Burkhard Gnärig

31 March, 2015

Disrupt and innovate

A blog – and a book – about “Disruption and Innovation in the Civil Society Sector”, why is this an important issue? To date, disruption has not happened in our sector. Yes, we know about disruption in the commercial world: book shops, newspapers, manufacturers of photographic films and analogue cameras, retail stores and travel shops are all examples we have heard of. But who can report about a case of disruption among civil society organisations (CSOs)?

So far, CSOs have not had to struggle with disruption. On the contrary, if we look at our sector over the last 10 or 20 years we will find impressive growth and expansion at the global level. A comparison of the incomes of a number of major international CSOs in 1999 with the funds they raised in 2011/12 shows an average growth of 323%.

Disruption hasn’t happened yet and innovation is certainly not one of the hallmarks of our sector: our missions are set in stone, our programmes have not changed significantly over a long time and while our fundraising has become more effective not too many examples of innovation can be found. So, why do we want to discuss two topics which, at a first glance, do not look very relevant for our sector?

04The answer lies outside the sector. We can detect a significant number of developments which will not leave CSOs unaffected: ageing of supporters, climate change, digitisation of communication, global power shifts, planetary boundaries, growing inequalities, shrinking space for civil society action and many more. The world around us is going through fundamental changes and it very much looks like “business as usual” will no longer secure CSOs’ relevance and success. Disruption has arrived at our doorstep.

Over the last few years the International Civil Society Centre has conducted projects on disruptive change, placing the issue of disruption on our sector’s agenda. We found that the best way to navigate disruption was to embrace change and drive innovation. However, our sector has a long way to go before we will be known for our savviness in driving innovation. Often colleagues complain about the conservatism of their organisations. The mission hasn’t been reviewed for decades; the governance structures are sacrosanct; not wanting to touch the organisation’s ethical foundations is often used to defend maintaining outdated approaches in management and strategy. No, we really cannot say that the major CSOs are innovative. But that has to change:
disruption has arrived at our doorstep and only those who are willing and able to innovate will survive and thrive.

On this website we will look into a broad range of aspects of disruption and innovation in our sector. I would like to welcome you on this journey and hope for your active companionship. Your readership and your contributions to the discussions will influence the course of our reflections and – hopefully – the course of your and other CSOs.

  1. Croche31 March, 2015

    What a great initiative!

    But doesn’t it all depend what kind of innovation you are talking about?

    a) Some suggest the problem with International NGOs is a tendency to development fashions & faddism (including now innovation), and not being able to see things through. Is there not some truth to that?

    b) Others argue that there is actually quite a lot of innovation going on – particularly and necessarily on the ‘front-line’ – but it is mainly transactional, rather than transformational, see a recent blog I posted on this issue http://www.dlprog.org/opinions/innovation-transactional-or-transformative.php

    c) It has also been argued that there is a danger in seeing innovation as an ideology rather than a process i.e. http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/innovation_is_not_the_holy_grail.

    I would be interested to understand your take on these and other debates on the current interest in
    innovation, and the risks and downsides as well the opportunities.

    Chris Roche

  2. ToscaBvV1 April, 2015


    you make some really good points. I particularly agree with point a) not seeing things through. Pilots and experiments without the discipline if you will to learn from them, then test them in a wider context and implement them subsequently in a more mainstreamed way where conditions are sufficiently similar.

    One additional point, which I also have made in the ICSC task force on culture change which is ongoing: I wonder whether the strong ‘ingroup versus outgroup’ tendencies that I see in quite a few ICSO cultures — this sense that you either are with us, or you are ‘the other’, and the sense that we are ‘pure’ while others in our societies and in global governance are ‘stupid and their values are bad’ — a somewhat inward, self-referential culture in other ways — also stands in the way of innovation.

    What do you and others think?

    Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken

  3. Burkhard Gnärig3 April, 2015

    Chris and Tosca,

    Many thanks for your comments – absolutely spot on. Yes, there is a serious danger that many CSOs cannot or do not want to change to the extent necessary to secure their own future. In next Tuesday’s blog entitled “We cannot avoid the pains of change” I write about a discussion I recently had about the challenges to change a successful CSO.

