Seeking Leaders for Global Change

The changing nature of change: how can NGOs survive and thrive?

Written by Katja Schramm

This month, I attended the Global Perspectives conference in Johannesburg, organised by the International Civil Society Centre, co-hosted by ActionAid International and CIVICUS.

The theme of the conference was “Navigating Disruptive Change – How civil society organisations can survive and thrive in an increasingly disruptive world.”  The goal of the conference was to gather executives and leaders from international civil society to building alliances and talk about common issues.  The conference organisers certainly picked a challenging topic.

In the last twenty years, change itself has changed: it has become faster, more fundamental and more surprising. When these elements come together, we experience disruption. Think of the music, telephone, bookstore or newspaper industry.  Market forces have redefined them, despite what the media giants of the corporate sector wanted.

But in most cases, CSOs have not yet had to face the kind of dramatic changes that have redefined, for example, the media industry. In fact, the pace of global disasters has kept many international NGOs in business.   But it is not really a question of if, but more of when: international civil society will face disruptive change, and on some levels it is already happening.  The disruption might be new technology, closing political spaces, the global economy, or a changing natural environment.

Such disruption could potentially threaten CSOs very survival.  The crucial question becomes: how can CSOs quickly adapt and thrive in a changing environment? A group of CSO experts has also come up with a paper, Riding the Wave, examining the nature of this change, and posing coping strategies.   It advises:

  • Given the urgency of this threat and the fact that challenges are very similar for a number of organizations, international CSOs should get together to jointly explore strategies to address the different strands of disintermediation.
  • Preparing for disruption is not only a management challenge; it is also a great opportunity for change management.  Leading change driven by an exciting vision is preferable to initiating change from a burning platform.

It is a fascinating topic, and not an easy one.  Adapting any bureaucracy to change, no matter the size, is never easy. But smart leaders of civil society will be forward thinkers instead of reactive ones.

Whether we like it or not, the only thing that is constant in life is change itself. The question is if international civil society will ride the crest of the wave, or be crushed under it. 

Katja Schramm, Director & Owner