Disrupt & Innovate

Between Power and Irrelevance: Are ICSOs actually looking at shifting their roles?

18th March 2021 by Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken and Barney Tallack

In the first of two guest blogs, accompanying the publication of ‘Between Power and Irrelevance: the Future of Transnational NGOs’, George E. Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz argued that if the ‘charity architecture’ in which our ICSO sector has been embedded for decades does not change, ICSOs will not be able to achieve the long-term impact they promise to deliver.

In this companion blog, Barney Tallack and Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken discuss some recent changes in the environment of ICSOs and what this means for their role. An upcoming interview with all four authors on these big questions of power and relevance of ICSOs will also be released later this month on the Centre’s Civil Society Futures and Innovation Podcast.

What has shifted over the past 12-18 months, in terms of ICSO power and relevance?

The COVID-19 pandemic primarily accelerated underlying challenges, providing additional drivers for what have been longer-standing trends:

  • The financial duress, which started well before the pandemic based on plateauing and/or declining fundraising in traditional ‘markets’ deepened. Some big ICSOs, such as World Vision and Save the Children, had good years in 2020 in terms of income. Many others, however, were treading water or are in decline, and furloughs and layoffs are now more common.
  • Southern philanthropy is increasing – its impact on North-founded ICSOs uncertain.
  • An increased interest in Mergers & Acquisitions.
  • A shift towards a network model of autonomous, lean organisations.
  • Increased operational interest in shared services, office space, etc.
  • Significant soul-searching on anti-racism, equity, diversity and inclusion. Strong emphasis on cognitive awareness-raising, in the form of discussion, training, etc. – even though research shows this has limited impact and can even backfire, when used as the sole solution.
  • Long-term transition to ‘digital first’ organisations. But will ICSOs be willing to relinquish control when it comes to people-powered forms of campaigning and fundraising? And succeed in effectively linking online and face-to-face collaboration and organising?

#ShiftThePower: Highly relevant but in need of some nuance

The #shiftthepower and decolonising aid narratives, rhetorically, have become stronger and calls for action louder. The key question is: will ICSOs hear the critiques of Global South civil society, academics and governments and respond this time with greater clarity on how their role and size need to change and/or reduce significantly, in order to retain legitimacy and relevance? And can they discern the contexts in which a larger scale and global presence is still adding value?

At the same time, let’s add some nuance. For instance, which parts of global South civil society do not agree with the stance that ICSOs are crowding them out, and why not? We also urge the sector to take a nuanced, contextualised approach. The request to simply transfer unrestricted resources to Southern CSOs does not recognise the necessity for northern ICSOs to still create that income in the first place. They can only do this by being out in front of the public in their own markets, or by mobilising citizens to give their governments the mandates to allocate resources.

At the same time, a good amount of philanthropy is provided by high wealth individuals (increasingly from all parts of the world) who still need persuading that direct transfer of resources to CSOs in the Global South means that their ways of imprinting on such delivery will be more limited. 

Equally, the commitment of boards, staff and volunteers to social justice and solidarity should not be dismissively categorised as being all about self-interest. It is the “how”, the “forms and norms” (as we say in the book) that need to change. It is not about the wholesale removal of Northern ICSOs from the equation.

Are ICSOs actually rethinking roles – in a serious way?

ICSOs need to seriously rethink shifting their roles to respond to this set of drivers, but we have not yet seen widespread openness to doing this in significant ways. By this, we mean more focused, specific and limited roles that really add value to the system, given the maturity of Global South civil society. Few ICSOs have fundamentally changed their role, power structure, or organisational “forms and norms”.

How ICSO leaders can start doing this:

  • Engage with your critical friends/stakeholders to ask for robust critique of where your organisation is helpful and where it is not
  • Know that recognising the need to change roles in some areas does not invalidate your organisation’s historic purpose and achievements up to that point     
  • Frame sharing power with Southern peers and moving to new roles as a way of regaining valuable legitimacy and relevance

What these new roles could look like:

  • Be the campaigning ally/presence in their home countries for truly global multi-stakeholder co-owned and co-created campaigns
  • In public education and mobilisation, connect missions abroad to social justice issues at home
  • Provide, upon request, focused consulting services in specific thematic and technical niches
  • Offer policy research services, targeting mainly governments and institutions based in Europe, the Americas, and other wealthy nations
  • Broker relationships in multi-stakeholder collaborations
  • Play a backbone role, upon request, in networks of Global South actors to support collective impact
  • Be open to merging or being acquired by other actors (including in the Global South) for specific expertise or country footprint.

As practitioners, we will be keen to follow whether we will see such role shifts develop, and with them a greater handover of power, authority and decision rights – not just responsibility and risk – to country-level leadership, national boards and to partners.

As a sector, we need now more than ever to identify and share models of transformative practice in role shifting, and we will stay connected with the Centre to do this together in future. So if you have something significant to share on this, please get in touch!

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, alongside George E. Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz, are co-authors of the recently published book Between Power and Irrelevance: the Future of Transnational NGOs. You can discover more details about it here.

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken

Principal Consultant

Five Oaks Consulting

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken has worked on international development and civil society issues for 30 years, in practice, in academia and as independent consultant. Before launching her consulting practice, Five Oaks Consulting, Tosca was the Director of the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University, USA. She focuses on NGO change management, leadership development and organisational culture. She has served as board member of InterAction, Public Interest Registry, ProLiteracy and Cadasta. Early in her career, Tosca worked as development practitioner for NGOs, the UN, the World Bank and at a think tank based in the Netherlands, Tosca’s country of birth.

Barney Tallack

Consultant on INGO strategy and transformation

Barney has worked as a practitioner in the INGO sector for nearly 30 years. He has held senior leadership and Board member roles in a variety of international and UK based organisations. He has deep experience in leading strategy and organisational transformation programmes, supporting restructurings, governance and NGO mergers. As Director of Strategy for Oxfam International, he ran the global strategy process and for five years the global transformation and change programme.