    You both may be right with your scepticism about the large CSOs’ ability to change. I am an optimist: I consider transformative change possible in our sector and I see the existing CSOs as much too important to just let them fade away. I know many activists, staff and leaders who share that perspective. Providing them with a platform to discuss how they can change their organisations is the purpose of this site.

    I very much hope that many disrupters and innovators will join our discussion.


  4. Alan Fowler6 April, 2015

    Disrupt and Innovate: Doing both at once

    One way to deal with external disruptions and innovate at the same time is to jettison the idea that international civil society organisations (ICSOs) are a ‘sector’ and re-discover themselves as a distinct, dynamic citizen-driven organisational field. Why? Because ‘sector’ defines ICSOs in terms of their technical comparative advantages as an ‘industry’ in a modern market economy, not as expressions of people actively seeking the betterment of nature, relationships, institutions or behaviours. Sector is an apolitical view of society, not just a convenient category. Holding on to a sector label steers thinking about responding to disruptions towards a firmer value-for-money conviction that financial growth is the measure of what innovation should deliver as opposed, for example, to stimulating young people to engage in development at home and abroad other than by becoming ‘donors’. Making connections between disruptions and organisational inventiveness is as much about shifting ICSO mindsets as it is about finding creative options. Dropping sector labelling in favour of something that speaks of citizen energy for change will itself be a disruptive innovation worth having.

  5. ToscaBvV6 April, 2015

    Alan: yes.

    I have always found your concept of unaided citizen-driven agency to be useful. However, then we need to consider whether ICSOs (small or big) are actually manifestations of citizen energy and are citizen-driven (i.e. driven by citizens other than the citizens who work in and lead them). To what extent is that actually the case? As we all know, we would see a wide variation in actual identity if we scanned the type of ICSOs that are members/shareholders of ICCS, for instance. To what extent are they truly publically owned and rooted in their own society where they were founded or where they operate, for instance? If that extent is indeed limited in the case of quite a few, is one of the greatest sources of disruption then that they become more reflective of actions coming out of unaided citizen agency? How would these organizations ‘look like’ then? And how would they balance agility of decision making to respond to external opportunities (as well as threats) with a greater democratic and citizen-driven content?


  6. ToscaBvV14 April, 2015

    Have you seen the recent discussion on the concept of ‘New Power’?


    and this TED talk:


    Quite relevant to analyze disruption factors (as well as to ICCS’s topic last year of digitally enabled CSOs and to this year’s topic of culture change — here are some quotes:

    Most organizations recognize that the nature of power is changing. But relatively few understand the keys to influence and impact in this new era. Organizations see newly powerful entities using social media, so they layer on a bit of technology without changing their underlying models or values. They hire chief innovation officers who serve as “digital beards” for old power leaders. They “reach out” via Twitter. They host the occasional, awkwardly curated, lonely Google hangout with the CEO.
    But having a Facebook page is not the same thing as having a new power strategy. If you’re in an industry that is being radically altered by new power, it isn’t enough to add some window dressing.
    Traditional organizations that want to develop new power capacity must engage in three essential tasks: (1) assess their place in a shifting power environment, (2) channel their harshest critic, and (3) develop a mobilization capacity.
    Organizations should be especially careful about building engagement platforms without developing engagement cultures, a recipe for failure.)
    Leaders must be able to actually mobilize true believers, not just talk at them. A key new power question for all organizations is “Who will really show up for you?”


    1. Rhianon Bader4 August, 2015

      Hi Tosca,

      I just wanted to let you know about a couple more recent blog posts by Burkhard on this topic that you might find interesting:

      – Conducting Transformative Change: http://disrupt-and-innovate.org/conducting-transformative-change/

      – Leading by Vision: http://disrupt-and-innovate.org/leading-by-vision/

      – Changing Organisational Culture: http://disrupt-and-innovate.org/changing-organisational-culture/

      Thanks for contributing to the discussion!

      Rhianon Bader (Communications Coordinator, Disrupt&Innovate)

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