Over the last couple of decades international civil society organisations (ICSOs) have been spectacularly successful. The tangible outcomes of many programmes and the impressive successes of many campaigns and advocacy initiatives brought ICSOs global recognition: Nobel prizes for Amnesty International, Grameen Bank and its founder, Muhammad Yunus, Médecins Sans Frontières and the Red Cross/Red Crescent most prominently document this appreciation. And with this appreciation comes trust. The Edelman Trust Barometer finds: “For the fifth year in a row, NGOs1 are the most trusted institution in the world”.2 Today the leading ICSOs own some of the best known and most respected brands worldwide. Building on their strong global brands many ICSOs have been able to increase their income significantly: During the first decade of this century alone some of the largest ICSOs managed to triple or even quadruple their global income. Today, the largest ICSOs manage budgets of a billion dollars or more. By bringing on board national affiliates from countries of the Global South, and by securing more diversity among their board members and managers, ICSOs have started turning themselves from the Northern entities, as which they have been founded, into ones which better reflect our multi-polar world.

However, an increasing number of indicators suggest that the rise of ICSOs may have reached a peak and that decline may well follow. For example: when asked which stakeholder groups will have the greatest impact on the way they manage societal expectations business leaders considered NGOs much less important than they did a few years ago.3 An increasing number of ICSOs find it difficult to maintain their growth levels and more and more often ICSOs, which for some time seemed to be beyond criticism, find themselves in the midst of public debates about mismanagement, lack of accountability or the level of executive salaries. And even more worrying, disruptive change which may threaten their future existence has arrived at ICSOs’ doorstep.

One of the most obvious threats, especially to service delivery organisations such as CARE or Save the Children, is the possible loss of their intermediation role between donors in the North and recipients4 in the South. During the past few years a number of internet based, ‘virtual’ civil society organisations have emerged offering to link donors and recipients more directly and at much lower costs. It may simply be a question of time before some of the largest ICSOs lose their intermediation role, and with it, a major part of their income. Similarly, due to digital communications, campaigning organisations have lost their un-contested status in mobilising people to engage for change. In recent years many of the most visible campaigns globally have been initiated by individuals or small, loosely connected groups which cleverly used virtual social networks to launch mass movements. In addition, campaigning platforms such as Avaaz or allow people to propose, shape and run campaigns on any issue they feel passionate about, provided they can convince others of their cause. Online activists no longer need the intermediary services of Greenpeace, Amnesty International or other traditional campaigning organisations.

Not all potential disruptions will affect ICSOs, and not all ICSOs will be affected equally, but one disruption will affect all of us: the dramatic consequences of our overexploitation of the earth. The wasteful lifestyles of the industrialised countries of the Global North have taken us to the limits of our planet. We extract more resources than the earth can sustainably supply and we cause more pollution than it can absorb. With continued growth of the world population, and with hundreds of millions joining the global middle classes and adopting wasteful lifestyles, the situation gets more untenable by the day. In 1987, Earth Overshoot Day – the day of the year when humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds our planet’s capacity to regenerate those resources in that year – was 19 December. In the year 2000 it was 1 November and in 2014 it had reached 19 August5. We are living on the savings account of our planet, and this cannot continue for much longer.

Increasingly, citizens are becoming aware of the threats to their own and their children’s future and are starting to take action. Popular movements are gaining traction. We urgently need to develop a civilisation which can sustainably exist within our planet’s boundaries, which promotes a fair distribution of limited resources globally and secures everybody’s basic needs. This requires a paradigm shift of enormous dimensions in all societies globally with a special challenge to – and obligation for – the industrialised countries in the Global North.

Most ICSOs’ missions focus on objectives such as securing human rights, restoring and maintaining peace, protecting nature, overcoming inequality, defending social justice etc. These objectives are all directly and fundamentally threatened by humanity’s present course of action: Growing scarcity of arable land and fresh water threaten the last remaining nature reserves; climate change induced droughts and floods hamper basic food supply and lead to food shortages and price increases, aggravating the plight of the poor; inequalities rise and, as a result, civil unrest spreads more widely and may become more violent. Rather than getting closer to achieving their missions ICSOs have to fear losing much of the progress they have made. Therefore they cannot afford to ignore the new and additional challenges which are piling up in front of them. ICSOs’ impressive success story over the last few decades during which they multiplied their income, influence and impact will not ‘automatically’ continue. A dramatically changing world requires ICSOs to fundamentally rethink all aspects of their work. ICSOs’ future relevance and legitimacy will be determined by their willingness and ability to embrace and drive change.

The question this book looks at is, whether and how civil society organisations, in particular the large international ones, can play a role in helping humanity conduct the required economic, political, social and cultural transition.

Having had the privilege of spending most of my professional life in ICSOs I have experienced and benefited from the dedication, support and friendship of so many colleagues. I have shared the optimism of so many people living in poverty and exploitation, and have been entrusted with their hope and expectations. I have learned about the trust and commitment of so many donors: they all share our dream that a better world is possible and that together we can make it happen. Letting any of these groups down, wasting their commitment and support, is not an option. ICSOs have not fulfilled their missions yet. If they are prepared to embark on a courageous change agenda they will survive and thrive in times of disruption and renewal and they will be able to deliver important contributions to achieving a sustainable, more egalitarian and more peaceful world. If this book can be a small sign post on the way it has achieved its purpose.