Five Oaks Consulting

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken

Organizational legitimacy: when the grounds for it shift, and why it matters

Author: Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken

Legitimacy is that intangible quality that every nonprofit must grapple with to gain trust and authority in a world where societal values are constantly evolving. 

After all, society decides whether organizations are desirable, proper and appropriate, based on set of assumptions or perceptions that can change.

Gone are the days when aligning with a few key foundations (with financial propriety and low overhead featured centrally) was enough to wear the badge of legitimacy.

In the book Between Power and Legitimacy: The Future of Transnational NGOs, which I co-authored with George Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz, we explored this complex landscape. Since its publication in 2020 by Oxford University Press, the dialogue around these issues has only deepened.

The book’s resonance with readers brought us to an exciting juncture. Encouraged by the warm reception from our readers, we’ve been invited to pen an updated, second edition. Considering the vast changes since our last manuscript in late 2019, for sure it is timely to revisit these topics.

BTW, we are also hoping this time to release an Open Access version to ensure our insights are as accessible as possible. This is really exciting – fingers crossed!

Recently, during the ‘First Fridays’ series at Corentus, the team coaching company where I play a role as Core Practitioner, I presented some core shifts in NGOs’ foundations for legitimacy, which are part of the main arguments put forth in the book. There’s a video recap of my short presentation available here (focus on minute 2 through minute 35). For a quick digest of the key points, check out this 2-pager here.

Why focus so much on legitimacy? Our sector’s effectiveness hinges on it. If society doesn’t see the value in our work, our impact is severely diminished, like a tree falling unheard in a forest.

P.S. Curious about what’s on the horizon for our sector, or your leadership team needs to strengthen its performance, effectiveness and cohesion in the form of team coaching? Drop me a line. Together, we can navigate these complex waters—no lifejackets required!

Organizational legitimacy: when the grounds for it shift, and why it matters Read More »

If you thought that NGO Operations are about ‘mundane’ nuts and bolts…think again

If you thought that NGO Operations are about ‘mundane’ nuts and bolts…think again

Nonprofit and NGO operationing models CAN be a driver of transformation

It’s easy to understand why some people might think that your nonprofit’s operating model might be simply following whatever your strategy is.

But that is not necessarily the case.

Your operating model – the gears of your organization that keep it humming (finance, legal, HR, partner relations, procurement, compliance, facilities, you name it) – can actively underpin and support a strategy that is focused on making your organization more Equitable, Accountable as well as Resilient (ERA). And that can help with organizations’ intentions to decolonize aid, further locally led development, be anti-racist and embrace DEI. Because operational processes, procedures and systems drive staff and volunteer behavior, on a daily basis, and those daily, widely shared and constantly recurring actions can shape people’s thinking—as much as our thinking drives behavior, actually.

This topic is discussed further in this blog post by Humentum, and the corresponding NGO Soul + Strategy podcast episode (#62) that I recorded with Kim Kucinskas, Director for Community Strategy. 

If you thought that NGO Operations are about ‘mundane’ nuts and bolts…think again Read More »

Tosca’s guest appearance on Maurice Bloem’s podcast Walk Talk Listen

Tosca’s guest appearance on Maurice Bloem’s podcast Walk Talk Listen

What happens when a thoughtful podcast host interviews you with questions that go all the way back to your ‘origin story’ of why you do the work that you do? That ask about your spiritual bearings? A song or piece of music that says something about you?

This is what happened to me when I was interviewed by Maurice Bloem, Chief Sustainability and Impact Officer at Church World Service (CWS), a US-founded faith based NGO. Maurice podcasts in his personal capacity, as part of his mission embodied in the 100 Mile Initiative: an an annual sponsored walk in many communities to fundraise for the eradication of hunger (this is also known as Cropwalk). I have participated in this, as part of my church community, along with my kids when they were younger.

