Helene Wolf

5 June, 2018

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. This phrase came up more than once, when the Centre for the first time brought together three groups of global leaders from international civil society organisations (ICSOs): Programme, Policy and Operations Directors who met for two and a half days in Berlin to discuss and learn together how to increase the impact of their work and their organisations.

The conversations, both in the plenary and in the three separate peer groups, confirmed that most ICSOs are undergoing fundamental changes within their structures, funding models and ways of working. This requires massive efforts from all parts of the organisation, including the moving or dispersing of international headquarters, new governance structures or the reorganisation of entire divisions.

But first and foremost it requires a very different culture within our organisations to bring the new systems to life and achieve the long-term change we aim for. The importance of organisational culture has been part of the Centre’s discussions around transformational change in the past years. As most organisations now have advanced on their change journeys, the question moves to the forefront of the agenda.

The crisis around safeguarding is one devastating example that it is not enough to have sufficient policies and processes in place if they are not fully embraced, practised and enforced by all parts of the organisation. But also the ambitious goals of many organisations to work closer to the ground, collaborate more with partners and deliver on the key promise of the Sustainable Development Goals to leave no one behind require very different approaches to collaboration and ways of working.

The three groups of leaders at different points in their meetings started to unpack what this means for their roles, their teams and their wider organisations: How do we create the spaces for the challenging and uncomfortable conversations we need to have in order to move forward? How do we work together differently in our respective roles to stop the cases where power has been abused both internally and externally? What kind of leadership is needed for the kind of organisations we want to be? How can we support each other in this work?

Culture change is certainly the hardest part of any change process. People have to change their behaviours: Some have to give up or share their power, others have to step up and claim their space and leaders have to set the new framework and live by it every single day.

Only if we think through the needed changes in culture more consciously and make it a key part of our strategic planning and implementation, we can truly reap the benefits of our ambitious change agendas. If we can match our strategic visions and implementation with a culture that is truly global, representative and transparent, this can also contribute to our legitimacy and narrative about the change we want to achieve in times when civil society is under heavy scrutiny and pressure.

Strategy and culture should have breakfast together – poverty, inequality and injustice should be on the menu.

Laura Guzman

29 May, 2018

As inboxes full of updated privacy notice emails can attest, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is here. The GDPR is the EU’s regulation on data protection, which came into force on May 25th and grants individuals greater knowledge of and control over their personal data. As a regulation, it is a binding legislative act, not just a directive, and will be directly binding and applicable in EU member states.

Civil society organisations face unique, sometimes daunting challenges to implementing the GDPR. Some of these challenges are specific to the GDPR, but most relate more broadly to how we interact with technology and data as a sector. Facing each challenge thoughtfully will help us think more clearly about what we’re doing and how we can do things better in future, not just for the GDPR but for our constituents, too.  

At its core, the GDPR means we can no longer gather personal data “just in case”, and that we must clearly articulate why we need to collect and store it. The Engine Room’s work focuses on supporting civil society to increase their impact through strategic, responsible use of data and technology. The attention on the GDPR has given us a lot of opportunities to continue developing and sharing these intentional approaches.

Think about the long-term strategy

Treating GDPR compliance as a one-off endeavour is a potential pitfall facing NGOs tackling implementation. As it stands, NGOs may already be pursuing technology and data projects in one-off bursts, without considering ongoing tool maintenance or how technology integrates into existing work. We’ve long advocated for taking a more critical and strategic approach to implementing technology and data projects, and think that there is a lot to be gained from doing the same when it comes to the GDPR.

By taking the time now to build strong processes, we can support our organisations’ data governance processes well into the future. Creating processes – like guidance documents on regularly deleting data you don’t need (after considering its value carefully!) or steps for responding to a data breach – can be much more valuable than any one-off checklist. Thinking about compliance as an attitudinal shift, not a single-day project, is key.

Strong operations create strong programmes

Some organisations may see GDPR as an ‘operational’ issue that is peripheral to their overall mission and de-prioritise it as a result. There is a long history of operational issues receiving less attention and fewer resources within the sector. This happens both because organisations lack operations-focused staff with the necessary skills, and because funders are not always willing to provide core funding for organisational development.

When implementing the GDPR, it can be helpful to dedicate an internal point-person (or team) to managing the process of compliance. It might be useful to establish an explicit internal prioritisation of operational tasks, and have a conversation with funders about the necessity of this prioritisation. In our case, it meant creating internal educational documents and templates that would help the entire organisation understand the importance of the GDPR and how it will enhance our work going forward. No matter what, it means realising that strong operations, policies and practices are fundamental to building strong programmes and achieving our mission(s).

