Civil society organisations (CSOs) think big: their mission statements envision a perfect world. But their actions don’t match their ambitions. CSOs need to learn to act big.

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  • Act Big

    CSOs think big. They aim to end poverty, secure all human rights for all people, or build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature: wonderful and highly inspiring endeavours. CSOs need to be driven by a big dream. In fact, this is the only capital they have and they need to make greater and better use of their big dream to mobilise more people towards a better world.

    However, dreaming alone does not change the world, and there is a significant discrepancy between CSOs’ big dreams and their actions. While CSOs dare to think big they very rarely dare to act big. If CSOs are serious about their dreams they need to find ways to narrow the gap between their aspirations and their actions. Each of the letters of the appeal to “ACT BIG” identifies one strategic step which contributes to narrowing the gap between CSOs’ dreams and realities.

    CSOs can act big – or at least much bigger than they do today – by: forming effective global structures, entering into powerful alliances with other civil society organisations, business and governments, revising their identities, cultures and business models and strengthening transparency.

  • Alliances

    CSOs are rightly proud of their achievements, their history and identity. Usually CSO staff and activists see their organisation as unique and often as the best in their field. However, even the biggest CSOs are tiny compared to tasks such as eradicating poverty, preserving a moderate climate, protecting biodiversity, etc.

    If CSOs are serious in wanting to make a sizeable contribution to the transition towards a just, peaceful and sustainable world they need to overcome silo mentality and learn to better work together with other CSOs. They need to prioritise advancing their mission over fundraising, branding, culture, pride and all other priorities. The Anti-Landmine Campaign has shown what CSOs can achieve when they prioritise cooperation over all other interests they may have.

    However, at a time of dramatic global challenges better cooperation within the sector is not enough. CSOs need to find allies among the pioneers in other sectors. Forming Transition Alliances with government agencies and corporations which are serious about addressing the most pressing global challenges is essential to making a sizeable impact. The obstacles to cooperation CSOs have to overcome are even bigger than the ones hampering collaboration inside our sector. But securing concrete and sizable transformative change is well worth the effort.

  • Culture

    CSOs are rightly proud of the ethical values which shape their direction and fuel their activities. At the same time absolute values easily determine conservative organisational cultures. Change in our sector is often quickly rejected as ‘not in line with our values’. But change, especially more fundamental and transformative change, is unavoidable given the fast developments in the outside world.

    CSOs need to develop an organisational culture which embraces change, adapts to external requirements, discards silo thinking and invites others into the organisation, promotes creativity and innovation, values individual initiative and accepts risk taking, demands transparency and encourages learning from failure.

    In short, CSOs need to develop an organisational culture which is both more activist and more entrepreneurial. When embarking on their change journey CSOs should take the lead from their founders, most of whom were a perfect combination of activist and entrepreneur.

  • Transparency & Accountability

    CSOs have often successfully held governments and companies accountable for the social or environmental consequences of their policies. However, accepting and fulfilling their own accountability has not been very high on the CSO agenda. While globally more than 350 CSO accountability frameworks offer their guidance and support, few CSOs use transparency and accountability systematically to improve their performance.

    CSOs need to develop a totally different understanding of transparency and accountability. Rather than seeing it as a cumbersome external demand which needs to be fulfilled in order to avoid criticism and strengthen their legitimacy, CSOs should regard transparency and accountability as a cornerstone in improving their performance and continuously adapting to fast changing external demands.

    Today the terms of accountability are determined either by donors setting the parameters for the organisations they support or by the organisations themselves deciding what they want to be held accountable for. Accountability which allows CSOs to learn from their experiences and to adapt quickly to a changing environment needs to reach much wider. The sector needs comprehensive transparency which allows all stakeholders – including partners, recipients, the media etc. – to set the terms under which they want to hold the organisation to account.

  • Business Models

    The rise of digital communications threatens the role of traditional intermediaries. In the CSO sector this affects, for instance, the intermediation between individual donors and recipients of aid. They can find each other and engage in cooperation through the internet and without the help of a – usually Northern – CSO connecting them. Similarly, campaigns no longer depend on the existence of a formally constituted CSO: individuals who want to conduct or support a campaign can meet in social networks and organise themselves without external help.

    CSOs need to prepare themselves for losing their traditional roles as intermediaries, or at least for this role losing its indispensable status and becoming much more “light touch”. Especially service delivery CSOs whose income predominantly depends on their intermediation services need to brace themselves for losing much of their revenues from this source.

    As disintermediation takes shape CSOs need to find ways to adapt their traditional intermediation models to new demands. As traditional intermediation is no longer indispensable, today’s high costs for this service will have to go down significantly. Moreover, CSOs are well advised to diversify their business models to make sure that if disruption affects one of their models they can rely on others. Finally, CSOs need to be innovative in selecting and implementing additional business models. Trying out new approaches entails some risks, and CSOs need to become better in accepting and managing risks.

  • Identity

    Many traditional CSOs have their roots in a religious concept of charity: those who are better off are expected to share with the poor. Such a concept provides moral incentives to the affluent to share their wealth but it doesn’t question underlying inequality. Rather than trying to overcome inequality it focusses on making the effects of inequality bearable.

    The rights based approaches most of today’s leading CSOs claim to follow demand equal rights for all people. This means, those who are poor, exploited and deprived of their human rights have the right to be treated equally with all others and to be supported to overcome their poverty and deprivation. Rather than having to hope for help they have a legal claim.

    The empowerment of the poor and exploited which goes along with the change from charitable thinking to a rights based one has not taken roots in many CSOs’ identity yet. Many CSOs are still organisations owned by the affluent and providing support to the needy: they are organisations FOR the people they aim to serve. A truly rights based CSO needs to be an organisation owned by those whose rights are being disregarded: they have to be organisations OF the poor and exploited. CSOs need to redefine their identity and re-allocate power in the organisation accordingly.

  • Governance & Management

    Most international CSOs have federated governance models; only the more recently founded organisations have unitary global structures. By imitating inter-governmental governance structures, namely the UN, CSOs suffer from the same shortcomings: with power predominantly held at the national level global policies are unavoidably compromises between diverging national interests with the most powerful nations dominating the outcome. The interests of humanity in global terms take a back seat. The inability to effectively tackle climate change at the global level is only the most dramatic one in a series of major failures of the system of inter-governmental decision making.

    Our sector rightly complains that in the absence of effective political governance companies have far too much power globally. One of the reasons for this imbalance is business’ much more effective decision making. In terms of global governance CSOs should take a lead from the major global companies all of which practice unitary governance models which allow them to apply their power and influence most effectively at the global level.

    Developing unitary governance and management at the global level, while at the same time allocating more decision making power at the local level, would be an important step for CSOs to strengthen both their influence and legitimacy. Whether international CSOs will be able to shift power internally from the national to the global and local levels will very much determine their future role and influence.

  • Other Topics

    Going forward you will find more information on related topics here.


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