Burkhard Gnärig

21 March, 2017

Securing Your Organisation’s Relevance and Effectiveness

Our current blog series looks into the ways different organisations use foresight and horizon scanning within their current projects. To learn about the International Civil Society Centre’s foresight platform, visit the Scanning the Horizon page.

If you look around yourself – or if you look at the range of contributions here on Disrupt&Innovate – there cannot be the slightest doubt that the world around us is changing fast and fundamentally. And if civil society organisations (CSOs) want to remain relevant and impactful we need to respond by reinventing ourselves. Neither our past successes nor our established routines will secure their survival. Only if we are courageous and bold in discarding much of our past and embracing an uncertain future will we stand a chance to develop relevance and effectiveness under completely different circumstances. CSOs’ change agenda should rest on four pillars: Scan – Disrupt – Innovate – Transform.


During most of our past existence CSOs did not have to change much. Our approaches to programming, fundraising or communication remained unchanged over decades. In the external world change was slow and incremental, and CSOs, at least the large and well established ones, had plenty of time to digest change and implement slight adaptations. As disruption reaches our sector, the terms of CSOs’ work and existence are changing dramatically: Shrinking civic space stops important programmes and threatens activists; climate change creates new forms of poverty, drives migration, and threatens the future of humanity; digital technology abolishes the need for CSOs to act as intermediaries between donors and recipients; etc. As many of these changes occur in parallel, very fast, and with little advance warning, CSOs urgently need to build an early warning system. They have to systematically scan the horizon in order to detect disruption early and thus give them a better chance to prepare for and adapt to fundamental change.


For decades, many CSOs have been very successful: They multiplied their income, the number of their projects, and the number of the people they reached. As this trend comes to a hold and new terms for CSOs’ engagement arise, especially the largest and most successful organisations find it difficult to accept that fundamental change is unavoidable. In this situation, enlightened leaders will try to avoid organisational stalemates by disrupting their own CSOs from the inside well before disruption from the outside strikes. Strategies of internal disruption include: dismantling firmly entrenched hierarchies, shifting power away from status holders to innovators, supporting and rewarding risk taking, nurturing entrepreneurial culture, empowering external stakeholders (e.g. “beneficiaries”, supporters or activists), etc. While we can observe a growing number of internal disruptions in our sector, they are often neither based on a thorough analysis of the situation nor carefully thought through in their potential consequences. In order to make internal disruption an effective instrument of positive change our sector has to develop a much more professional approach to conducting disruption.


Disruption as we experience it today is not the process between phases of stability. Disruption, rather, takes us from a phase of relative stability to one of ongoing change. This means we need to get up and move, and cannot expect to sit down again any time soon. Instead, we will have to learn to keep moving. The past strategy of ongoing perfection of a well-established routine will be replaced by ongoing innovation. Traditional CSO culture is usually risk averse and thus hostile to innovation. Putting charitable donations or government grants at the risk of experimentation and innovation is usually seen as unacceptable – not only by the CSOs themselves – but also and often foremost by their donors. Helping risk-averse donors understand the critical need of taking risks as a basis for any innovation will be essential, and relations between CSOs and our donors need to develop to share the risks of innovation. In addition, CSOs’ cultures need to shift from a focus on risk avoidance to acceptance and the professional management of risk. In embracing a common approach of risk taking, CSOs and our donors should take some guidance from business and their investors.


The in-depth transformation of traditional CSOs will depend on – and needs to be built upon – the other three pillars: This requires systematic scanning of the outside world in order to make sure that transformation is steered in the most impactful direction, the preparedness to disrupt traditional structures and approaches because establishing new ones will usually fail if the old ones are still around and working, and a leadership and organisational culture that embraces risk as a crucial condition for innovation. In addition, the transformation of traditional CSOs requires visionary and courageous leadership willing to go ahead and carry both the personal and organisational risks of transformation. It requires a clear strategic direction flexible enough to be changed and adapted to shifting external conditions. And it requires participatory and team based approaches allowing staff and stakeholders to understand, share, and join efforts for transformation. Like all change processes, and even more so, transformation requires comprehensive transparency and accountability and frequent and extensive communication.

What we describe here is nothing less than a complete re-invention of traditional CSOs. There is no question that this is a daunting task. However, we have recently seen some surprisingly bold and courageous efforts to transform CSOs. As painful and as full of errors and mistakes as they may be, they are the first efforts in an unavoidable sector-wide transformation. All those still hesitating to embark on transformation are well advised to closely observe and analyse the successes and failures of those early transformers.

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