Advantages to being an NGO

One of the great (but tricky) things about the GDPR is that it’s cross-organisational. It affects all data held – whether for finance purposes, communications or programmatic work – and it affects the activities of technology teams. That’s to say, it’s complex.

But so are the challenges that civil society organisations tackle. We’re already mapping information flows, connecting disparate ideas and trying to increase collaboration, sometimes on a daily basis. These same tools are critical in continued adherence with the GDPR. At The Engine Room, we managed this kind of GDPR-specific collaboration by creating things like an audit document that outlines everywhere we hold personal data, how we collect it and who is involved. This required input from every corner of our organisation, and sparked conversations that are continuing today.

The GDPR also provides an opportunity to look outside of our organisations to find new ideas and collaborators. There are many existing networks that bridge NGOs and technology, and the GDPR offers an opportunity to both grow these and create new ones. As one example close to us, the GDPR has popped up on the responsible data mailing list, a space where people share challenges and develop best practices to prioritise the rights of those reflected in the data we hold. It also was the topic of a community call, which highlighted both shared concerns and resources. The eCampaigning Forum (ECF), a network of practitioners using digital media for advocacy, also has a very active mailing list where the GDPR has been under detailed discussion.  

What’s next?

Thinking about the GDPR is a valuable opportunity for many NGOs to consider our data in a more holistic way. By placing the GDPR within a larger context of building responsible data practices, we can increase the effectiveness of our projects and better serve our partners and the communities we work with and for. After all, it isn’t just about the GDPR itself, but about the ethical management of the data we hold.

To take this broader approach, it’s important to find communities that perhaps work in a similar area as yours and who also want to make their responsible data practices an ongoing project. For specifics, see a little bit of what we’re doing about implementation. Remember to document, document, document, as demonstrating an intent to prioritise the data rights of individuals will always be a good thing to have in your favour. Use the GDPR as an excuse to do a ‘spring clean’, and take stock of your work, but also make sure to think about how it interacts with your long-term processes.

The GDPR presents a challenge for many resource-strapped organisations, but it is one that we can all face together. With collaboration and coordination, we hope that its implementation will be a positive step for the sector’s long-term tech and data projects.

Wolfgang Jamann

22 May, 2018

This blog first appeared in German on Xing.com 

Oxfam, Save the Children, Weisser Ring – charitable organisations are not immune to cases of sexual assault and abuses of power. Is that surprising? Common sense tells us that it’s not, that of course these institutions reflect the problems that exist elsewhere in society. Morally, however, this knowledge is harder to digest than, say, the faults in the glittering world of Hollywood or in Germany’s media and film industries.

We naturally place high expectations on moral authorities such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that support the weak of this world. Much like doctors, they should aim to do no one any harm, comply with high ethical standards and set an example in doing so, and keep their actions somewhat removed from the worldly profane. Money, power and exploitation have no business here. MORE

Wolfgang Jamann

24 April, 2018

Would you rather lead us into famine response in South Sudan, or into the jungle of digitalisation? This hypothetical question to international civil society leaders (CEOs and Chairs) was looming over last week’s annual retreat organised by the Centre, and the active attendance confirmed their courage and curiosity to engage in uncovering what this megatrend means, not just for civil society organisations, but also to their top brass.

Getting an understanding of what digitalisation means for our sector is always a good starting point. In most recent surveys, the high level of importance of digitalisation for our work is coupled with an extremely low readiness to understand and embrace this development.

You get, however, very quickly that this is not something that one can ‘compartmentalise’, or delegate down to the Chief Information Officer or the Head of IT. Every aspect of our work, from fundraising and communications to better participation in program decisions, and finding new solutions to problems of poverty, marginalisation and environmental issues, can ideally benefit from digital tools, and requires a basic understanding at the level of decision makers. MORE

Burkhard Gnärig

17 April, 2018

This Q&A blog first appeared on Dóchas – The Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organisations’ website. It appeared as part of a series of blogs published in the lead up to their conference, Changing the Narrative: Building Support for Global Development – which will take place on Thursday 3 May in the Croke Park Conference Centre.

Some public opinion polls suggest that there is a significant lack of public trust in NGOs. What is the number one thing NGOs should be doing to regain public trust?

