Burkhard Gnärig

26 May, 2015

Rediscovering Activism


Even the most successful CSOs once started with a few volunteer activists who defined how they wanted to contribute to a better world and began working towards their mission. Due to lack of funds everybody had to work on a volunteer basis. Activist thinking determined the organisation and its activities. Later, when funding became available the first salaried staff were employed, often recruited from the organisation’s pool of activists. And, over time, many CSOs developed two separate pillars: a volunteer/activist one and a salaried/expert one. With the rapid financial growth over the past decades and the required professionalization, the gap between the pillars widened and became increasingly difficult to bridge.

In addition, in many CSOs power has shifted towards the salaried part of the organisation. Volunteers who can dedicate only limited time to the organisation find it increasingly difficult to match the knowledge and experience of full time employees. This often concerns all levels of volunteer activism from the grass roots activist to the volunteer on a national or international Board. Not surprisingly, many young activists chose not to engage in a traditional CSO where they are tightly limited by the organisation’s policies, mid-term strategy and branding requirements and rather engage on a campaigning platform where they can define their own mission and look for like-minded activists to build powerful ad-hoc alliances.

One could argue that declining activism is the unavoidable consequence of increasing professionalism, a price that large and well-established organisations have to pay. I disagree: today, CSOs need activists more urgently than ever before. As discussed in my recent blog post, “Act Big”, CSOs need to better match their impressive ambitions with equally impressive action. Transforming our planet into a just, peaceful and sustainable one cannot be achieved by a group of highly qualified professionals alone. It requires billions of citizens – especially the richest third of the global population – to rethink and recalibrate their values and lifestyles. Activism plays a decisive role in this global shift of perspectives and behaviour.

If CSOs are serious about achieving their mission they need to find ways to attract many more activists and to provide them with a much more effective basis to achieve a maximum effect. An open letter “to our fellow activists” written by a number of CSO leaders in 2014 is a very encouraging first step. Here are a number of further steps CSOs could undertake:

Revise your approach to donors

Swap the service delivery approach of “you give us some money and we keep the hungry and exploited away from your doorstep” for an activist donor one: “you engage in the following way (e.g. by changing specific aspects of your lifestyle) and support our common action by giving us some money”.

Revise your approach to recipients

Talking about “recipients” has become unpopular. Many CSOs speak of “partners” but often true partnership is hard to detect. Many recipients are much closer to activism than the donor CSO. But rather than strengthening the activist features, donors often expect recipients to prioritise professionalism over activism. Linking activist donors to activist recipients and thus sponsoring a more egalitarian “partnership in activism” is a way forward.

Revise your approach to your salaried employees

Many CSOs cooperate with companies that want to provide their employees with opportunities for activist engagement. The company usually supports the CSO financially and the CSO offers volunteering opportunities to the company’s staff. I have rarely come across CSOs seeing their own employees as a source for activism.  CSOs should expect – and support – activism of their salaried employees. Today the highly qualified professional is the norm in most CSOs; tomorrow the highly qualified activist professional should be the norm.

Develop new strategies and tools to attract activists

An organisation with activist donors, -recipients and -staff will find it easier to attract further activists from the outside. Probably the single most important mind shift required on the part of the CSO is to move from directing activists to servicing them. Today, those CSOs that provide offers to activists usually give them the choice between a few tightly defined programmes and some tightly defined roles they may play in those programmes. Providing activists with a platform on which they can define their own contributions to the CSO’s overall mission would be a fundamentally different approach.

Are you an activist? Or would you like to be one? What would it take to make your organisation more attractive to activists? Please contribute your perspective.


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  1. Asif22 June, 2015

    I totally agree that future CSOs should have highly qualified professional activists. CSO have enormous wealth of human resource in shape of salaries professional staff, in some cases more than several thousand strong across the world. These staff through their own network using social media can become virtual activist. CSOs should develop creative strategies to engage their professional staff to become passionate about the organisation’s cause and stimulate activism within them. CSOs need to become clever in celebrating their successes that demonstrate visible and inspiring change that make staff proud to share their organisation achievements among their own network.

  2. Burkhard Gnärig23 June, 2015

    Asif, this is definitely the way forward. Does that also mean that we have to review our recruitment policies and practice and value activist experiences and perspectives more highly?

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