Posts with the tag
“Power Shift”

Global Perspectives 2023 – Moments of Truth 

22nd November 2023 by Miriam Niehaus

Prolonged humanitarian crises, the rise of generative artificial intelligence, the use of disinformation to polarise societies and manipulate elections, the suppression of civil society from state and non-state actors and decreasing funding… are just a few of the ever-growing challenges that social justice, humanitarian, and development organisations must contend with. As progressive and rights-based civil society organisations – from local to international level – are grappling with these crises of the past few years, the International Civil Society Centre once again had the honour of curating our yearly conference, Global Perspectives on these topics. “Global Perspectives – Moments of Truth” happened on 9 November and brought together hundreds of online participants across five different sessions to not just ponder these challenges but provide concrete examples and explore ideas on how we can collaboratively tackle them.  

Though each session was independently curated, three overarching themes emerged. 

The Future of Civic Space is Now
Anticipating the factors that will constrict our civic space a decade from now demands our attention today. Civic Space has been in decline and is likely to continue on this trajectory. Are we adequately addressing the issues that will likely shape our societies in the next decade, impacting our civic engagement? In the session titled “Learn From and Engage on Futures Scenarios for Civic Space” participants learned about the outcomes of the Centre’s “A History of Civic Space 2024-2034”, exercise, where representatives from 15 civil society organisations collaborated to develop possible future scenarios for civic space. Session participants engaged in the scenarios and identified actionable steps to either advance or prevent undesirable outcomes. For example, a likely scenario of artificial intelligence (AI) first enabling a lot of good work at scale and then backfiring on civil society as “obstacles to progress”, highlighted the urgency to get into the AI game now. Later in the day at the “Digital Dialogue – AI: Solution or Threat to Mis-/Disinformation?” drove the point home: two scholars Liz Orembo from Research ICT Africa and Admire Mare from the University of Johannesburg, called on civil society organisations to address AI now, as governance advocates, watchdogs, as well as helping to increase media literacy. This is especially needed as there are a number of key elections coming up next year where we will likely see sophisticated disinformation campaigns. Henry Parker from Logically, informed us that there is a lot of potential to use AI to identify disinformation campaigns and reprimand the actors responsible. During “A Sector Conversation”, Stéphane Duguin from CyberPeace Institute warned us that we need to create a comparable countermodel if we wish to increase our capacity to oppose disinformation campaigns. Read their approach to responsible use of artificial intelligence here and watch this space as we are launching our Sector Guidance on Mis-, Dis-, and Mal-information: Insights and Foresights in early 2024.    

Representation Matters
Two sessions, “The Truth is in the Telling” and “Exploring Personal Realities (of Marginalisation)”, delved into the importance of representation. Insights from individuals working with and identifying as members of marginalised communities underscored the need for more direct dialogue with those in power. Nana Afadzinu from WACSI emphasised in “A Sector Conversation” the need for introspection and acknowledgement of systemic inequity. Festus Odingo from the SDG Kenya Forum emphasised the significance of partnerships as a key force for change, emphasising how they may broaden the scope and effect of community-based initiatives. Representation of course also happens through communication pieces – donor reports, flyers, fundraising advertisements and much more. Undeniably, communication about Global North-financed Global South projects has been a big part of manifesting white saviourism and entrenching power imbalances. By now, several organisations have begun to examine this reality and make changes. The Ethical Story Telling Guideline, a toolkit that PATH and Metro Group DRC contributed to, was presented by the speakers. It can assist companies in determining how to, for instance, become more ethical by making concrete adjustments to the planning process. Communication audits, such as the ones conducted every two years by CARE International, can be useful in holding teams accountable and providing incentives for improvement. As part of its bottom-up strategy to alter various communication channels, CARE has made significant efforts to maximise informed consent and minimise unconscious bias. Yet, there are still incredibly difficult dilemmas when organisations must weigh communication subjects’ agency against their safety, for example when portraying female CSO workers in Afghanistan. The emphasis is on respect. A key takeaway from our sessions is to aim to do no harm but failing forward is inevitable as we push one another to improve and recognise ethical storytelling as a fundamental  component of power shifts within the industry. 

