Burkhard Gnärig

6 October, 2015

Change is the DNA of our Sector

Change is the DNA of the civil society sector

In the workshops and conferences of the International Civil Society Centre I hear so many stories illustrating how difficult it is to change civil society organisations (CSOs). Most who work in our sector will not be surprised about such complaints, on the contrary, they will have their own stories to add. But shouldn’t we be surprised about our difficulties with change? Isn’t change the very DNA of our sector?

If we look at the vision and mission statements of some of the best known CSOs globally we find change at the very core:

“Towards a civilization of love” – “working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation” – “inspire breakthroughs in the way the world treats children and to achieve immediate and lasting change in their lives” – “we are part of a global movement for change, empowering people to create a future that is secure, just, and free from poverty” – “build a future in which people live in harmony with nature” – “create just and positive change through empowering partnerships and responsible action” – “our interventions aim to achieve large scale, positive changes”.

So, we are all about change. I haven’t seen one single vision or mission statement that expresses the desire to keep things as they are. No: the world is not living up to our expectations. I recently saw an impressive illustration of the challenges we are up against. We are here to take on these challenges and create a better world. Against this background we certainly should be surprised about the wide-spread resistance to change. How can we expect to change the world without being willing to change ourselves? Isn’t our willingness to change ourselves a prerequisite for changing anything else?

I believe it is crucial to explore and explain the connection between the changes our mission expects us to achieve and the changes our organisation has to go through in order to achieve its mission. In the Centre’s work on organisational culture we found that often there is a complete disconnect between the change CSOs want to achieve and the change they are prepared to take upon themselves. In a few weeks’ time the Centre will release a report entitled “Be the Change”, which points to what we believe is key to closing the gap between changing the world and changing our own organisations. Much more important than any impressive theory of change or a convincing argument in a discussion about the need for change is to demonstrate change in our own behaviour, to live and breathe the change we want to see.

A helpful question when determining our organisation’s need for change is: “If we were to found our organisation today, how would we set it up to optimally fulfil its mission?” Usually we do not dare ask this question because we believe that it will lead to answers which are impossible to implement: roles and responsibilities have been firmly allocated and we can’t imagine convincing those who hold power to give part or all of it away; processes and policies have been painfully elaborated and arduously negotiated between conflicting interests, and a better compromise seems impossible to reach; or our business model would not support a significantly different approach and we would quickly run out of money if we undertook the required changes. However, not asking this fundamental question may be even more risky. By failing to identify the “functionality gap” between the organisation we have and the organisation we should have we may miss key signals that disruption is on the way and the days of our organisation are numbered.

Have you recently asked the question: “If we were to found our organisation today, how would we set it up to optimally fulfil its mission?” What was the reaction? Did you follow through with a sober analysis of your organisation’s position or was the question discarded as unrealistic and “not helpful”?

  1. Oliviadj8 October, 2015

    Hi, as someone who has been engaged in change-making for a while and has just joined the conversation here at d&i I would like to point out one major issue here: where you talk of identity, and you mean that the change and the truly rights based CSO needs to be an organization OF the people it means to impact, there`s a huge bling spot here related to language. I`m an English teacher in Brazil, and as many of my colleagues could also tell you, not many people here can speak or understand English at the level this conversation is being held. I truly believe that in order to engage the people who will make CSOs OF them you need to start by speaking their language, both in a practical day-to-day-translate-your-blog approach and in a more abstract one of understanding what bothers these people and how your work can help there.

  2. Burkhard Gnärig8 October, 2015

    Many thanks for your comment. I agree: if CSOs are to become organisations OF they will have to change a lot of their habits and culture including whom they listen and talk to, the way they speak and the language they use.

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