Transform or Leave?

27th March 2018 by Burkhard Gnärig

I just spent two fascinating weeks with in Sri Lanka, advising an ICSO on possible new operational/business models.

The World Bank has declared Sri Lanka a “lower-middle income country”, which means that foreign governments and, subsequently, many individual donors are shifting their attention away from Sri Lanka and towards poorer countries. However, while the average per capita incomes are rising, pockets of persistent poverty remain, especially in the regions that were most strongly affected by the country’s civil war.

In this situation many of the international civil society organisations (ICSOs) working in the country are facing two critical questions:

  1. How can we support poor and marginalised people with entering the main stream of economic and income growth?
  2. How can we resource our work sustainably in the future?

Finding and implementing positive answers to both questions will force ICSOs to transform themselves. If they are unable to transform themselves, ICSOs will find it hard to secure their own sustainability and may have to leave the country.

What are the transformations ICSOs need to undergo over the next few years in countries like Sri Lanka?


From charities to rights based organisations

Practically all major ICSOs talk about themselves as “rights based organisations”. However, if we look at their approaches, behaviours or governance we find that much of their charitable past still prevails: Programmes often still are “assistencialistic” providing people with aid rather than contributing to their empowerment. “Beneficiaries” often need to content themselves with the benefits on offer rather than being able to determine themselves what they need: And ICSOs’ governance is usually dominated by representatives from fundraising countries in the global North and with little influence for those who are supposed to benefit from ICSOs’ work. As poverty declines and more and more people are able to think and act beyond the needs of their immediate survival they will no longer tolerate assistencialistic and paternalistic behaviour. For ICSOs, this means: they have to practice the rights based approaches they preach.

From organisations that spend money to organisations that can only spend the money they raise

In countries like Sri Lanka, most ICSOs have been focused exclusively on spending money that had been raised abroad. No fundraising activities took place in the country. This means, ICSOs in Sri Lanka and similar countries have a strong knowledge and culture of programme excellence but very little experience and culture in funding their own operations. In a situation where funding flows from abroad decrease and will eventually dry up, ICSOs’ exclusive focus on implementing programmes is unsustainable. In order to prevail, organisations need to adopt a much more entrepreneurial approach aiming for a sustainable balance between fundraising and programming activities.


From foreign donors to national affiliates of global organisations

In countries that can perfectly well take care of themselves having “country offices” maintained by foreign donors no longer make sense – however, having a national affiliate of a global organisation does. For instance, even in the richest countries, there are some poor and marginalised people, some children who are abused, and some women who are oppressed. Having national organisations that effectively address these challenges is essential, and for those being part of a global family of like-minded national organisations is of a major strategic advantage. A farsighted policy of building civil society capacity and effectiveness around the world will create strong global networks whose local, national and regional members will systematically learn from each other and cooperate where beneficial. Transforming ICSO country offices into national affiliates can be a useful first step in this direction.

In short: In emerging economies such as Sri Lanka ICSOs only have the choice between fundamentally transforming themselves and leaving. If they want to stay, they will have to transform their worldviews, cultures and power relationships.

Burkhard Gnärig

Project Director

International Civil Society Centre

At the beginning of 2007, Burkhard founded the International Civil Society Centre, originally the Berlin Civil Society Center, together with Peter Eigen and shortly thereafter, became Executive Director of the Centre. Burkhard has over 20 years’ experience of international cooperation and management of CSOs. From 1998 to 2007 he was CEO of the International Save the Children Alliance, located in London. Before this, Burkhard was CEO of Greenpeace Germany and terre des hommes Germany. As a field director in Papua New Guinea, Burkhard also worked for the German Development Service. Burkhard has been Board Chair and Board Member of various CSOs in Italy, Switzerland, India, Korea and Japan, and has actively participated in a number of major UN conferences, as well as at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

A Place of Excellence and Innovation – The Next Decade at the International Civil Society Centre

20th March 2018 by Wolfgang Jamann

Today, huge inequalities are contributing to divided and segregated societies and have created antagonising governments riding the waves of populism. Space for civic action, freedom of speech and assembly, and human and civil rights are drastically limited, through both open and opaque government measures. Millions of refugees and war victims need solidarity and services at highest levels of excellence. And the planet’s environmental boundaries are fragile and almost exhausted.

