ships will help raise the success rate considerably.

At the Centre we are in the process of developing a concept which builds on the findings of the paper on multi-stakeholder partnerships. We hope to lay the ground work for Transition Alliances as a specific form of cooperation which aims to drive the transition towards global sustainability. The following chapter is based on a concept paper I wrote for the Centre.

Transition Alliances

In civil society, government and business we can find actors – both individuals and organisations – that have understood that ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option and they are undertaking steps towards sustainability. These pioneers are still a minority, but by working together in Transition Alliances, across sector limits, strategically aligning their different roles and contributing their different skills and resources they could significantly increase their impact and effectiveness. Transition Alliances aim to be a collective problem-solving process which can be used for a range of different challenges. The idea of Transition Alliances will take shape and mature as these alliances emerge and start functioning. However, some key principles can already be identified:

Synchronising roles – leveraging strengths

The transition towards a sustainable world needs to be achieved through a well-orchestrated change in values, lifestyles and consumption, extraction, production and trade, political, social and economic frameworks. How effectively we intertwine progress in the different fields will very much define how fast we will be able to proceed. To advance the transition, the pioneers in the different sectors will need to work together much more strategically. Let’s illustrate this with an example: We could identify a number of companies that aim to produce more sustainably but cannot do so because such a step would increase their costs and thus hamper their competitiveness. To enable them to change their production they need changes in the legal/tax framework and/or in consumer’s demand. A Transition Alliance could try to synchronise the different changes: Business changes the goods they produce or the way in which goods are produced, lobbies government to adapt legal or tax provisions and advocates for more sustainable consumption. Government – e.g. a group of politicians, a political party or a ministry – drafts new laws or decrees and lobbies political decision makers for change. CSOs campaign for change in individual consumption and/or change of legal or tax provisions.

Identify ambitious targets which none of the actors/sectors can achieve on their own

Transition Alliances should set themselves targets which no partner or sub-group of partners can reach on their own but which demand major and persistent efforts from all involved. They need to include experts in defining the targets and in shaping the strategies towards achieving these. They need to identify and agree specific roles and commitments for each participant.

Raise the entry bar for potential partners: only fully committed partners are welcome

Transition Alliances should precisely define required commitments for entering the partnership. Pledging significant financial contributions, committing to change crucial policies, and individuals changing their personal behaviour are among the possible barriers to keep partners out that are not fully committed. The commitments should be demanding and strategically linked to the partnership’s main objectives.

Secure transparency and accountability as basis for learning and optimising impact

Even if the objectives are clear and all partners are fully committed, partnerships will come across stumbling blocks, misunderstandings will occur and mistakes will be made. Therefore, identifying both challenges and opportunities early, and clearly, is essential to avoiding failure and securing success. Full trans-parency and accountability of all partners against the objectives of the partnership are critical for steering the joint efforts towards success. Transparency and accountability are also an essential basis for building trust among all partners of the Transition Alliance.

Living change – demanding change

With the concrete examples they set, Transition Alliances can illustrate the transition process from our unsustainable economy and lifestyles towards sustainable ones. By embarking on the required change they show that movement towards sustainable approaches is possible and generates success. This may encourage others to join in with their own transition efforts. By living the change, Transition Alliances also acquire the legitimacy to demand change from others. Showing, by their own example, what can be achieved and demanding governments, business and CSOs to join in is the essential role of Transition Alliances. By moving first and taking the lead they set the agenda and pave the way.

The UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study on Sustain-ability 2013, which interviewed “more than 1,000 top executives from 27 industries across 103 countries” finds: “There is strong and vocal support among CEOs for governments to play a leading role in shaping the landscape for sustainability at global, national and local levels: 83% of CEOs see an increase in efforts by governments and policymakers to provide an enabling environment for the private sector as integral to advancing sustainability. Some 85% of CEOs demand clearer policy and market signals to support green growth, and, in the context of the discussions on the United Nations post-2015 development agenda, 81% of executives emphasize the need for governments to set a policy framework for ‘economic development within the planetary boundaries of environmental and resource con-straints’ for the global economy. Business leaders believe that only with greater government intervention – at global, national and local levels – can sustainability move from sporadic incremental advances to a collective and transformative im-pact.”67 OK, if this is true: let’s get these 81% of the interviewed business leaders into the room and let us work with them to push governments to create an effective framework for sustainable business.