Maurice is an alumni of the Transnational NGO Leadership Institute at Syracuse University, which I used to direct in my former identity as ‘accidental pracademic’. Maurice and I have stayed in touch, and I cherish our conversations about NGOs, leadership questions, climate change and sustainability challenges thrown at the sector – and of course our shared Dutch background (we are both from the Netherlands and have both lived in the USA now for a very long time).

Maurice’s interview questions were original, they made for an authentic and stimulating conversation and they made me think harder. The latter is always needed!

We also discussed my co-authored book, and what I am currently most enthused about: my newfound capability of team coaching now that I am a graduate of the Team Coaching Intensive program at Corentus, the renowned global team coaching company. – and now that they have made me one of their Core Practitioners (for part of my practice; I also offer team coaching in my Five Oaks Consulting capacity. Ask me ( if you think your senior team and you as team leader could use an upgrade. And I offered some observations on trends I see in some NGO senior team underperformance issues.

Are you curious yet? Jump in here!

Tosca’s guest appearance on Maurice Bloem’s podcast Walk Talk Listen Read More »

Remote working is hard but here to stay. And so are offices

Remote working is hard but here to stay. And so are offices

Guest blog by John Gillespie – Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Amnesty International 2013-201, and  Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at  Circle Gas, a Kenyan start-up 2019-2022. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Five Oaks Consulting.

The pandemic changed how we worked

Back in 2019 I wrote on the challenges of managing remote working. Back in those innocent days it was an increasingly hot topic, but most employees turned up at the office most days. One pandemic later and we are all experts on remote working.

The consensus seems to be ‘the employees have won; we aren’t going back to the office’. Have they won really? Is the office dead?

My colleagues and I travelled more than most during the pandemic. We were running a startup with operations in Kenya and China. I only spent a few weeks in self-isolation. My CEO spent 6 weeks in the quarantine required to travel to China and back to the UK. We weren’t flying all over the world and putting our health at risk for the fun of it. We were traveling to see people, and that meant visiting offices. Place matters.

We are social animals. Turns out we still like a place to meet, to collaborate and to learn from each other. The office of the future is going to be a place for some people to work, but a place for a lot more people to work together in specific ways – ways that are best done f2f.

The future of remote working

First, remote working is here to stay:

    • The pandemic has proven virtual working is feasible; and even desirable (to many), though not all

    • CFOs are under pressure to control costs and cutting office space is an obvious place to look  

    • Technically, remote work is a solved problem. The advice I offered back in 2019 is now embedded. I was particularly bemused to see the quality of internet connections, sound and video improve significantly over the course of the pandemic all without much assistance from IT.

    • Leaders and employees are adapting, some by trial and error, some with the help of the courses like the ones offered by Five Oaks Consulting

However, we still need offices:

    • We like to get together for team building and to learn from each other.  Some parts of work are move effective when we are together — for example certain forms of collaborative creativity, onboarding new people, or the building of trust and candor.

    • Some people need space to work effectively. Not everyone can afford a space free of distractions. A home office is a luxury not available to all. Expecting all knowledge workers to work from home will penalise many. Particularly women expected to look after children. You will lose valuable colleagues if you do not recognize the equity side of this.   

    • Collaboration is easier and more effective when people have the opportunity to sometimes meet and work on shared problems, face-to-face.

Create offices that work for all workers

Our old offices are no longer suitable. I recently visited an office with bank after bank of desks all kitted out with dual screen monitors and high-end office chairs. 3 years ago it would have been buzzing with people. Now there was only a single lonely soul in the whole room. It was soulless and miserable.

What can leaders do?

Leaders can take the following steps:

    • Offices need to be designed around the organizational culture and behaviours that leaders want to promote, and that needs to be collaboration, and the promotion of ‘accidental collisions’ and spontaneous, unstructured meeting points. So, make sure to have lots of flexible meeting space.

    • Give those spaces the technology needed to collaborate and communicate with hybrid/remote teams. A properly equipped meeting room with well-designed sound and video can be good place for virtual conferences.