External and internal challenges to the work of Civil Society Organisations are greater than ever. The current climate in which ICSOs operate is difficult and precarious. Plotting the right course will be essential for civil society to survive and thrive. Current internal challenges to our sector, sometimes threaten to override the purpose of work. For example, the moral basis and public trust for ICSOs work are challenged and sometimes eroded through ethical wrongdoings (as exposed by the cases of sexual misconduct). Likewise, through the questioning of the current aid system, and by the legitimate claims for power shifts to the global South.

As I have been entrusted to move the International Civil Society Centre (ICSC) into its second decade, there is a great need for the sector of organised civil society institutions to be modernised, just as more established institutions like UN Security Council or international treaties.

The ICSC is here to support organised civil society in that transformation. Using new technology and talent, it will initiate collective action and ambition to influence critical developments for the achievement of a more just and equitable world, in which no one is left behind.

The task at hand is big, but the Centre has already come a long way in a short space of time. 10 years ago, two visionaries founded the Berlin Civil Society Centre, to provide a space for collaboration and forward thinking on civic space. The founders Burkhard Gnärig and Peter Eigen managed over those years, to create a broad base of International Civil Society Organisations (ICSOs) who carry the Centre today – our shareholders. They provide incredibly valuable services, support and aid to marginalised and underprivileged people. They defend human rights, and improve the world we all live in. Through their diversity, intellectual and financial capital, the leading ICSOs and their partners are helping to achieve the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals. They serve as watchdogs (challenging corrupt and irresponsible governments), provide a moral compass, create perspectives for children and youth, support women in their fight for equality, drive policymakers towards the protection of our environment, and provide dignity to the poorest of the poor.

This collective of (soft) power is the underlying basis for the Centre’s objectives. To help ICSOs be at the top of their game, we aim to serve them (and the sector) as a think tank, space for collaboration, trend spotter, challenger and supporter of continuous transformation of operating models, structures, processes and organisational culture.

There are great pressures exerted through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, digitalisation, new forms of communication and demands for more transparency and demonstrable impact. Challenges come also through new generations of supporters (and opponents), influencers, value brokers and thought leaders – our friends and allies for the future years to come, who expect different ways of engagement, and many want to see strong moral grounds coupled with more agile and contemporary ways of working.
In tackling these challenges and taking our sector forward, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how we can do that together. In addition, I relish the chance to get going on exciting projects.

If you are interested in our work or want to learn then please get in touch with our team, or me

Wolfgang Jamann

Executive Director

International Civil Society Centre

Dr. Wolfgang Jamann is Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre. Until January 2018 he was Secretary General and CEO of CARE International (Geneva). Before that he led NGO Deutsche Welthungerhilfe and the Alliance 2015, a partnership of 7 European aid organisations. From 2004-2009 he was CEO & Board member of CARE Deutschland-Luxemburg and President of the CARE Foundation. Previously, he worked for World Vision International as a regional representative in East Africa (Kenya) & Head of Humanitarian Assistance at WV Germany. After his Ph.D. dissertation in 1990 he started his career in development work at the German Foundation for International Development, later for the UNDP in Zambia. As a researcher and academic, he has published books and articles on East & Southeast Asia contributing to international studies on complex humanitarian emergencies and conflict management.

4 new blockchain and big data projects agreed by civil society innovators

14th March 2018 by Thomas Howie

Blockchain and Big Data can transform how international civil society organisations (ICSOs) work and what they achieve. To benefit from them, collaboration between ICSOs is essential. At our 2018 Innovators Forum on 27-28 February 2018, experts gathered to work on new projects using Blockchain and Big Data to solve problems.

If the civil society sector does not organise now, then the potential of Big Data and Blockchain may be lost altogether. That was the feeling among 30 innovators and digital experts gathered at our 2nd Innovators Forum.