Weathering a Perfect Storm
Our speakers highlighted this year a shrinking civic space, humanitarian crises piling up and worsening, colonial structures still fostering inequity, and growing cybercrime and disinformation adding to the complexity. All of this is happening in the face of a challenging global economy with a sharp decline for our causes. Are we experiencing a perfect storm? Yet, for most in the sector, there is a firm resolve to plough on despite difficult circumstances. There is no alternative. It has been inspiring to see among others, leaders from ICVA, CIVICUS, WACSI and the CyberPeace Institute sharing resources, knowledge and honest invitations to collaborate more, helping each other to overcome our deficiencies and capitalise on our respective expertise and strengths.  

To continue surviving the storm, the International Civil Society Centre will keep bringing attention to the incredible innovations that are being developed in the field. As Mirela Shuteriqi from ICVA said in her closing statement, we must also transform ourselves. We must encourage a culture and bring about changes at the UN level, using this as a chance to collaborate and tackle social justice issues. We remain dedicated to facilitating dialogue, sharing innovations, and fostering collaboration within the sector. It is through collective determination, thoughtful introspection, and ethical storytelling that we can face the challenges that lay ahead, transform ourselves, and forge a path towards a more just and equitable future. The journey is ongoing, but together, as a united force, we embark on it with unwavering resolve. 


Special thanks to all our speakers – Jennifer Abomnger, Nana Afadzinu, Stéphane Duguin, Patrick Gathara, Arnold Gekonge, Eva Gondor, Heather Hutchings, Wolfgang Jamann, Lysa John, Hussam Joudah, Admire Mare, Shalini Moodley, Patricia Mugenzi, Levis Nderitu, Nana Nwachukwu, Festus Odingo, Elizabeth Orembo, Henry Parker, Neha Rayamajhi, Mirela Shuteriqi, Clare Spurrell, David Verga, and Rachel Wilkinson.



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Miriam Niehaus

Head of Programmes

International Civil Society Centre

Miriam leads the Centre’s programmes. She started at the Centre as Executive Assistant in 2014 and then, as Project Manager, developed and implemented the Centre’s projects on civic space between 2016 and 2019. Prior to joining the Centre Miriam worked for VSO International and GIZ in the Palestinian Territories. She holds a BA in Islamic Studies and Social Anthropology from the University of Freiburg and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Podcast – Power Shift: Seizing the Window of Opportunity for True Transformation

17th March 2022 by Elizabeth Parsons

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Listen to Nana Afadzinu, Wolfgang Jamann and Miriam Niehaus reflect on the latest progress the sector has made on powershift, how it has changed over the years and which key actors are pushing the powershift agenda. Plus, get inspired by their recommendations on how to seize the momentum and take action to bring about true transformation.


Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Re-powering the system

22nd July 2021 by Wolfgang Jamann

Power Shift, Localisation and Decolonising Aid, have become strong trends, and also buzzwords in the current debate around a more legitimate and impactful aid system.

The push for more resources and decision-making power has most prominently launched at the World Humanitarian Forum in 2016, and was linked to pledges to increase the appalling low percentages of aid funding to local actors, both by donors and international civil societies organisations (ICSOs). Breakthroughs of this ‘Grand Bargain’ are yet to be seen, despite continued commitment to strengthening local Civil Society, recently confirmed by a strong OECD policy document.

Civil Society itself is struggling with implementation. The ambition has worked itself into a number of narratives on how the ‘system’ should change, how power needs to be shifted, how International ICSOs need to be re-imagined.

Not all of these narratives are positive. Nationalistic Governments in India or parts of Africa have hijacked the ‘localisation’ ambition to keep foreign CSOs at bay and discredit them as foreign agents. Even in the US and the UK localisation has become a different meaning – using foreign aid to help disaster victims at home. The recent drastic cuts by British FCDO show the trend.

Looking at the traditional ‘Power Holders’ in the aid system, donors, bilateral agencies and ICSOs, many, if not all, will agree that ‘localisation’ is a good thing, though. It strengthens the consideration of local contexts, vulnerabilities and capacities, true partnerships, inclusive decision-making etc. Many are talking about, and implementing, changing funding patterns, with promising developments linked to the increasingly localised COVID-19 responses.

