Civil society

Global reach

International non-governmental organisations have mushroomed since the 1990s. In light of global challenges such as climate change or the post-2015 debate, some of them struggle to adapt their operations to ever more complex demands. The International Civil Society Centre in Berlin offers a platform for joint learning and collective action.
Global reach: Amnesty International activists demonstrated against Egyptian security-force violence in Seoul in September. Lee Jin-man/AP-Photo/picture-alliance Global reach: Amnesty International activists demonstrated against Egyptian security-force violence in Seoul in September.

The world is changing fast. Inter­national civil society organisations (ICSOs) must act in a more strategic manner to remain relevant actors at global level. At the same time, they must become more nimble in pre-empting change, adapting to new demands and exploring new opportunities. The Centre’s mission is to help ICSOs to improve their work by better navigating change.

"Non-governmental organisation" and "non-profit organisation" are commonly used terms. They are however insufficient since they merely describe what these organisations are not, but do not do justice to their present role and future perspective. We prefer the term "civil so­ciety organisation" or CSO.

Today, a number of ­international ICSOs have a voice in world politics. These organisations are becoming increasingly influential and the trend is likely to continue in the future.

By working together, ICSOs can achieve more. The International Civil Society Centre in Berlin was founded in 2007 with the mission of linking large organisations like Amnesty International, Greenpeace or Oxfam to work towards this greater impact. In a number of annual events, the Centre convenes leaders of the sector from around the world.

The Centre has become the meeting point and joint action platform for the world’s leading ICSOs. Moreover, it is attracting international policymakers and thought leaders, among them Ángel Gurría, head of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel laureate and founder of the Grameen Bank, or Mary Robinson, Ireland’s former president and former UN High Commissioner for human rights.

Originally established by Peter Eigen, the founder of Transparency International, and Burkhard Gnärig, the Executive Director, the Centre is now owned by ten of the most eminent ICSOs:

  • Amnesty International,
  • CBM International,
  • ChildFund Alliance,
  • Oxfam International,
  • Plan International,
  • Sightsavers International,
  • SOS Children’s Villages International,
  • Transparency International,
  • World Vision International and
  • WWF International.

Ownership remains open to other leading ICSOs, and the number of owners is set to increase. Rather than setting the agenda, the Centre asks ICSO leaders for their priorities and builds its programmes around their needs. This approach provides the Centre with a keen insight into the sector’s latest trends, arising challenges and emerging opportunities. Customer focus and service mentality were strongly emphasised from the very beginning.

Organisational governance was a core topic right from the start and continues to feature in the Centre’s projects. Most ICSOs are international federations composed of national affiliates. The affiliates that contribute the lion’s share to the organisation’s total budget tend to have the main decision-making authority. In this way, most ISCO boards and international assemblies reflect the global distribution of power. As in the UN, global decisions often reflect compromises between di­verging national interests. Such compromises, however, are not necessarily the best responses to global challenges.

Making ICSO governance truly global is therefore a core concern. Decision-making should rely on a more balanced representation of all ICSO stakeholders across the globe. National interests must not be allowed to stand in the way of appropriate global approaches. The Centre seeks to challenge ICSOs to overcome their conventional European and North American focus. One way of doing so is to assess how CSOs operate in Asia and other non-western regions. The Centre has been approached by va­rious Asian partners to cooperate and will ex­plore such opportunities towards creating a global platform for CSOs.


Improving ­accountability

Pressure is growing for ICSOs to become more transparent and accountable to the public. With rising revenues and influence, ICSOs are not only receiving more attention from those who sponsor them and those who benefit from their services. The interest of the media and the wider public is also growing. To maintain trust, ICSOs must do more than state good intentions. They must show results and prove efficiency as well as effectiveness.

It is not easy to meet all legitimate demands, and some of the reasons are beyond an ICSO’s control. A significant number of governments are limiting the space for civil society activities. They regard human-rights campaigners, environmental organisations and even charitable agencies that are involved in poverty alleviation as nuisance, if not subversive. Disclosing information can put ICSO staff and their partners in the countries concerned at risk.

Moreover, accountability is expensive. Research, reports and spreading information cost money. ICSOs aim to spend as much of their resources as possible on their mission – for instance, on support to children. Nonetheless, the public is right to demand transparency and accountability. Aware of this, several ICSOs joined hands to develop the INGO Accountability Charter. Since 2010, the Centre hosts the Secretariat of the Charter and works to contribute to improved accountability.


Disruptive change

The private sector has seen a lot of disruptive change in the past decades. Technical innovation fundamentally transformed the music industry, newspapers, photography and other industries. Many formerly well-established companies went bankrupt.

Recently, ICSOs have begun discussing the possibility of disruptive change in their field. Potential sources might be:

  • the increasing popularity of web-based CSOs that connect individual donors ­directly with recipients at much lower costs than traditional CSOs do;
  • new kinds of donors, often with a private-sector background, who aim for more tangible impact than CSOs have delivered so far;
  • the rise of social entrepreneurship which takes competition for funds to another more demanding level by combining efficiency and sustainability in attractive proposals.

ICSOs need to improve their awareness of potential disruptions and prepare to navigate both the threats and opportunities of disruptive change. The issue has been the focus of the Centre’s Driving Change project this year. The findings will be presented in November 2013.

ICSO leaders are facing huge chal­lenges: In the context of globalisation, increasing inter-connectedness and the rise of technology, many senior managers feel they are not sufficiently prepared to lead organisations in a world of growing complexity and uncertainty. They have to develop more effective decision making, improve risk management and re-engineer their organisations. Present and future leaders will need to develop and refine their management skills to prepare their organisations for the future. The Centre offers a space for senior leaders to step out of their busy routines to learn from each other and together, for instance during its annual Senior Leaders Week.

Over the past six years, the Centre has focused on building a community of global civil society leaders. It has worked on building trust and openness as a basis for sharing experience and learning from each other. The next step will be to use the Centre’s convening power to foster better cooperation among ICSOs with the ultimate goal of achieving greater impact (see box).


Helene Wolf is the Deputy Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre.


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