Given the strident advance of some trends, especially technological, the pressure to anticipate and react to change early on has grown considerably. Where do ICSOs stand in terms of future preparedness? Members of the civil society foresight community Scanning the Horizon requested a mapping of how ICSOs prepare for change. The assessment sought to provide an overview of what ICSOs do to identify and explore trends and potential disruption in the mid- to long-term, and how they plan to respond (see also the key findings).
Indeed, all organisations surveyed are undertaking steps to identify and assess trends and disruptors. However, levels of intensity – as measured by the number of activities, diversity of stakeholders involved and envisaged actions – vary greatly. Scanning is mostly carried out by senior management at the international headquarters, followed by those at the country or regional level, international and country-level senior leadership, and to a very limited degree by other groups in the organisation. Anecdotal evidence, e.g. from more participatory organisational restructuration processes, suggests that wider engagement helps organisations become more open to change.
Further, few organisations appear to have a clear-cut mandate or plan for their scanning work specifying a set timeline, goals and responsibilities and dedicated funds – a finding that corroborates an earlier review of ICSOs’ scanning approaches from 2016. Instead, much of the engagement tends to be ad-hoc, partly building on work on top of people’s daily jobs, in evolving, not clearly defined processes. That likely makes them more dependent on the motivation of a few champions and limits the leverage of such processes with internal stakeholders, including the executive management and Board. That being said, about a fourth have some regular – if at times embryonic – engagement with trends at the senior leadership or other levels in place, and a couple of organisations look to joining up hitherto distributed practices into a more coherent approach.
Respondents focus mostly on mega-trends and trends in their own sector, building on an analysis of existing trend reports for either. While this is an efficient approach, spotting disruption will inadvertently remain a weak spot. Little seems to be done in the sense of true horizon scanning, like an internal seismograph to spot emerging issues and potential disruptors. A look at the so-called S-curve is useful to understand the implications:
When drawing information on trends from sector reports or the mainstream media, these developments have typically reached the mainstream, what is called the “reactive zone”. Screening relevant scientific and fringe sources of information, including thought leaders, helps raise awareness of trends much earlier, giving the organisation more time to take strategic action and assume a pioneer role or watch the trend unfold for a while.
However, it also seems that a number of trends ICSOs mention as significant remain by and large unacted upon at the moment. These include continued closing of civic space in countries of operation, urbanisation and climate change. Few seem to be taking concrete
action or to have developed a systematic response beyond spurring innovation and agility more broadly. By comparison, most developments relating to funding or modes of delivery of development and humanitarian aid seem to induce more, and more targeted responses.
A couple of interviewees mention that the scope of change organisations can assess and deal with is limited: “We are now more attuned to trends, but it can be distracting – after all, you have to actually do something in the present. …The big question is, of course, have we done enough to remain relevant to our target group as an INGO, have we changed radically”. This is a valid and critical issue.
Adaptation capacities are limited (and always will be), which requires two complementary approaches: for one, honing those capacities, and second, a sound mechanism to detect and scope new challenges and opportunities, so as to be able to prioritise quickly and not be caught out cold.
So where do ICSOs stand in terms of future preparedness? The picture is highly heterogeneous, but a number of organisations might benefit from a more conscious and systematic approach to spotting and assessing change. Some key questions are:
We will carry these discussions forward in the Scanning the Horizon community.
 This was done via an online survey from December 2017 through February 2018 and a series of complementing interviews in February with select survey respondents, both targeting senior ICSO staff charged with strategy, trend analysis and organisational adaptation to change. We reached out to 31 ICSOs with an invitation to take the survey and shared the invitation via social media. We received 18 responses from ICSOs. A workshop co-hosted by ODI, Plan International and Scanning the Horizon on 6 March 2018 served to present and discuss the findings with members of ICSOs’ senior management, thereby complementing and corroborating the desk work.
 Internal questionnaire-based review of scanning approaches among Scanning the Horizon members, with 12 respondents.
 Such as the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends (2016) report, the UK Ministry of Defence Global Strategic Trends Out to 2045 report (2014) for mega-trends, and Bond’s Tomorrows’ World (2015) and Scanning the Horizon’s “Exploring the Future” (2016) reports for development sector trends.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast. This phrase came up more than once, when the Centre for the first time brought together three groups of global leaders from international civil society organisations (ICSOs): Programme, Policy and Operations Directors who met for two and a half days in Berlin to discuss and learn together how to increase the impact of their work and their organisations.
The conversations, both in the plenary and in the three separate peer groups, confirmed that most ICSOs are undergoing fundamental changes within their structures, funding models and ways of working. This requires massive efforts from all parts of the organisation, including the moving or dispersing of international headquarters, new governance structures or the reorganisation of entire divisions.
But first and foremost it requires a very different culture within our organisations to bring the new systems to life and achieve the long-term change we aim for. The importance of organisational culture has been part of the Centre’s discussions around transformational change in the past years. As most organisations now have advanced on their change journeys, the question moves to the forefront of the agenda.
The crisis around safeguarding is one devastating example that it is not enough to have sufficient policies and processes in place if they are not fully embraced, practised and enforced by all parts of the organisation. But also the ambitious goals of many organisations to work closer to the ground, collaborate more with partners and deliver on the key promise of the Sustainable Development Goals to leave no one behind require very different approaches to collaboration and ways of working.
