Burkhard Gnärig

7 April, 2015

We cannot avoid the pains of change

When we started working on disruption in the civil society sector very quickly the question arose, whether the dramatic changes we observed in the outside world would eventually threaten the existence of even the most successful and prominent organisations?

Recently I was involved in a discussion about the future of our sector and we all agreed that our organisations would have to go through fundamental change in order to survive and thrive in a fast changing environment. When we reviewed the required depth and speed of change we had to undertake several colleagues voiced doubts whether their organisations would be able to undertake such extensive changes in a relatively short period of time. Suddenly the room fell quiet and one could sense the thoughts most of us struggled with: Will my organisation be able to change fast enough? Could my organisation disappear?

A firm voice broke the silence: “Maybe our organisations will disappear – and maybe this is Okay. We have been founded in different times. We have done great work over decades. Now the times are changing and others that are better positioned to tackle new challenges will take over. So what?”

Not surprisingly, these provocative remarks initiated another round of lively discussions. What I found surprising, however, was how many comments supported the “so what?” perspective – and some of them with obvious relief: going down seemed to appear less painful to them than conducting major change.

I disagree with the fatalistic “so what?” perspective. At a time when human rights are under increasing pressure in many countries, where poverty, hunger and exploitation persist and where climate change, extinction of species and growing pollution threaten the biosphere of our planet our organisations are needed more than ever. Millions of people around the world count on our solidarity and support, millions of supporters and activists entrust us with their time, commitment and money, tens of thousands of dedicated and highly qualified employees and their families depend on us.
18_WhatCanWeDoLetting our organisations fade away and hoping for others to build new and more appropriate organisations is not an option. Reinventing our organisations is the only acceptable way ahead. The changes around us are only threats if we are unwilling to change ourselves. They entail exciting opportunities if we are willing to embrace change, to “ride the wave rather than being swept away” as one of the Centre’s publications demands.

No question: change can be painful, and in-depth transformative change most likely is. But if we take our organisations’ vision and mission statements seriously there is no alternative – we need to go through transformative change. But change as such needs to be of a very different dimension. To date, most of our change exercises have been incremental affairs, rarely bold and courageous enough to make a real difference. Often this has led to wide-spread change fatigue. The change we have to conduct is not incremental, does not drag us down. Yes, transformative change can be scary, very scary at times, but it is also exciting if we can visualise the benefits we will reap and the opportunities we will be able to seize as a result of transformative change.

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