Burkhard Gnärig

9 June, 2015

Conducting transformative change

The conditions under which most civil society organisations (CSOs) work are changing fast: persistent poverty requires new approaches, rising inequality generates conflicts, fast growing middle classes increase the pressure on scarce planetary resources, climate change progresses unabatedly and biodiversity is under threat; shrinking political space limits CSOs’ room for manoeuvre, the Internet disrupts traditional forms of communication and digitisation in general affects most aspects of their work; aging supporters and changing expectations of the younger ones challenge CSOs’ financial basis. These and many other changes occurring in parallel mean that CSOs need to change fast and fundamentally in order to stay relevant and attain their missions.


Those CSOs which have been around for a long time may argue that change in their operating environment has always happened and that they have always had to adapt. However, what we observe today is that the quality of change is changing. Firstly, the speed and complexity of change have increased and continue to increase significantly. Secondly, in a situation where we consume more resources than our planet can sustainably provide and emit more pollution than it can absorb, change needs to transcend the limits of our reigning paradigm: unlimited growth on a limited planet doesn’t add up. This means, incremental change which aims to gradually adapt single aspects to the demands of a changing world does not look like a convincing approach. CSOs need to move from incremental change to transformative change.

Incremental Change: Traditional forms of conducting change (not only) in CSOs start with the observation of a malfunction in the organisation’s workings: decision making is too slow and complicated, managers are overburdened with too many tasks, information flows don’t run smoothly, etc. In short, we are looking predominantly – often even exclusively – inside the organisation. And we are looking at the organisation’s past: statistics show that over the past five years output is stagnating, costs are increasing, quality is going down, etc. In order to fix the faults we have observed we usually clarify responsibilities and tighten controls. Leaders who want to start a change process often try to convince their colleagues that change is necessary in order to make the organisation run more smoothly. And once change has been discussed, decided and painfully implemented – often in the course of many weeks, months or even years – the organisation finds that the world has moved on and more change is required.  And as the organisation embarks on another round of incremental change, change fatigue spreads.

Transformative Change: Given the dynamic and often disruptive developments in the outside world a different change concept is required. Rather than looking at the flaws in the organisation’s policies and processes we need to start our analysis with looking at external demands; and rather than analysing the malfunctions of the past we need to look at the requirements of the future. Rather than tightening control in our organisation we have to liberate creativity; and rather than convincing our colleagues of the benefits of a smoothly running organisation we need to lead change based on and aiming for the organisation’s mission and vision. In short:


Look to the INSIDE                     >          Look to the OUTSIDE

Look to the PAST                        >          Look to the FUTURE

Foster CONTROL                         >          Foster CREATIVITY

Lead by NECESSITY                   >          Lead by VISION

Yes, CSOs have always changed – and they need to continue changing. But the changes they have to conduct today are of a different quality: more fundamental, much deeper and with a wider range. In order to effectively contribute to the global transformation towards a sustainable, fair and equitable world CSOs need to start by transforming themselves.

Do you agree that transformative change is needed? And, if yes, are you conducting transformative change in your organisation?

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  1. OssiH11 June, 2015

    I completely agree that CSOs need to transform. Sometimes it happens by their own decision, but often with a push from outside. In Plan Finland we are experiencing both.

    This Spring we finalized our new strategy, which looks to the future, is visionary and creative and has pretty ambitious goals for us. I am proud of it!

    The timeline for goals is 2020, but now it seems that some of the changes will take place much faster. We got a new government in Finland and they are making significant cuts (over 40%) to development aid and CSO funding. These cuts will most likely happen immediately.

    If we lose a big part of our government funding, we will have to make changes in the way we work. And we will have to make the changes quite fast, much faster than we had thought originally. Although after a few years, it might feel that this was a good thing, right now it hurts – the change comes so suddenly and unexpectedly. We thought we were well prepared for the change, but we did not think we’d have to do it already now.