    • Create offices that are pleasant to visit and work. Staff have choices. That may mean wholesale redesign, redevelopment or even relocation of some offices.

    • Set an expectation that an office is a collaboration space that teams are expected to attend. The frequency will dependent on the team and the mission (and whatever the organization may mandate). That might range from a couple of days a week to a couple of days a year. 

What’s next

Why is a CIO talking about facilities? The tech sector had a good pandemic. Billions were thrown at video conference software, internet connections, laptops and webcams, and it paid off: we made remote working work. People are taking a bit longer to adapt, it is hard to change career-long habits, but it is happening.

Our offices are next.  

Remote working is hard but here to stay. And so are offices Read More »

When a Country Office becomes a full INGO member… the Do’s and Don’ts

When a Country Office becomes a full INGO member… the Do’s and Don’ts

This post was written by Hazem Fahmy, Co-Founder of CARE Egypt Foundation. 
Views expressed here are my own and do not represent the positions of CARE.

I led the transformation of a CARE Country Office into becoming an independent full member of CARE globally. This is the story of how we went through the change, and what were the challenges we endured – our story can hopefully help others to avoid some of our pitfalls.

CARE Egypt operated for over 60 years as a CARE USA country office – quite a long history! In January 2022 the CARE Egypt Foundation (new name) became a full member of the CARE International confederation. Although the idea to become a national NGO was considered as early as 2007, the actual transformation journey started in 2016. Would we be able to cross the finish line? How and with who would we get there?

In 2014 CARE discussed plans to diversify its membership by supporting “Global South” offices to nationalize with the intention to increase the legitimacy of its global footprint as well as the credibility of its local presence.  At the time CARE Egypt was fully staffed by Egyptian professionals and the country has been through two revolutions… we were ready to chart new territory.

Our transformation

Aid effectiveness, INGO legitimacy, decolonization of aid, localization of humanitarian efforts.  These have been important topics, and the subject of heated debates for many workers in the development ecosystem worldwide since 2014. In this blog post, I will focus on how we transformed, and the mistakes we made so colleagues on similar journeys can learn from how we faced our challenges.

It was first important to create ownership among our staff for this monumental endeavor. I started with convincing senior management to agree on why we should do this, what is our vision, and how we might go about achieving our goal.   But we realized quickly that senior managers’ championship alone was not enough to overhaul our $5M annual portfolio, involving120 staff operating in a complex ecosystem. We needed to change relationships with the government, CARE members, donors, and partners. We had to mobilize staff across all ranks.

Mistakes that I will avoid in the future

1/       Being overly cautious: One of the bigger mistakes that I made during the transformation journey was to downplay the effects of the transformation on our staff. My intention was to comfort them by minimizing differences between being an Egyptian organization versus a Country Office.

The outline of the “new organization” we wanted to become was very ambiguous with lot of unknowns.  As time went by, ambiguity decreased, and we found concrete answers to numerous questions we had at the early stages. Equipped with more answers, clarity did translate into bolder ways to confront and explain the reality of the future to our colleagues.

If I do it all over, I would be bolder earlier, but would continue calming staff about the future. I would better balance my messaging about what will remain the same versus what will be different.  It is essential to cater to the fears and concerns of staff, as we move forward in the transformation.

Obviously, while we had our fair share of problems in the past six years, it could have been a lot rougher if we had not worked on bringing our colleagues along, starting from senior management, middle managers and field staff.  Colleagues had to see themselves as part of the change and get excited about our future. 

2/       Change is not a projectLooking back, I would avoid treating the journey as a project.  It is too limiting to think about this change journey in terms of a plan, resource use, Gant charts and a risk management matrix.   When we started the process, the emphasis was on what are the steps required, what resources will we need? What were the risks of not achieving or not being on time to complete planned steps?

We were describing a project rather than a journey to achieve a vision. Thinking like a project made us overly focused on the details and we lost sight of the intention.   When you couple that with a high level of ambiguity, it becomes impossible to navigate and manage the complexities.  Aspects such as staff concerns, government questions, questions posed by the CARE confederation members.  It just became impossible to navigate and manage all the moving parts.

