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.