  2. Asa Mansson11 June, 2015

    Thanks Ossi for this example of drastic change hitting civil society quicker and harder than expected. It is impressive that you can already see it as a good thing in the long run, given how hard this must hurt right now. As governments all over the world are cutting funds to civil society, I am sure many readers can feel with you – and perhaps have ideas on how to deal with this?

    Also, there might be other examples out there of how external change made your organisation have to change fundamentally? And ideas on how to deal with this change?

    We are interested in hearing more!
    Åsa (the Disrupt&Innovate Team)

    1. Tormod16 June, 2015

      Thanks for sharing, Ossi. I agree with you, from merely being a legal construction for wealth redistribution, NGOs have to start exploring new revenue models. We should look to United Kingdom for inspiration: The Compact (2010) is a nationwide partnership agreement between Public and Third Sector in the UK, based on financial funding from the Private Sector. Shifting British Governments have since 1998 utilized The Compact as a vehicle to empower local communities, reform public services and favour social action over state control. As of 2014, more than 5000 Social Enterprises contributed with £22 billion to UK economy.

      Even the emerging social economy has not yet hit Norway social entrepreneurship is blooming. Traditional NGOs have to start exploring new revenue models through new partnerships and cross sector collaboration. Social Enterprise might be the right vehicle for business model innovation.

      1. Burkhard Gnärig16 June, 2015

        Tormond and Ossi,

        Many thanks for your comments. The funding cuts in Finland look really scary. Planning for incremental change in the outside world is important. But increasingly changes are happening in abrupt and disruptive ways. How do we plan for these? Are our organisations resilient enough to withstand such disruptions and can they emerge stronger from disruption or will they just try to prevent the worst from happening?

        I just arrived at the wonderful premisses of the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio where we are conducting a workshop on “Changing Organisational Culture in Civil Society Organisations”. Only if we can change our organisational culture and identity away from charitable approaches and embrace activist and entrepreneurial ones we will be able to stay viable and relevant.

        Tormond, I agree: social enterprise is an important way forward. Maybe we should call it “activist enterprise”, and it needs to focus on both social and environmental objectives.

  3. Tormod17 June, 2015

    You are pointing to an innovation close to my heart, Burkhard – a hybrid activist model, blending British enterprise thinking with the concept of a Nordic grassroots movement.

    The paradigm shift in UK is significant: due to financial crisis, the welfare state is under high pressure and public sector’s value creation decreases. The private sector has become better at social value creation linked to their core business through co-production with or direct investments in Social Enterprises. Charities and CSOs become marginalized, their traditional income is reduced hence they are forced to remodel to a more sustainable business model. Social Enterprise has become a proven model worth looking into for CSOs in need of change.

    In Norway, we are in a different paradigm shift: civil society is breaking away from the Nordic model of popular movements, hence activism shifts from membership-based and collective to “organized individualism” – a legitimised act of self-realisation. From here, CSOs may start growing a grassroots movement fostered from individual spirit rather than collective thinking.

    I believe a combination of the two is what CSOs need, a hybrid activist model incubated in co-production and cross sector collaboration. “Activist Enterprise” is an excellent working title – thank you, Burkhard! Your work is a great source of inspiration, best wishes for your workshop in Bellagio.

    1. Burkhard Gnärig18 June, 2015

      Tormod, many thanks for your kind words – and apologies for misspelling your name. It will be fascinating to see how growing resource constraints will foster creativity in our sector (or lead to decline). I enjoy undertaking common efforts to be on the creative side. Looking forward to continuing our dialogue.

      1. Tormod29 June, 2015

        Likewise, Burkhard. CSOs are now more at great risk of being marginalised in the squeeze between Corporate Sustainability and Disruptive Change. The new social economy does not default to include a CSO in its value chain; Corporates in growing numbers do direct investments in Social Enterprises, and new virtual movements attract sponsors due to their cost-effective organisations. It is due time for CSOs to reengineer their business model.

        I believe such a shift can only take place outside the box; “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” (R. Buckminster Fuller, 1895 – 1983). This is new territory, to be explored in a lab environment. Going forward I appreciate our dialogue, thanks again for your inspirational sharing.

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