The motivation to act now is to avoid making the same mistake our sector made with the internet. In the early days of the internet, no one knew its true potential. However, big corporations were quick to react, capitalising on this digital innovation. They took the lead and made decisions that affected our lives and way of working. The likes of Google and Facebook capitalised, while civil society voices were not heard on important issues, such as data privacy and security. Ever since, we have been playing catch-up, rather than leading digital innovation. Continue reading

Thomas Howie

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Thomas joined the Centre in June 2017 as the Communications Coordinator. He is responsible for developing and implementing the Centre’s global communication strategy, as well as the Disrupt & Innovate platform – a place for civil society professionals and activists to discuss current innovations and future trends in the civil society sector. Prior to the Centre, Thomas worked for 5 years in the European Parliament firstly as the Digital and Social Media Coordinator for the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, and then, after the 2014 European elections, for Jude Kirton-Darling and Paul Brannen as Head of Communications, where he worked on issues such as the EU-US trade deal, issues around Brexit and as a specialist on the Petitions Committee. Thomas graduated from Bristol University with BSci in Geographical Sciences and holds an MA in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, where he completed research into the role of civil society in the post war peace settlement in northern Uganda.

Most civil society staff are women – most of their leaders are men

6th March 2018 by Helene Wolf

A few weeks ago I recruited a new colleague to our small Centre secretariat team. The pattern of many previous rounds was repeated: We reviewed a number of very qualified and competent young female candidates, struggled to invite equally impressive male applicants for an interview and in the end offered the position to a very dedicated, ambitious and talented woman who wants to develop a long-term career in the civil society sector. I have met and worked with many women like her over the years at the Centre and in the civil society organisations (CSOs) we work with.

But very few of them advance to the senior management positions they aspired to take on when they start their career in the CSO sector. Looking at the leadership of the majority of large CSOs, these women never make it there. According to data from 2012, the Women Count report, women make up 68% of the workforce of the 100 CSOs with the highest income in the UK but only 25% of the most senior positions. In Germany, about 75% of the workforce are female; in CSOs providing social and care services the number even goes up to 83%. However, only about 42% of CEOs are women, sometimes only in co-leadership with a man. Of the roughly 30 leading international CSOs we work with at the Centre, only one third have a female global CEO. The representation in boards is by no means more gender balanced.

So what happens on the way to formal leadership positions? The very few studies that focus on the CSO sector suggest the “typical” explanations: Women can’t or don’t want to work full-time because of family responsibilities and therefore remain in the operational low to mid-level positions; male Board and CEOs recruit and promote “look-a-likes” to work with them or succeed them and women themselves hesitate to take on formal leadership roles because of their own prejudices and doubts whether they are ready or well-equipped enough.

Our sector is leading the way on gender balance and gender justice in programming, advocacy and research. Most large CSOs have mainstreamed gender issues across all their work with very impressive results for women’s empowerment worldwide. But when it comes to our own organisations we lag behind many other sectors who have systematically started to increase female leadership, sometimes only under pressure from governments who introduce quota, but also because they understand that gender balanced management achieves better results (and profit) and that it simply does not make sense to leave a large part of their talent pool untapped.

The gender imbalance in our own organisations’ leadership should no longer be acceptable for us. How do we systematically support women in their career development so that they acquire the skills and qualifications but also the confidence to apply for and accept formal leadership roles? What can our organisations do to provide the work conditions and culture in which women thrive just as much as men? How can we change our recruitment, retention and promotion processes in a way to increase gender balance within our top leadership and governance?

These and many more questions have to become a much stronger part of the current discussions in our sector around governance, power shift and legitimacy. I will start by talking to the women I know, some of them who are in leadership roles in the sector (or elsewhere) and the many who aren’t (yet) – so that together we can develop ideas how to achieve gender balance at the top. To the many women I don’t know: Please let me know what you think at

Helene Wolf

Deputy Executive Director

International Civil Society Centre

Helene joined the Centre in May 2011 and was appointed Deputy Executive Director in May 2013, overseeing the general management of the Centre and its projects. Prior to joining the Centre team, Helene worked as a Research Officer at the International Crisis Group’s headquarters in Brussels and as a Junior Consultant at a strategic communications consultancy in Berlin. Helene holds an MA in EU Politics and Government from the London School of Economics and has also studied Cultural Studies at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) and in Wroclaw, Poland.