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.
The COVID-19 pandemic primarily accelerated underlying challenges, providing additional drivers for what have been longer-standing trends:
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.
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:
What these new roles could look like:
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.
In 2021, the Centre’s Scanning the Horizon futures community is working on ‘inclusive and equitable futures’, exploring and sharing models, analysis and collaborative opportunities for more diverse futures conversations and thinking. One key part is sharing practical and accessible tools, particularly open source methods which do not require significant specialist knowledge or skills to implement and, increasingly, virtual delivery options.
We want to explore new opportunities to either use these tools for our own community or group collaborations, or exchange experiences as we use shared techniques with our own audiences. These ‘meet the author’ tools workshops are a new kind of online community offering this year.
Common barriers to introducing or strengthening futures thinking in organisations include time-consuming workshops, not being able to bring diverse groups together (especially in-person) or the need for consultants or specialists to lead this work. So in 2021, we want to find the best of what is ‘out there’ to address these challenges, and bring them back into our community to help democratise futures practice beyond a smaller group of organisational strategic thinkers.
So we were very excited to find the new ‘Imagining Feminist Futures after COVID-19’ workshop methodology developed by the Australian CSO International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) in 2020. This is a 3-hour online methodology which can bring new, diverse audiences together without expert external facilitation. And we partnered with IWDA to deliver a combined familiarisation and training of trainers session on 23-24 February for ten organisations from the Scanning the Horizon community.
Imagining Feminist Futures After COVID-19 is a project IWDA with support from a steering group of actors across the feminist movement. The project aims to enable feminist organisations and networks to think through the ways in which the COVID-19 crisis is changing the future trajectories – both positive and negative – for feminist social change towards the year 2030.
IWDA commissioned a consortium of feminist futurists, led by Changeist, to design this adaptable workshop methodology based on futures thinking approaches to support diverse feminist activists, organisations and networks to come together virtually (or in person where possible) and apply their own futures thinking and scenario building. For many participants, it may be their first experience of structured futures thinking, and as such, the tools have been designed for use by an audience which is totally new to the concepts.
A core objective of the project is to make the workshop methodology available for anyone to run with their own organisation, network or community. In return, they ask that participants share the findings from these different workshops. IWDA, along with project steering group members, plan to bring their own analysis and visioning to these outcomes and develop a range of creative outputs to add to the rich discussions happening across feminist movements.
IWDA has been holding feminist futures workshops with participants in Australia and across Asia and the Pacific. This workshop with our Scanning the Horizon community was IWDA’s first time with a group of more generalist futures thinkers, rather than strongly feminist-focused organisations and individuals.
The short summaries of (i) principles and frameworks that support and enable a feminist future and (ii) privileging forces/established power structures within society that hinder equal progress towards feminist futures help bring about different and deeper types of conversation. With more generalist audiences, we recommend including these as additional pre-reading, and to increase the amount of time in the agenda allocated to discussing the lens of privileging forces.
Participants felt the workshop methodology can be used both to inform strategic thinking and also as a tool for personal formation and training minds to think in more inclusive and equitable ways about the future. Its full trends list includes STEEP + V – incorporating values into a standard social, technological, economic, environmental and political assessment – which makes this a more holistic and interesting process.
We wanted our particular group to work on a broad range of trends, so included 18 from the full list of 20 (three teams with six trends). For groups with a specific aim or audience, focusing down on a smaller set of more relevant or influential trends may work better for more focused futures conversations.
Interestingly, of the trends provided, our three breakout teams independently decided to focus on: (i) ‘new faces of change’, (ii) ‘refocus on community’ and (iii) ‘sharing and peer economies’. This may reflect interest in exploring some of the new decentralised and power and leadership models which have become more prominent since COVID-19.
You can see the outcomes of our conversations here. They show that the method is great at enabling dynamic and interesting exchanges which can shift thinking and explore new possibilities in the group you’re working with. It also documents a range of insights which can be compared and contrasted with other groups also using the tool.
Key factors for facilitation are who you have in the virtual ‘room’ (see below), how you capture different perspectives, and how you support participation and share the findings.
IWDA have really made the toolkit as ready to use as possible, with a clear, well-illustrated facilitation guide and pre-populated Miro board for your use. After our session, nearly all participants felt ready to run a workshop themselves, with proper preparation time. This included participants relatively new to futures thinking, feminist thinking or even both, which reiterates just how accessible it is and does not require significant pre-existing knowledge, experience or expertise.
It does, however, require careful thought on facilitation, and time to ensure in advance that participants have sufficient basic skills and familiarisation with Miro. This may be easier for digital natives and require more preparation time for others (note that participation does not require a paid account. You should offer advance familiarisation sessions to people who have not Miro before, and share a practice ‘play’ board. The workshop board layout is a very intuitive design, with arrows to guide people through the navigation. If you take this time and care, the technology should not be alienating or prevent people from taking part.
And you do need to stress fully with participants how important it is for them to take the time for the pre-reading so that they will get the most out of the group conversations.
You also need to think through how to organise the group documentation of dynamic conversations to fit the time available – as you will feel the pressure to get things down! The beauty of Miro allows everyone to write down and share their ideas individually, in an open way aligned to the aims of the method. But a designated scribe may also be needed to help summarise the collective sense-making conversations for report back in plenary, at the risk of simplifying or even silencing some of other strands, to report back to the others.