Our intent to transform, our new north star should be the lens to evaluate our progress.    What mattered is what our strategy should look like, which business model should we adopt.  Such views helped us to focus on what is important at any given moment, and it also helped achieve tasks with clarity and focus while not losing sight of the big picture. My senior colleagues and I stayed grounded and were able to put things in perspective as we tackled one challenge after the other.

In the end

In the end I am proud of what we achieved, as we pressed to create buy in by our colleagues. We expanded circles of engaged staff while keeping the visionary intent to nationalize our entity as the primary way to evaluate our progress.

Writing this post has encouraged me to document a more detailed description of the journey and what we learned.  We are still discovering what it means to be a southern member in an international NGO. But that is for another blog post: to speak of power dynamics and how they shift (or not) in an INGO. Stay tuned!

When a Country Office becomes a full INGO member… the Do’s and Don’ts Read More »

Is all this talk about a ‘power shift’ in our sector really amounting to substantive changes?

Is all this talk about a 'power shift' in our sector really amounting to substantive changes?

How 17 INGOs are going about it

Is all this talk about a ‘power shift’ in our sector really amounting to substantive changes?

And if it is – what has actually changed in the past 3-5 years?

This was the topic of a small ‘benchmarking study’ of 17 international civil society organizations (ICSOs) that are co-owners of the International Civil Society Centre. My fellow consultant Esther Kwaku and I looked into what actually shifted, in terms of decision rights, processes, and structures. And we looked at sources of informal power, as much as formal ones. The results?

The Centre shared the full findings with the agencies who had chosen to be the focus of the study. It also aggregated the findings in a shorter report for the public — credit to Esther for writing this summary!

Is all this talk about a ‘power shift’ in our sector really amounting to substantive changes? Read More »

Organizational culture, national culture and how they come together in INGOs

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken

Questions rummaging through my mind

How do national culture differences affect organizational ways of working — and ways of managing and leading?

How does the presence of many different national cultures among staff shape the organizational culture of an NGO?

To start with the obvious: The staff of INGOs typically consist of people from many different national cultures. This is even more so the case as many INGOs have focused on increasing the diversity of their staff body—including for managers and leaders. National cultures from global North no longer predominate, although global North-imprinted organizational cultures tend to remain in place for a lot longer. So how does the presence of all these national cultures shape the organizational culture of an NGO?

A new resource

Recently, I became aware of an interesting new research-based source on national culture differences—updated research by Erin Meyer, the American-French academic who works at the famous INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau, France. Her book, The Culture Map (2014) has been recommended to me by several NGO types. Erin has launched a new website, the Culture Mapping Tool which allows you (regretfully only on a paid basis) to compare specific sets of countries in neat ways with each other, based on the following dimensions:

  • Communications: from ‘high context’ communication styles to ‘low context’ ones
  • Evaluating: from indirect negative feedback to direct ones
  • Leading: from hierarchical cultures to egalitarian ones
  • Deciding: From top-down cultures to consensual ones
  • Trusting: from relationship-based cultures to task-based ones
  • Disagreeing: from confrontational cultures to those that avoid confrontation
  • Scheduling: from linear-based cultures to flexible time-based cultures
  • Persuading: from applications-first cultures to principle-first ones

The questions this sparked in me

Erin’s research sparked the following questions:

