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Why is civil society in crisis mode?

Civil society organisations (CSOs) are in crisis mode. The reason? The complex and interconnecting trends affecting our sector, along with the speed of change we’re experiencing. This becomes even more challenging for CSOs operating at a global scale. That was the bottom line from a brilliant discussion I attended last week.

It brought together Steph Draper, Director of Bond, Sam Worthington, Director of InterAction, and Wolfgang Jamann, Director of the International Civil Society Centre.

They were asked to share:

  • what are they hearing from across the sector?
  • their helicopter views on the drivers of change
  • how are civil society organisations adjusting to new challenges?

Here my top take-aways. (Or for a shorter summary, read this tweet thread.) Alternatively, watch the full recording.

Trends affecting civil society organisations

  • CSOs are in crisis mode because of the speed of change we’re experiencing and the complex and interconnecting trends affecting our sector.
  • Push-back against the multilateral system is putting at risk the international coordination needed to deal with global challenges (read some perspectives here and here). CSOs need to work collectively to defend internationalism and global cooperation.
  • Local vs global. The push against internationalism and the demand to be locally relevant are forcing international non-governmental organisations to look for new ways to remain global but locally relevant. But in reality, is it possible for INGOs to withstand this tension?
  • Given the rise in populism and isolationism, CSOs in the US are struggling with the challenge of whether to stand together in collective action in order to push for fundamental principles or accept working with the system in a defensive mode (see for example here or here).
  • Given changes in the donor landscape, many organisations are experimenting with new funding models and innovative financing – beyond simply diversifying funding. Unfortunately, CSOs tend to find it difficult to collaborate with each other over funding, instead maintaining a competitive mindset.

Existential conundrums

  • The Sustainable Development Goals remain central to our mission. However, new issues that CSOs need to engage with are emerging. In the UK, for example, there is considerable appetite to go beyond the aid agenda and to work on tax, redistribution, trade policies and related issues. Climate change is the other big global challenge: CSOs are engaging in the climate crisis, environmental degradation and their impact on poverty and inequality.
  • How should CSOs act, given changes in societal values and norms and shifts in public opinion? Should CSOs be custodians of greater public goods – including the defense of multilateralism and human rights frameworks? Do we need to build collective action and organise joint campaigns in some of these areas?
  • New forms of campaigns. There’s a need to engage with new actors, from digital campaigners to emerging, less structured campaigns including child-led campaigns (see this or this). It’s critical for CSOs to become more sophisticated in finding ways to change narratives – for example, what’s the right narrative to cut through and drive change when we’re looking to increase public support for development and humanitarian aid?
  • We mustn’t forget we have a great capital in our own CSOs leaders. We should ‘capitalise’ on it by presenting them as real-life examples of what we want to achieve.
  • As CSOs we need to put our own house in order. Not just in terms of safeguarding. The ways we partner or operate are not always aligned with the values we try to promote.

 It’s all about navigating change. But how?

  • Don’t forget, we’re in a continuous process of change; the current period is only a temporary cycle. We need to make a transition from one cycle to another, while at the same time addressing poverty and inequality. Don’t focus only on organisational change.
  • Interest in adaptation is growing but our mindset is not helping. We keep putting more and more resources to programmes, with fewer resources dedicated to change and the ability to innovate and adapt. We need to move our organisations from being supertankers to agile, flexible sailing ships. This means smaller, more flexible teams.
  • Staff with new skillsets. Future CSO staff will balance being global and local (being as diverse as our global reach), but also combine current technical expertise with an adaptive, agile skillset to drive change and innovate. A new competency framework may include mental agility, critical reflection, flexibility, self-awareness and risk-taking. We need to invest in risk-taking and flexibility in order to grow the right skillset among CSO staff.
  • Leadership is about how to deal with the day-to-day but keep an eye on the future. We need tools to deal systematically with uncertainty and facilitate collective deliberation to drive change: one speaker, for example, mentioned the three-horizon technique we have included in our soon-to-be-launched Save the Children’s Strategic Foresight Toolkit (watch this space). These tools, she said, make discussions about change easier and support decision-making today.
  • We also need safe spaces for CSO leaders to hold frank conversations with each other and to build the courage necessary to make the changes the sector requires.

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