The three groups of leaders at different points in their meetings started to unpack what this means for their roles, their teams and their wider organisations: How do we create the spaces for the challenging and uncomfortable conversations we need to have in order to move forward? How do we work together differently in our respective roles to stop the cases where power has been abused both internally and externally? What kind of leadership is needed for the kind of organisations we want to be? How can we support each other in this work?
Culture change is certainly the hardest part of any change process. People have to change their behaviours: Some have to give up or share their power, others have to step up and claim their space and leaders have to set the new framework and live by it every single day.
Only if we think through the needed changes in culture more consciously and make it a key part of our strategic planning and implementation, we can truly reap the benefits of our ambitious change agendas. If we can match our strategic visions and implementation with a culture that is truly global, representative and transparent, this can also contribute to our legitimacy and narrative about the change we want to achieve in times when civil society is under heavy scrutiny and pressure.
Strategy and culture should have breakfast together – poverty, inequality and injustice should be on the menu.
As inboxes full of updated privacy notice emails can attest, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is here. The GDPR is the EU’s regulation on data protection, which came into force on May 25th and grants individuals greater knowledge of and control over their personal data. As a regulation, it is a binding legislative act, not just a directive, and will be directly binding and applicable in EU member states.
Civil society organisations face unique, sometimes daunting challenges to implementing the GDPR. Some of these challenges are specific to the GDPR, but most relate more broadly to how we interact with technology and data as a sector. Facing each challenge thoughtfully will help us think more clearly about what we’re doing and how we can do things better in future, not just for the GDPR but for our constituents, too.
At its core, the GDPR means we can no longer gather personal data “just in case”, and that we must clearly articulate why we need to collect and store it. The Engine Room’s work focuses on supporting civil society to increase their impact through strategic, responsible use of data and technology. The attention on the GDPR has given us a lot of opportunities to continue developing and sharing these intentional approaches.
Treating GDPR compliance as a one-off endeavour is a potential pitfall facing NGOs tackling implementation. As it stands, NGOs may already be pursuing technology and data projects in one-off bursts, without considering ongoing tool maintenance or how technology integrates into existing work. We’ve long advocated for taking a more critical and strategic approach to implementing technology and data projects, and think that there is a lot to be gained from doing the same when it comes to the GDPR.
By taking the time now to build strong processes, we can support our organisations’ data governance processes well into the future. Creating processes – like guidance documents on regularly deleting data you don’t need (after considering its value carefully!) or steps for responding to a data breach – can be much more valuable than any one-off checklist. Thinking about compliance as an attitudinal shift, not a single-day project, is key.
Some organisations may see GDPR as an ‘operational’ issue that is peripheral to their overall mission and de-prioritise it as a result. There is a long history of operational issues receiving less attention and fewer resources within the sector. This happens both because organisations lack operations-focused staff with the necessary skills, and because funders are not always willing to provide core funding for organisational development.
When implementing the GDPR, it can be helpful to dedicate an internal point-person (or team) to managing the process of compliance. It might be useful to establish an explicit internal prioritisation of operational tasks, and have a conversation with funders about the necessity of this prioritisation. In our case, it meant creating internal educational documents and templates that would help the entire organisation understand the importance of the GDPR and how it will enhance our work going forward. No matter what, it means realising that strong operations, policies and practices are fundamental to building strong programmes and achieving our mission(s).
One of the great (but tricky) things about the GDPR is that it’s cross-organisational. It affects all data held – whether for finance purposes, communications or programmatic work – and it affects the activities of technology teams. That’s to say, it’s complex.
But so are the challenges that civil society organisations tackle. We’re already mapping information flows, connecting disparate ideas and trying to increase collaboration, sometimes on a daily basis. These same tools are critical in continued adherence with the GDPR. At The Engine Room, we managed this kind of GDPR-specific collaboration by creating things like an audit document that outlines everywhere we hold personal data, how we collect it and who is involved. This required input from every corner of our organisation, and sparked conversations that are continuing today.
The GDPR also provides an opportunity to look outside of our organisations to find new ideas and collaborators. There are many existing networks that bridge NGOs and technology, and the GDPR offers an opportunity to both grow these and create new ones. As one example close to us, the GDPR has popped up on the responsible data mailing list, a space where people share challenges and develop best practices to prioritise the rights of those reflected in the data we hold. It also was the topic of a community call, which highlighted both shared concerns and resources. The eCampaigning Forum (ECF), a network of practitioners using digital media for advocacy, also has a very active mailing list where the GDPR has been under detailed discussion.
Thinking about the GDPR is a valuable opportunity for many NGOs to consider our data in a more holistic way. By placing the GDPR within a larger context of building responsible data practices, we can increase the effectiveness of our projects and better serve our partners and the communities we work with and for. After all, it isn’t just about the GDPR itself, but about the ethical management of the data we hold.
To take this broader approach, it’s important to find communities that perhaps work in a similar area as yours and who also want to make their responsible data practices an ongoing project. For specifics, see a little bit of what we’re doing about implementation. Remember to document, document, document, as demonstrating an intent to prioritise the data rights of individuals will always be a good thing to have in your favour. Use the GDPR as an excuse to do a ‘spring clean’, and take stock of your work, but also make sure to think about how it interacts with your long-term processes.
The GDPR presents a challenge for many resource-strapped organisations, but it is one that we can all face together. With collaboration and coordination, we hope that its implementation will be a positive step for the sector’s long-term tech and data projects.