What is the “value added” of being a coalition?
How do we best support targeted organizations during a disinformation attack?
What techniques can we use to move the needle on constricting regulations due to operating principles or religious faith?
These guiding questions are examples of conversations that led to launching the Together Project in the US in 2017, and are ongoing ‘North Stars’ to navigate dialogue and decision-making with our coalition, as our initiative continues to develop.
Successful coalitions depend on the ability of representatives from independent organizations to work almost as if they belonged to the same company. InterAction values coalition work and is committed to be a platform for alliances to foster. As the oldest and largest coalition of U.S.-based, international NGOs, InterAction draws on our – nearly 200 – organizational member and partner community to think and act collectively, while serving the world’s poor and vulnerable. Through the Together Project, InterAction has designed a model of collaborative thought leadership and brings NGOs together in service to a stronger, more inclusive civil society voice and posture within the United States.
Behind the core Together Project Coalition of five founding organizations (American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA), Helping Hand for Relief & Development, Islamic Relief USA, United Mission for Relief and Development (UMR) and Zakat Foundation of America), there is a large support network of more than 75 organizations, of various faiths and none, and with leverage and ‘voice’ to influential audiences. The Together Project’s Interfaith Connections builds upon the effective on-the-ground partnerships of both non-secular and secular InterAction members to strategically engage in supportive solidarity across a variety of issues at home in the United States. The exponential effect of displaying a united front when organizations are attacked is often beyond coming to the aid of a specific organization but lends to a deepening of the public morale and posture for the entire sector domestically and aboard.
For this kind of collaboration to occur, the Together Project has established an agreed commonmission, goals, outcome, scope, agenda and work plan to strategically guide our activities. This, in turn, has created a clear understanding of the initiative’s joint priorities, while providing autonomy for each partner’s organizational structure, policies and procedures, and culture and norms. The coalition is better able to operate, make decisions, allocate resources, share information, and expand our alliance further, such as our affiliation with the Charity & Security Network to address several comparable issues together as partners. Likewise, the Together Project joined the World Bank Stakeholder Dialogue on De-risking to elevate the impact of the issue on our coalition members. A strong foundation and commitment to solidarity within the Together Project has positioned the initiative to engage as both a participant and a leader with other like-minded coalitions and alliances.
The keys to an effective coalition of this nature are mutual trust and respect for each other’s strengths. Organizations may be asked to compromise or defer to a partner’s judgment in decision-making to move towards the greater common goal. The vulnerability felt in these sometimes direct and challenging moments is a healthy part of becoming an alliance dependent on one other to succeed together. Sharing on the answers to earlier guiding questions helps the Together Project remain focused on our principles
Essentially, solidarity is vital to the Together Project. The driving force behind the initiative is the word “together” and a core belief that no one organization should have to fight disinformation and discrimination fueled by populist-nationalism alone. Countering the effects of restrictive, discriminatory government regulations that are viewed as vital to national security and defending against disinformation campaigns are not easy topics to broach in the current political climate. Fortunately, organizations do not have to quietly confront these issues alone. For those that do not have the capacity to address these difficult issues, the coalition offers a foundation to stand on and participate in through working groups, activities, and events at a level that best meets their ability. Likewise, for organizations that believe these issues do not affect their operations or are not current priorities, the Together Project highlights the interconnectedness of the work and the broader ramifications of how various aspects play out in different parts of the world. The backing of InterAction members and stakeholders across the sector helps to amplify the voice of the Together Project to advocate for change.
Millions of people have been on the streets in the past months, and civil society is showing its teeth towards climate crisis deniers and slow political actors.
Moreover, thousands were in the halls of the UN General assembly last week, pushing for climate and social justice and advocating for an acceleration of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) that the international community agreed upon four years ago.
Key aims – the 2-degree global warming cap, and the eradication of poverty, hunger and injustice, seem currently too far away from being realised. So there is an obvious and urgent need to increase collaboration, achieve (and to demonstrate) better impact and intensify social work.