When asked who they planned to run the workshop with, there was a real mix of audiences, both internally within our own organisations, externally with partners, networks and stakeholders, and in social circles with family and friends. And also with a range of people – activists and young changemakers, advocates, leadership/management teams, gender team/community of practice – but ideally with a broad mix of perspectives and roles to keep the explorations as diverse and dynamic as possible.
The workshop is designed for 5-20 participants. Breakout groups of around four people feels optimal to both generate ideas and keep documenting of conversations manageable. But ensuring diversity of groups is most critical – experience/knowledge/roles (futures/feminist/other), gender and geographic diversity, and a mix of optimists/pessimists (which could be identified by icebreakers).
Half the organisations who took part are already planning to run workshops with their networks. The Centre itself will run another session in May at an Americas/Europe/Africa-friendly time for organisations. We want to contribute to a community of worldwide practitioners using this method, and share both content findings and facilitation experiences or tips with IWDA. This blog is our first contribution, so watch this space for more updates from us and the other participants-turned-practitioners, over the coming months!
Let us know if you are interested in joining or running an upcoming workshop on ‘Imagining Feminist Futures after COVID-19’.
Our next community methods/tools workshop will be with ParEvo on 29 April 2021 – see more here.
This is the first of two guest blogs and an upcoming podcast interview which will explore longstanding challenges and new dimensions of deep drivers of change for international civil society organisations (ICSOs), from a group of academics and practitioners who have long explored the questions of power and relevance that influence the future of these organisations.
In this first blog, the authors explore the major long-term trends and questions already challenging the sector before the new complexities highlighted and surfaced by the big developments of 2020.
Long before COVID-19 disrupted the lives of billions and raised new, urgent challenges for the sector, many ICSOs were already grappling with existential questions about their futures. In many ways, the global pandemic is amplifying a longstanding need for change, not just for future-looking ICSOs but for the whole sector more broadly.
Geopolitical shifts, increasing demands for accountability, and growing competition have been driving the need for change within the sector for decades. ICSOs have been responding with specific initiatives intended to secure their future effectiveness and relevance, but their efforts have been constrained by institutional and cultural legacies—forms and norms—that inhibit their ability to successfully adapt. As ICSOs confront unprecedented challenges to their survival and future relevance, leaders and change managers must keep the long-term future in sight while addressing the immediate needs of their organisations and stakeholders.
The longstanding problem facing ICSOs is that over the past half-century they have evolved into new kinds of organisations, while the architecture in which they operate has remained largely unchanged. Most ICSOs today do more than alleviate the symptoms of deprivation and injustice, seeking instead to address root causes through fundamental social and political transformations. As such, they are no longer conventional charities and instead agents of transformation focused on achieving long-term sustainable impact.
But ICSOs still operate within a legacy architecture designed for conventional charities, not for contemporary change agents. The resulting tensions underlie many of the challenges long debated throughout the sector, including aid localisation, downward accountability, and shifting power. Missing in these discussions is an acknowledgement that ICSOs need to do more than embrace internal reforms; they also need to work collectively to change the architecture in which they are embedded.
The architecture consists of the forms and norms that have historically defined the sector. In the United States, ICSOs typically incorporate in charity form with self-perpetuating boards and transnational federated governance structures often dominated by their wealthiest member organisations. These forms tend to privilege ‘upward’ financial accountability to donors in the Global North, with a focus on preventing financial integrity failures, such as embezzlement or fraud, rather than focusing on ‘downward’ accountability and sustainable impact for intended local constituents.
The charity model assumes that the impact ICSOs create is often unknowable or too difficult to measure, so accountability is instead fixated on financial reporting and monitoring. In general, ICSOs are supposed to spend all of their available resources as quickly as possible on whatever is easiest to measure and most satisfying to donors. This is not conducive for organisations explicitly committed to being accountable to those they claim to serve, truly empowering stakeholders, and achieving long-term sustainable impact. The traditional charity model works well for conventional charities, but fails for ICSOs seeking to inhabit new roles as agents and facilitators of fundamental change.
The dysfunctional role of this architecture is today particularly apparent when ICSOs attempt to break the rules to increase their effectiveness; for instance, when activists seek to address global issues through advocacy “at home,” rather than through traditional aid transfers from the Global North to the South. In Germany, groups such as Attac and Campact had their tax-exempt status revoked because of tax laws prohibiting political activities. In Switzerland, a recent campaign by ICSOs in support of greater corporate accountability for human rights violations abroad has led to accusations of engaging in illegal domestic political activities. As the strategies of ICSOs continuously evolve based on changing understandings of global problems, the existing charity laws and regulations regularly fail the sector.
Alongside issues of law and governance, powerful cultural sector norms have also emerged that influence how stakeholders think and act. Many of these represent the sector’s virtuous character and should be maintained and celebrated, but others hold it back. For example, ICSO staff and supporters may acknowledge a need for reform throughout the sector, but at the same time consider their own organisations exempt because of some perceived unique difference. These ‘excessive cultures of uniqueness’ can also lead to problematic behaviours by individuals claiming a commitment to values as a substitute for a true culture of transparency and openness.
Of course, what ultimately matters most is the lives of the billions of people who stand to gain by a more successful sector. The architecture has ensured that ICSOs can survive, and even thrive, mainly by satisfying resource providers. But this system is outdated and fails to serve the needs of ICSOs and their local constituents today.
To ensure their future relevance, ICSOs need to collectively organise to transform the legal and cultural frameworks holding the sector back. They need to decide what kind of organisations they want to be and then help create a new architecture that facilitates, rather than impedes, success in these desired future roles.
George E. Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz, alongside Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, 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.