Merge with the right strategic partner

In business, mergers are a well-established tool for companies to achieve their strategic objectives. Mergers are complex, risky and not always successful but companies are prepared to accept these downsides because the potential gains are significant. In comparison, mergers among CSOs are very rare. Why is this so? Let me tell you about two failed merger discussions among ICSOs. Both took place during my time at Save the Children.

When I started at Save the Children the organisation had had a stagnating income for many years. Other children’s organisations were growing and Save the Children was in danger of losing its position as one of the leading organisations in the sector. We had to take the organisation back on a growth path. We decided to develop new affiliates in some of the key markets we were not present in. However, starting Save the Children in countries like Germany, Italy, Switzerland and others was costly and not without risk: was there a more effective way to grow? We looked at potential strategic partners and identified terre des hommes as the best suited organisation. A children’s rights organisation like Save the Children with a very similar profile and supporters and partners coming from similar communities, terre des hommes was strong in markets where Save the Children was not present and weak in those with a Save the Children affiliate. The case for a merger was obvious: together we would be an impressive force in practically all fundraising markets; at project level the potential for economies of scale was impressive and in advocacy we would be the clear leader in the field of children’s rights worldwide. Together we could deliver infinitely more for children.

As the ex-CEO of terre des hommes Germany I still had good connections with the organisation and I explored their interest in merger talks: Wouldn’t it be great to join forces rather than engage in increased competition as Save the Children considered entering some of their key markets? Both sides established delegations consisting of their global and a number of their key national CEOs, and discussions started. After about one year of intensive negotiations we reached agreement on the terms of a merger: We would form a Save the Childrenterre des hommes Alliance, merge the global secretariats, merge national affiliates in the countries where both organisations were present and keep the name of the stronger organisation in each country. For example, in the USA and UK we would be Save the Children and in Germany, Italy and Switzerland we would be terre des hommes. Both delegations would present the plan to their global assemblies and ask for approval. Once both sides had given their formal OK the merger would start. Sadly, the terre des hommes assembly rejected our plan and Save the Children proceeded to develop its own national affiliates in key terre des hommes markets.

Some years later the US affiliates of Save the Children and Plan International had been sitting together discussing a merger and had come to the conclusion that such a step would be very effective, but that it could only be undertaken if it included their global organisations. Once again delegations were formed and negotiations were launched. The win-win situation was similarly clear as in the previous case: Save the Children had only one major affiliate which was running child sponsorship program-mes. All other affiliates were delivering their support in different formats. In Plan everybody focused on child sponsorship and they had a central implementation unit which brought costs down. If the Save the Children US sponsorship programmes could be run under the Plan administration, significant cost savings would be possible. On the other hand Plan was in the process of exploring additional forms for delivering its support. In this field Plan would benefit enormously from using the tools and channels Save the Children had developed over many years. In addition, Save the Children had an enviable position in global advocacy while Plan was just starting to develop such capacities. What a great opportunity to do much more for children globally! However, this opportunity was also rejected and until today not a single merger between major ICSOs has occurred. Silo-thinking and the preference of national affiliates to remain independent may be the main reasons for this failure.

If ICSOs are serious about their missions they will not be able to disregard mergers forever. If conducted professionally and on the basis of a clear win-win proposition, mergers will secure more strategic clout as a basis for delivering more impact. As change accelerates, and increasingly affects the traditional basis of ICSOs’ operations, another perspective on mergers will come into play. Mergers with, or acquisitions of, one of the innovative CSO start-ups may help ICSOs develop the skills and techniques required to successfully operate under changing conditions. Virtual CSOs, social enterprises or a combination of both may be attractive partners in a merger which delivers new technologies and innovative culture to the ICSO and scale and implementation capacity to the start-up CSO. When seen in the context of our reflections on the opportunities and threats coming with disruptive change, such a step would help ICSOs to diversify their business models and become better prepared to cope with in-depth changes. For the ICSO to benefit from such a merger or acquisition it will be essential to integrate the new part of the organisation in such a way that it can unfold its potential to challenge and change the existing approaches and culture. Embracing the newcomer all too tightly may destroy its potential to affect change.

Recently I discussed the option of a merger with a CEO of one of the fastest growing virtual CSOs. His perspective: “We founded our organisation as an alternative to the traditional ICSO. Why would we want to engage in a merger which may destroy our specific qualities and tie us to approaches which are on the decline? I would rather wait for a few more years and have the merger then on our conditions.” For ICSOs that may mean that they have to invest much more in developing their own virtual entities – or platforms which are shared between a number of them – to complement their capacities in the field with a state-of-the-art presence on the web.