At the same time, liberal ideas and actors experience grave pushbacks – both through authoritarian regimes and anti-liberal forces in many societies. The amount of hatred and opposition, which young civil society activists like Greta Thunberg receive these days, is unbearable and yet is just the tip of what seems to be happening around the world: an erosion of global values of solidarity and humanity, and growing confrontations between adverse worldviews.
Being part of a demonstration against inertia around the climate crisis, or enjoying the company of well-meaning globalists at the SDG and climate summits in New York gives us hope and spirit. However, it should not distract us from the antagonised world around us, which needs stronger engagement by and with civil society actors.
At the end of October, about a hundred representatives of civil society will gather in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to share and discuss strategies of citizens’ engagement, achieve better impact through collaborations, and fight against the pushback on liberal values.
For a civil society organisation, being legitimate means dealing with questions and doubts, addressing flaws, and renewing societal contracts between social and environmental justice actors and with many other parts of society, especially the people they are serving. Hence, the participants of the International Civil Society Centre’s Global Perspectives conference will be a diverse mix of global and national actors, activist and service deliverers, academia, advocates, and supporters. The perspectives are global, but the actions always contextual. Being in Ethiopia, a country that has made remarkable steps towards embracing civic rights and liberal policies will give participants an inspirational setting for a meeting that will make a difference.
We are looking forward to seeing you there.
NB: While Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken penned this blog post, thanks goes to Long Tran, the author of the article discussed, who reviewed and had input into its content.
What is the influence of our organisational structure on our NGOs’ effectiveness? Many mid to large size NGOs have built complex, ambitious, often multi-layered organisational forms in the last decade or so, but do they offer enough value in return for tradeoffs such as greater transaction costs, less agility and other unwanted side effects? Centralised, unitary INGO structures tend to lead to more efficient but less democratic decision making than in decentralised structures. Has the pendulum swung too far, not enough, or are things just about right? And what do leaders candidly think about this?
Long Tran, a colleague in my former ‘pracademic’ life and PhD student at American University, USA, recently produced an interesting article about how leaders think about (de)centralised structures (pay walled, citation below), and how it impacts effectiveness in their perception. Long used an INGO leadership interview data set that a team of us at the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University (USA) had produced some time ago. We had interviewed 152 top leaders of US-registered (though not always US-founded) INGOs about their perspectives on effectiveness challenges — among others.
How NGO leaders think about centralised versus decentralised structures in peer NGOs is not the same as what they perceive about their own. Long studied the connection between an INGO’s level of centralisation and its effectiveness reputation, as perceived by leaders of peer NGOs. Perceptions about reputation matter, because they can shape future opportunities and risks. As Long writes and I concur “civil society sector appears culturally averse to concentrated power as a matter of principle”. From this perspective, compared with centralised INGOs, decentralised INGOs may enjoy more legitimacy and, thus, a better effectiveness reputation. Hence, one would expect that INGO leaders would rate their decentralised peer INGOs better than centralised peer INGOs in terms of legitimacy. Long found this expectation to be true in his data.
On the other hand, a centralised structure can be expected to reduce transaction costs, and help leaders feel more confident about their organisation’s effectiveness. Long thus hypothesized that, compared to leaders of decentralised INGOs, leaders of centralised NGOs would rate their own effectiveness higher. This was indeed borne out by Long’s analysis.
Overall, centralised, unitary INGOs thus tend to have stronger internally perceived effectiveness but weaker externally perceived legitimacy than decentralised INGOs do. For example, as one of the interviewed leaders described, “the tension you accept when you accept a confederated structure is you are going to have high transaction costs; the flip side of that is if you were to have a command and control architecture you make other kinds of compromises such as in terms of legitimacy and credibility”. And while academics have argued endlessly about definitions of NGO effectiveness and performance, most agree that these are ‘socially constructed’ – that is, they are defined and negotiated between stakeholders of the NGO and are not absolute.
Several questions arise from these findings:
You can follow Long Tran on Twitter to stay in touch with his interesting research.
His article which I draw this post from (with his permission) is regretfully behind a paywall; here is the citation:
Tran, L. (2019). International NGO Centralization and Leader-Perceived Effectiveness. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 0899764019861741.