Trust is the bridge that links what we preach with what we practice. The larger the distance between our words and deeds, the more fragile the bridge of trust that connects both is. The recent scandals about sexual misconduct in some of the largest and most trusted organisations in our sector is a telling example of how the discrepancy between our statements and actions dramatically erodes trust. “The number one thing” civil society organisations (CSOs) should do to regain and preserve trust is to narrow the gap between what we preach and what we practice to an absolute minimum. In cleaning up the mess of the recent scandal, it is not sufficient to create some new structures, policies and working groups. We need a fundamental transformation of our sector’s male dominated culture, career paths and leadership. MORE

Mouna Ben Garga and Ngozi Izuora

3 April, 2018

Growing up in the 1980s in Tunisia, hailed as a modern society, International Women’s Day was a long day of celebrations staged by President Ben Ali’s regime while his police tortured and harassed women in prisons.

Many states are known for their strategy to exploit women’s rights for political purposes. But, the international community practices are not that different either–not to the same end for sure. If international NGOs (INGOs) keep using the strategies and approaches they are using now to fight against gender inequality, progress on gender parity will surely grind to a halt and we will need another 200 years to close the gap. MORE

Thomas Howie

30 January, 2018

The International Civil Society Centre is hosting its second Innovators Forum on 27-28 February 2018. The Forum will explore the benefits and possible uses of Blockchain and Big Data in the civil society sector. Before the Forum, guest authors will dive into specific examples or innovations around digitalisation and digital technology, in this week’s blog we want to give a brief overview of the main terms and some examples of their uses.

Many CSOs around the world have realised the potential linked to both Blockchain and Big Data and are currently experimenting with how these technologies can support their work.

Big Data – what is that?

The term Big Data refers to extremely large datasets that can be analysed for trends and correlations by connecting different data on a large scale. Due to the size and complexity of the data sets used, new links and patterns can be uncovered. This means that problems that were previously not possible – or simply too complex! – to explain can now be tackled. Most CSOs work with Big Data to improve knowledge about marginalised or ignored groups of people and to identify better ways to serve them. Here are three examples how: MORE

Burkhard Gnärig

2 January, 2018

One year ago I reviewed the political environment in which civil society had to act and drew some conclusions for the year 2017. I expressed my expectation that “we will not succumb to Brexit and Trump” and demanded: “We urgently need to come together in a powerful global movement to defend tolerance against the intolerant, pluralism and the rule of law against authoritarianism, and our future as a global community against chauvinism and xenophobia.” What has happened in this respect over the past twelve months?

Oppressing citizens’ freedoms has become mainstream

As I write these lines the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, announces that he will not seek a second term in office due to the “appalling” climate for human rights advocacy. From our own work on citizens’ rights, we know exactly what he means: during the past year several activists who worked with us and signed the Civic Charter were imprisoned, and many citizens and their organisations suffered from increased oppression and persecution. To name just one example: ActionAid Uganda, with a very impressive history of concrete achievements in the country, suffers from a range of oppressive measures by the government including their offices being raided by the police and their bank accounts frozen.

The ethic of solidarity is being replaced by the “survival of the fittest” MORE

Burkhard Gnärig

12 December, 2017

When civil society organisations (CSOs) speak about power they usually refer to the power of others, and they refer to power in negative terms: power is used to oppress and exploit, power corrupts. However, such a simplistic and prejudiced understanding of power is an obstacle to CSOs’ endeavours to achieve their missions. Our sector needs to change its understanding of power in order to increase its effectiveness.

Embracing POWER as a positive concept

When looking up the definition of power in a dictionary we find that power is simply “the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way”[1]. Power as such is neither positive nor negative. It is necessary in order “to do something”, be it good or bad. This means CSOs need power to achieve the positive aims they are working for. They are part of the eternal power struggle between good and bad, egotism and altruism, short-term gains and long-term sustainability, etc. In this context it is not only necessary for CSOs to strive for maximum power, it is ethically desirable, as long as CSOs use their power consistently and effectively to attain their mission. MORE

Isabelle Buechner

5 December, 2017

Never-ending news alerts inform us almost daily that Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are coming under intense scrutiny, or are even shut down, by governments around the world. Civic space is shrinking, and we as a sector, have to take measures not just as an immediate response, but also have to set up our organisations in a way so they can resist such scrutiny and action. To cope with this task CSOs need to be transparent and accountable, which enhances the trust they publicly gain. More so, CSOs need to go beyond simple housekeeping exercises and implement the voices of all their stakeholders in decision-making processes: This is what we call Dynamic Accountability.

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