International civil society organisations have, generally, a rather positive narrative on localisation that includes many past achievements they seem to have made over the last 30 years. Many have grown into confederations, with strong local chapters, and a huge armada of local staff, increasingly in leadership positions. Many will defend their business models as inclusive, decentralised, and addressing the local contexts.

The challenge comes with scrutinising whether these models are good enough. Are power imbalances being addressed, and radically changing? The Centre works with a number of ambitious ICSOs who have started putting local actors (people we work with, partners, primary actors) into the centre of decision-making processes. These are ‘Governance’ discussions in the wider sense, i.e. putting processes and structures to the test – are they designed, capable and fit for greater inclusion?

It’s an exciting journey which has no easy answers – different ways of inclusivity are being chased, and different power dimensions are being addressed – in Big ‘G’ Governance (structures, decision-making protocols, voting rights) and small ‘g’ governance issues, like relationship building, information flow, accountability and transparency, ‘expertise talks vs. money talks’, physical points of decision-making.

Who and what helps and blocks? Facilitators and blockers of power shifts are often not the same people / entities. You need almost tactical approaches (actors mapping, power analysis, finding sponsors etc.). A very good idea is to link the governance as much as possible to the intent and mandate of the organisation.

A quick insight from an initiative many have heard about, could be helpful with focus. The West Africa Civil Society Institute WACSI has just published a survey of about 500 local CSOs about their perception on how partnerships play out. The results were almost surprisingly positive, with lots of appreciation of LCSO / ICSO partnerships, many of which do consider local contexts. But a few critical issues arose: Decision-making is uneven and not mutually beneficial, ICSOs are expected to be facilitators not implementers, more consideration of local capacities, not necessarily funders.

A recent ‘Hard Talk’ event between ICSOs, partners, donors and critical friends touched upon those dimensions and showed the potential for change, but the need for more intense dialogue between groups that have different expectations of each other. One of the biggest challenges comes from inherent ‘colonial’ structures of the aid system, which can only be addressed in an intersectional way, not overlooking discriminatory practices, and engaging in an open exchange and the willingness to learn from each other. A window seems to have opened to turn an outdated aid system onto its feet, and let power go to the people and their institutions, which have been ‘recipients’ of philanthropy, goodwill but bad practices for too long.

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.

Call for Global Perspectives Speakers and Workshop Hosts

21st May 2021 by Elizabeth Parsons

We are looking for inspiring people to contribute to Global Perspectives 2021 – Let’s Talk About Power

Global Perspectives is an annual conference bringing together leaders of civil society organisations (CSOs) with high-level representatives from governmental, inter-governmental, corporate, philanthropic and academic sectors. Every year around 150 participants engage in interactive formats, discussions and co-creation sessions to analyse the world’s most pressing challenges and devise strategies to bring civil society forward in pursuit of solutions.

Who are we looking for?

Leaders who want to talk about Power Shift and have an inspiring idea or work from the civil society, governmental, inter-governmental, corporate, philanthropic and academic field.

How can you contribute?

We are looking for leaders happy to host a workshop or panel or be part of a panel. Workshops and panels last between 1 and 1.5 hours. There are three pillars to our conference on which you can focus your contribution: De-concentrating Data and Digitalisation, Decolonising Aid and Organisational Structures and Embracing New Power. Please read the concept note

How can one express an interest?

Fill out the form below!

Where is it?

This year’s event is hybrid. We will have a unique interactive format of up to 150 participants. In addition, we will be providing global and regional perspectives – holding in-person meetings in three regional hubs in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and online broadcasting their discussions throughout the week, delivering insights and identifying new connections.  

When is it?

Global Perspectives will be held from 25 October to 04 November 2021.

When is the deadline for submitting my application?

30 July 2021.

Got a question?

Email the Knowledge and Communities Manager, Nihal Helmy


Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Between Power and Irrelevance: Are ICSOs actually looking at shifting their roles?

18th March 2021 by Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken and Barney Tallack

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.