  • How does the presence of all these national cultures in INGOs shape their organizational culture?
  • What happens when the NGO manager’s leadership style, informed by national culture, is in clear tension with–let’s say–the espoused leadership model of ‘transformational leadership’, feminist leadership, servant leadership, you name it? This would suggest the person has to be one kind of leader in the daytime, but at night and on the weekend be another person? So much for authentic leadership and ‘bringing your whole self to work’ ideals in that case?
  • Who came up with these newer, aspirational leadership models that are now popular in some INGOs anyway?
  • As leadership and management of many INGOs increasingly is populated by a much more diverse set of people in terms of national culture, when and how will this make the organizational culture less global North-normed?
  • As INGOs have increased their leadership coming from national cultures in the global South, I sometimes see people being ‘spit out’ quite quickly by the dominant culture. Is this because the person’s identity (their lived experience, the non-NGO functional or professional background they may have brought, etc.) is different, and the predominant org culture is unwilling to ‘enlarge the tent’ and embrace this?
  • We know from the research on staff diversity that a greater diversity of people, while definitely beneficial to the organization’s outcomes, productivity, innovation, and creativity in the medium term, in the short term may lead to greater chances of miscommunication, mistrust, increased tension and conflict. As many NGOs are becoming more truly global, will the presence of an ever-greater number of national cultures further enhance these short-term challenges?
  • For those NGOs intent on increasing their global balance of affiliates, sections, members etc, will these new members submit to ‘isomimicry’, i.e. the expectation from the global North members that their organizations will look like them, or will they introduce different forms of ‘organizational being’ to truly diversify the NGO?
  • And what does this mean for change management approaches? To draw from another source on national differences in what’s expected from leaders and managers, (the GLOBE project, following the initial work on national cultures by Geert Hofstede, the Dutch researcher): surely differences in, for instance, performance orientation, power difference, assertiveness, uncertainty avoidance, future orientation, humane orientation, and ingroup collectivism affect how change leaders and change managers need to go about their work?

Many questions, few answers….. but let’s think about this together

I have few answers to the questions above (primarily some gut sense and anecdotal observations), but it would be very worthwhile to brainstorm on them together. Let’s talk if this sparks further ideas or thoughts! Ping me at

In the meantime, here’s an earlier blog post from me about why I am quite skeptical of hiring and promoting ‘cultural rebels’ as a strategy towards organizational change.

Links for further reading and thinking

A summary of dimensions derived from the GLOBE project, a very interesting long term research project on cultural differences in leadership and management models:

Erin Meyer’s Culture Mapping Tool:  (regretfully, the tool is no longer available for free)

Erin’s book The Culture Map

One could argue that being comfortable in a global North-based national culture is a source of informal power. Here is a handy visualization of this particular form of informal power, plus many others. My colleague-consultant Esther Kwaku and Iare co-created the list based on work we did for the International Civil Society Centre this past year. With credit to MEDA, the Canadian development agency, who had the list converted into this nifty graphic image (they liked the list as a prompt to spur useful conversation).

A short video with me about how I define organizational culture

Organizational culture, national culture and how they come together in INGOs Read More »

Changing the medical culture one team at a time


My guest podcast interview with Jen Barna, MD, CEO at DocWorking

What is organizational culture, how can we ‘see’ it in action, and how can we affect it, as leaders?

The ‘culture’ question is one that tends to be of great interest to many leaders—but ‘culture’ is a nebulous concept, at once both vague and changing. Misunderstandings abound about what culture even is—and how to improve it. We see this regularly with civil society leaders, but it is equally true for physicians who lead teams and for health care agencies working in the US (including nonprofits).

To provide some clarity on these issues, my friend Jen Barna, MD and CEO of DocWorking, the coaching resource for physicians who seek a better balance between their professional and personal lives, interviewed me as a guest on her podcast. Regardless of your professional sector, you may find value in listening in!

And – if you are a physician who leads virtual or hybrid teams, DocWorking and Five Oaks Consulting designed course just for you. Have a look if you are interested: (scroll to the bottom of the page for specific information on courses geared towards physicians)

Changing the medical culture one team at a time Read More »

Black and white picture of woman planting flag on tiny island in ocean

The many ways in which informal power shows up in civil society organizations

The many ways in which informal power shows up in civil society organizations

Black and white picture of woman planting flag on tiny island in ocean

Our question

How can we as civil society entities be more self-aware of how *informal* power shows up in our organizations?

