Burkhard Gnärig

19 September, 2017

Embarking on Just Another Governance Reform?

In April and May of 2017, the International Civil Society Centre distributed a governance questionnaire to the leaders of 32 of the world’s best known international civil society organisations (ICSOs). This is the picture CEOs and Board Chairs paint of their organisations:

Findings of our review

Most ICSOs wrestle with their governance

81% of the ICSOs we asked were interested enough in the topic to fill in our questionnaire. 88% of those who replied have reformed their governance during the past ten years, 35% even several times; and 65% of the participating organisations are either engaged in governance reform at present, or plan on conducting a reform in the next two years.

Most ICSOs have a federated governance dominated by national affiliates

85% of responding ICSOs have a federated governance and 69% of international Boards are controlled (over 50% of Board members) by national affiliates.

Most ICSOs’ governance is too slow, too cumbersome, and much too focused on balancing national interests

31% of respondents think that their organisation is often “too slow in taking decisions”, another 47% think this is sometimes the case.  Decision making is also too complicated: 28% often experience decision making as “too cumbersome”, while 47% sometimes do. In a significant number of organisations, decision making is either often (31%) or sometimes (38%) “too much focused on balancing national interests”. One of the reasons for this may be that the organisation is “dominated by our largest national affiliate(s)”: 26% believe that this is often the case, while 28% see it happening sometimes.

While ICSOs are visibly unhappy with their federated governance, they do not plan to change to another system

47% of respondents want to keep the involvement of their national affiliates at the same level, and 25% even want affiliates to be more involved.

The next wave of ICSO governance reform is likely to aim for more diversity in governing bodies

56% of respondents want to bring more beneficiaries into their governance systems and 50% would like to increase the number of experts. Achieving gender balance was also mentioned as an objective.

How do we interpret these results?

Among ICSO leaders, the levels of satisfaction with their existing federated governance are low. Thus it shouldn’t come as a surprise that ICSOs have invested significantly in overcoming the governance challenge. Over the past ten years, nearly all surveyed organisations have conducted at least one reform and many of these undertook two or more efforts to improve their governance. Despite all of these efforts, past reforms have obviously not resolved the challenges: two thirds of the ICSOs we asked are either conducting another governance reform at present, or are planning to undertake one during the next two years.

However, where several reforms have failed to deliver effective governance in the past, another one conducted along the same lines is unlikely to achieve a better outcome this time. There is a significant danger that ICSOs will   again spend considerable resources on trying – once again unsuccessfully – to resolve their internal decision making challenges. Another unsuccessful governance reform needs to be avoided for several reasons:

  • It focuses ICSOs’ attention on the internal workings of their organisation rather than on pursuing their mission in the external world;
  • It increases change fatigue among staff and Board members;
  • It perpetuates leadership and decision making challenges and increases the organisations’ vulnerability to disruption.

If they want to overcome the vicious circle of one governance reform following another, ICSOs will have to approach the reform process from a totally different angle:

  • Rather than trying to mend the federated model they should review whether it is this model that prevents them from effectively addressing global challenges.
  • Rather than including partners from the Global South in a model where power lies predominantly with national affiliates in the Global North, they should bring partners and other external stakeholders from the Global South into a process of governance reform. One that aims to provide a more balanced reflection of the organisation’s global dimension.
  • Rather than basing their governance on the dominance of the national level they should aim for a more appropriate distribution of roles, responsibilities and powers between the local, national and global levels.
  • Rather than focusing their governance on hierarchical control that tends to preserve the status quo, they should aim for a flexible and adaptable platform model that allows for fast responses to the disruptions the organisations are facing at present and will face more dramatically in the future.

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