Posts with the tag
“Power Shift”

Shifting power in international civil society organisations

26th March 2020 by Thomas Howie

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“Power Shift” within international civil society organisations (ICSOs) is topic of growing importance. Who has power? Who can exercise it? How does it work?

In conversation, Ed Boswell, Co-Founder and CEO at Conner Advisory and Wolfgang Jamann, Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre look at power concerning ICSOs’ governance.

The two recently led our “Power Shift Lab” on the subject of PowerShift in ICSOs. The lab invited leaders from ICSOs organisations to analyse power dynamics and factors furthering or hindering the shifting of power within their organisations.

Producer: Julia Pazos


International Civil Society Centre website –

Our work on Power Shift and Governance Reform –

Wolfgang Jamann blog, “Power, Governance and Intent in Civil Society Organisations” –

Ed Boswell blog, “Power is the energy that flows; governance is the conduit through which it moves.” –


Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Power, Governance and Intent in Civil Society Organisations

15th January 2020 by Wolfgang Jamann

Power Shift Lab Event

Power is everywhere in human relations. Its dimensions are also observable in interactions between organisations and institutions and play an increasing role in international political arenas (geopolitical power shifts). While power might not be good or bad per se, the effects of power imbalances contribute to human suffering, inequalities, lack of participatory opportunities, civil unrest. They can be found in regional (North-South), economic and political divides and are often characterized by marginalisation of communities, abuse of political power, bad governance and corruption. 

The work of civil society organisations is conducted right in the middle of such relationships and they themselves are powerful actors and can become part of power imbalances, e.g. in their relationship with local partners and communities, and not least with the people they serve. In recent years, the international community has tried to address this more systematically, e.g. by the localisation agenda in humanitarian work, and by power transformations within governance models of larger federations. A recent ‘Pathways to Power Symposium’ in London came up with a Power Shift manifesto. It sparked an intensified debate on accelerating much-needed changes that #ShiftThePower.

Power imbalances within and between Northern and Southern, but also large and small, rich and resource-scarce international civil society organisations (ICSOs) often stand in the way of these organisations achieving their missions and mandates. To improve the livelihoods of people by delivering inclusive programmes and taking solid resource-allocation decisions, ICSOs need to shift power to these communities. However, ‘traditional’ governance models that are process-heavy and geared towards donor accountability, limit the engagement of communities from engaging in decision-making processes. ICSOs are also often organised in a parent-subsidiary operation model whereby a resource-rich entity controls implementing branches and partner organisations in the Global South. This is exacerbated by donor-driven, project-based operational models that prevent processes of inclusive resource allocation and prioritisation. 

About our Power Shift Lab

The International Civil Society Centre in conjunction with Conner Advisory conducted a first Power Shift Lab in September 2018 to address this appetite towards more legitimate and global governance. ICSO leaders from the Global North and South reviewed the inter-relationship of the ‘Golden Triangle’: Power Dynamics, Organisational Intent and Governance Reform’. They found that they are in a much better position to assess adequate governance models and necessary reforms if they know what the power dynamics inside and around their organisations are, and how they help or hinder their strategic intent. 

A few ICSOs have radically started to place the people they serve at the top or centre of their governance models, whilst others are seeking approaches that are more evolutionary. This moves towards an ambitious aim but is faced with significant challenges caused by organisational culture, open or hidden power structures and established business models. Building on the implementation successes (and failures) after the first Lab, the Centre will – in its next Governance Lab 2.0 in March 2020 – explore the questions of how to overcome these barriers and lead the necessary power shifts. 

Wolfgang Jamann

Executive Director

International Civil Society Centre

Dr. Wolfgang Jamann is Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre. Until January 2018 he was Secretary General and CEO of CARE International (Geneva). Before that he led NGO Deutsche Welthungerhilfe and the Alliance 2015, a partnership of 7 European aid organisations. From 2004-2009 he was CEO & Board member of CARE Deutschland-Luxemburg and President of the CARE Foundation. Previously, he worked for World Vision International as a regional representative in East Africa (Kenya) & Head of Humanitarian Assistance at WV Germany. After his Ph.D. dissertation in 1990 he started his career in development work at the German Foundation for International Development, later for the UNDP in Zambia. As a researcher and academic, he has published books and articles on East & Southeast Asia contributing to international studies on complex humanitarian emergencies and conflict management.