How can we as leaders and managers be more self-aware of how forms of power that are not related to positional power play out?

This has been on the mind of many of us in the past few years.

My colleague-consultant Esther Kwaku who also runs the neat social enterprise the Nerve Network and I did some work earlier this year which, amongst many things, surfaced insights around the fascinating ways in which informal power plays out in our organizations. Some of these ways you will be aware of; others may certainly cause you to reflect on what’s really happening in our organizations — even during our attempts to shift and share power. The result is a thought-provoking list, we think.

Adding a visualization

And then Dorothy Nyambi, CEO at the development agency MEDA and her colleagues took it upon themselves to commission a sharp graphic designer to visualize the list – so that they too could use the content. Thank you, MEDA!

The result

Result? Voila!  Download your copy of the visualization of the many ways in which informal power shows up here:

PDF version of the Informal Power viz

PPT version of the Informal Power viz

How does informal power show up in your civil society organization? Feel free to use the content as well in your work (please credit us as creators, of course). Enjoy having good conversations about this!

The many ways in which informal power shows up in civil society organizations Read More »

When nonprofits conform to common financial management norms, they may sacrifice as much as half of their impact

When nonprofits conform to common financial management norms, they may sacrifice as much as half of their impact

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

By George Mitchell, Associate Professor of Nonprofit Management at the City University of New York. He reports on recently published research, conducted together with Thad Calabrese, Associate Professor of Public and Nonprofit Financial Management, at New York University. (George, Hans Peter Schmitz, and Tosca are the co-authors of the book ‘Between Power and Irrelevance: the Future of Transnational NGOs’, and have collaborated for close to 20 years.)

Charities that conform to common nonprofit financial management norms may be sacrificing more than half of their mission impact over a decade. This is the conclusion of our recently published research on a large population of US registered nonprofits and NGOs (domestic and international ones).

As charitable organizations, NGOs have long been under pressure to make themselves look financially trustworthy by following practices like:

  • minimizing overhead
  • being fiscally lean
  • diversifying revenue sources; and
  • avoiding significant debt.

Many funders, watchdogs, and other stakeholders routinely evaluate NGOs based on their conformity to norms like these. But how does following these norms actually affect organizational performance? My co-author Thad Calabrese and I analyzed data from thousands of US charities over several decades to find the answer. Read more (short article) at The Conversation.

Or check out our original research here  (open access/no paywall) or here (paywall).

Let us know how you react to this — perhaps counterintuitive — research outcome! Email me at, or leave a comment.

When nonprofits conform to common financial management norms, they may sacrifice as much as half of their impact Read More »

man and woman near table

NGOs: Chasing Innovation, Funding & Impact?

NGOs: Chasing Innovation, Funding & Impact?

I recently joined Chris Meyer zu Natrup, MD of MzN International, for a 3-part short podcast series in which we had candid, thought-provoking – and somewhat provocative – conversations about the future of the nonprofit sector and the mindsets and mental models that shape the organizations of today.

Now we are back with a live Q&A session on April 7 from 8:30 – 9:30 am ET eager to your questions pertaining to: 

NGO innovation, in particular: 

– if nonprofits are at risk of becoming obsolete

– what NGOs need to do to survive and thrive in a modern, digital world

– what leaders can do to transform their organizations into better-equipped problem solvers and innovators in uncertain times

NGO funding, in particular: 

– the never-ending funding cycle and the seemingly outdated business model which most NGOs are forced to adopt

why some organisations continue to grow while others stagnate

– what NGO leaders can do to make their funding and business models more sustainable

NGO impact, in particular:

– if nonprofits can truly make and measure the impact they set out to achieve 

– why some organisations do not create the impact they desire despite the time and expenses they invest in their programs

– what NGOs can do to create a more learning- and evidence-driven culture

Please submit your questions for Chris & me here in advance and register here to join. We look forward to seeing you there! 

NGOs: Chasing Innovation, Funding & Impact? Read More »