What has shifted over the past 12-18 months, in terms of ICSO power and relevance?

The COVID-19 pandemic primarily accelerated underlying challenges, providing additional drivers for what have been longer-standing trends:

  • The financial duress, which started well before the pandemic based on plateauing and/or declining fundraising in traditional ‘markets’ deepened. Some big ICSOs, such as World Vision and Save the Children, had good years in 2020 in terms of income. Many others, however, were treading water or are in decline, and furloughs and layoffs are now more common.
  • Southern philanthropy is increasing – its impact on North-founded ICSOs uncertain.
  • An increased interest in Mergers & Acquisitions.
  • A shift towards a network model of autonomous, lean organisations.
  • Increased operational interest in shared services, office space, etc.
  • Significant soul-searching on anti-racism, equity, diversity and inclusion. Strong emphasis on cognitive awareness-raising, in the form of discussion, training, etc. – even though research shows this has limited impact and can even backfire, when used as the sole solution.
  • Long-term transition to ‘digital first’ organisations. But will ICSOs be willing to relinquish control when it comes to people-powered forms of campaigning and fundraising? And succeed in effectively linking online and face-to-face collaboration and organising?

#ShiftThePower: Highly relevant but in need of some nuance

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.

Are ICSOs actually rethinking roles – in a serious way?

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:

  • Engage with your critical friends/stakeholders to ask for robust critique of where your organisation is helpful and where it is not
  • Know that recognising the need to change roles in some areas does not invalidate your organisation’s historic purpose and achievements up to that point     
  • Frame sharing power with Southern peers and moving to new roles as a way of regaining valuable legitimacy and relevance

What these new roles could look like:

  • Be the campaigning ally/presence in their home countries for truly global multi-stakeholder co-owned and co-created campaigns
  • In public education and mobilisation, connect missions abroad to social justice issues at home
  • Provide, upon request, focused consulting services in specific thematic and technical niches
  • Offer policy research services, targeting mainly governments and institutions based in Europe, the Americas, and other wealthy nations
  • Broker relationships in multi-stakeholder collaborations
  • Play a backbone role, upon request, in networks of Global South actors to support collective impact
  • Be open to merging or being acquired by other actors (including in the Global South) for specific expertise or country footprint.

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.

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken

Principal Consultant

Five Oaks Consulting

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken has worked on international development and civil society issues for 30 years, in practice, in academia and as independent consultant. Before launching her consulting practice, Five Oaks Consulting, Tosca was the Director of the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University, USA. She focuses on NGO change management, leadership development and organisational culture. She has served as board member of InterAction, Public Interest Registry, ProLiteracy and Cadasta. Early in her career, Tosca worked as development practitioner for NGOs, the UN, the World Bank and at a think tank based in the Netherlands, Tosca’s country of birth.

Barney Tallack

Consultant on INGO strategy and transformation

Barney has worked as a practitioner in the INGO sector for nearly 30 years. He has held senior leadership and Board member roles in a variety of international and UK based organisations. He has deep experience in leading strategy and organisational transformation programmes, supporting restructurings, governance and NGO mergers. As Director of Strategy for Oxfam International, he ran the global strategy process and for five years the global transformation and change programme.

To Remain Relevant, CSOs Need to Fix the Architecture

19th February 2021 by George E. Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz

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.

New agency within old architecture

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 legacy of the architecture and its accountability framework

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.

Manifestations of dysfunctional architecture and cultural norms

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.

Transforming the architecture together

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.

George E. Mitchell

Associate Professor

Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College, City University of New York

Prior to joining the Marxe School, he was Assistant Professor at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York. He received his PhD from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University (USA), where he was cofounder of the Transnational NGO Initiative at the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs. George’s research examines topics in NGO and non-profit management, leadership, and strategy.

Hans Peter Schmitz

Associate Professor of Leadership Studies

University of San Diego

He received his PhD in Social and Political Sciences from the European University Institute in San Domenico di Fiesole, Italy. He is the cofounder of the Transnational NGO Initiative at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs/Syracuse University. His research interests include international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), human rights advocacy, digital activism, philanthropy, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) as global health issues.

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.