“Power is the energy that flows; governance is the conduit through which it moves.”

27th November 2018 by Ed Boswell

In 2017, the Centre reported the results of a survey that revealed widespread dissatisfaction among ICSO leaders with their existing governance structures and mechanisms, as well as with the current balance of power within their organisations. Among the most frequently mentioned frustrations were slow decision-making, nagging questions of legitimacy and poor execution—and all of this despite the fact that some of these same organisations had engaged in governance reforms over the previous two years to address their issues.

Wolfgang Jamann, Centre ED, presenting at Global Governance Lab

This past September, leaders from eight ICSOs met in Berlin for the better part of three days to focus on how to best address these frustrations within their own institutions. At this Centre-sponsored Global Governance Lab, the participant cohort embodied a range of roles from board members to CEOs, from deputy secretary generals to program and governance directors. Collectively, they represented federations, confederations and unitary governance structures; faith-based and secular organisations; and humanitarian, human rights and development-focused INGOs, and together they possessed almost two centuries of experience in the civil society sector, with much of that time spent in leadership positions. Most of the participants represented organisations that were actively considering changes or updates to their current governance model and processes.

Participants discuss a power shift in the organisation at Global Governance Lab

The starting point for the group’s exploration was to assess in what specific ways the formal and informal power dynamics and governance structures currently at play either helped or hindered the realisation of their organisation’s intent. While each organisation had its own unique answers to this question, a number of themes emerged across the ICSOs. In fact, despite differences in formal governance structures and processes, the issues identified by the leaders in the Lab were strikingly similar across the cohort. Some of the common themes that emerged were as follows:

  • The impact that an organisation can potentially have in the world is compromised when its power dynamics and governance structures are not aligned with the achievement of the intent of the institution.
  • Power arrangements and governance structures that may have worked well at one point in the organisation’s past are often not the same as what is required in the current circumstances.
  • Informal power often undermines formal structures and processes, even well-established ones.
  • Money and access to resources (like funders) are major determinants of who has a voice and influence.
  • Money creates uneven power relations not only between organisations and their funders, but also within organisations, when financial contributions of one member organisation result in greater decision-making or voting power.
  • Long tenure with an organisation combined with a loyal network of relationships can also create a strong base of power and influence for individual actors.
  • Those who have decision-making power are often not the same as those with the power to implement, block, or ignore strategic decisions that have been made.
  • Power is asymmetric—that is, it takes more power to create and build momentum for action and change than to destroy or block necessary action and change.
  • Any significant power shifts and/or meaningful governance reforms almost always require that some individuals and/or parties give up or share power that they have long held or protected.
  • Hence, modifications to power dynamics and governance structures require committed and courageous leadership to withstand the inevitable resistance to change.

Interestingly, while all the organisations who participated in the Lab identified specific changes they needed to make to better achieve their organisation’s intent, the changes that were most frequently highlighted did not involve transforming the formal governance structures or processes. Instead, their recommendations most often cited shifting the informal yet potent power dynamics in their organisations. We will cover these specifics in our next instalment of this blog.

Ed Boswell, CEO and Co-Founder, Conner Advisory

(Along with Wolfgang Jamann, Ed co-designed and co-facilitated the Global Governance Lab.)


Ed Boswell

Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer

Connor Advisory

With more than four decades of experience helping senior leadership teams around the globe execute major transformational changes, Ed has worked with nonprofits and NGOs, as well as companies in the pharmaceutical, federal government, financial services, and professional services sectors. His work has reinforced to him the role character plays in successfully executing significant changes. Prior to joining forces with Daryl Conner in 2014 to form Conner Advisory, Ed was a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) where he led the U.S. People and Change consulting practice. In this role, Ed was responsible for leading a team of practitioners who helped clients drive large-scale strategic change, as well as transforming HR into a more effective function and optimizing organizational talent. A recognized leader in the field of transformational change, Ed is a frequent speaker on issues relating to leadership, strategy execution, and organizational performance. He co-authored Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution (Harvard Business Press, 2010), which provides a blueprint for leaders who are executing transformational change in their organizations. Ed earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. While at Penn, he also received The Wharton School Certificate in Business Administration.