Five Oaks Consulting

Organizational effectiveness

When we admire decentralized power in other NGOs but we struggle with it in our own

“Leaders often praise decentralization when commenting on the INGO world, yet perceive various challenges of implementing decentralization when it comes to their own organizations”. Does this point to a tension between what we say and think as NGOs?

My post, part of the Disrupt and Innovate blog of the International Civil Society Centre, is based on interesting research by Long Tran, whose data, in turn, is based on a Transnational NGO Initiative interview study. Long’s article triggered these provocative thoughts in me. What is your experience with these trade-offs between centralized and decentralized organizational structures? Do we talk honestly about these in the sector? And how would you answer my questions?

Activist wearing sign 'We don't have time'

Radical transformation: time to restructure? Or time to declare victory and move on?

These are the views of Veena Siddharth, consultant on organisational change, advocacy and human rights. They do not necessarily represent the views of Five Oaks Consulting. You can reach Veena at veena_s@post.harvard.edu

 “It (Transition House) survived the seventies because the women who worked there were so fervently committed to the theory and the principles, and it survived after that because, year by year, they abandoned every one of them.”
(“The Radical Transformations of a Battered Women’s Shelter” by Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker, August 12, 2019)

In a recent blog, Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken asks whether hiring and promoting “rebels” could be a way to transform NGOs. Her skepticism reflects the reality that the crisis many NGOs are facing cannot be solved by individuals.

A mismatch between increased ambition and systems

As NGOs have broadened missions to take on global problems, measuring progress becomes harder. The failure to radically transform contributes to a vacuum of accountability that is fertile ground for poor performance at the very least. Sometimes, it even leads to allegations of abuse, as we have seen in the last few years. The root problem, in my view, is a mismatch between increasingly ambitious objectives and systems inherited from another era.

Although I focus here on INGOs, multilaterals and bilaterals share a similar dissonance between their objectives and functions. UNICEF, UNAIDs, and the Global Fund are just a few of the multilaterals that join Transparency International, Oxfam, Save the Children, IPPF, the Red Cross, and Amnesty International in allegations that include bullying cultures, sexual harassment, lack of oversight, exclusionary internal networks and misuse of funds.

For example…

NGOs that thirty years ago specialised in stand-alone projects added campaigning, policy research and advocacy to tackle power structures and problems that transcended individual projects. Oxfam’s website, for example, says, “Eliminate injustice and you eliminate poverty”. CARE aims to “to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and social injustice” Plan International focuses on “significantly advancing gender equality by tackling the root causes of discrimination.” This expansion of the mission is not limited to development INGOs. Amnesty International moved from championing the individual political prisoner to addressing climate change, corporate accountability and “living in dignity” as priority areas of work. For their part, humanitarian organisations are signatories to the “Grand Bargain”, which aims for nothing less than a “Participation Revolution” in which those receiving aid make the decisions – a dramatic shift in power and authority.

Old structures persist

Yet…. the old structures persist. Donors still dictate terms of funding with short-term horizons without real recognition of the need for collaboration. Foundations and other funders give lip service to holistic approaches but are themselves divided into regional and sectoral divisions that do not support the cross-sectoral and institutional cooperation needed. Achieving the mission is impossible without unconventional alliances that require long-term investments and risk-taking. Such strategic alliances are distinct from the typical MOU with a corporate sponsor and may require finding allies on the other side of a political divide or reframing a divisive issue.

Systems with regard to planning, strategy, staff appraisal, evaluation and learning, fundraising, knowledge management and the internal culture form the scaffolding that determines what is rewarded inside organisations. Being clear about the overall goal while giving staff a high degree of trust and autonomy is essential, yet most NGOs still operate with Cold War-era internal structures related to regional and sectoral divides that are no longer relevant in a more connected era. While there are nods to more relevant approaches – such as developmental evaluation and adaptive management — existing systems tend to support technical expertise with static outputs.

Governance structures are also ill-equipped. The INGO boards in many of the recent scandals appear out of their depth to address profound questions of the skills and metrics best suited to the current environment. Board members may be appointed for their background in management consulting, the corporate world or the NGO sector, but few boards understand the challenges that Executive Directors face today in meeting both technical and political challenges.

What we need instead

One reaction to the scandals has been a growing business in the area of safeguarding, restructuring, and governance. This is necessary but insufficient. We need ways to establish long-term strategies with adaptability to shift tactics in the short-term, and develop boundary-crossing networks organised around change. Stress learning over static evaluation and increase the tolerance for investing in new areas. And we need Boards who understand the shifts this way of working requires in measuring progress and ways of working.

On a global level, the challenges are unprecedented, and the broader goals are exactly the right ones. If we are serious about tackling climate change, migration, political instability and inequality we need a starkly different approach to what NGOs currently value, as expressed through their systems and processes.

Is hiring and promoting ‘rebels’ the way out for changing our NGO cultures? A skeptical view

Should NGOs hire and promote more ‘rebels’ – i.e. unlike minded characters – if they want to ensure enough adaptive capacity to weather the changes in the external environment? Will that make us better at seizing opportunities?

The case for rebels

Years ago I was part of a Task Force on Culture Change, hosted by the International Civil Society Center. Some participant supported the view that hiring and promoting ‘rebels’ or ‘strange bedfellows’ was the way to culture change. By ‘strange bedfellows’ I mean people who are squarely dissimilar from many NGOs types in background, social identity, cognitive outlook, skill set, industries etc. This approach has been recognized in the academic literature such as that of the organizational culture ‘guru’ Edgar Schein as one avenue indeed. And we know from the innovation literature and practice that when people from very different disciplines and backgrounds are exposed to each other, this can lead to creativity and innovation. See for instance my short interview with Aleem Walji, head of Aga Khan Foundation USA, who himself drove innovation in Google and the World Bank before coming to Aga Khan, in which he describes aspects of this process. Leandro Herrero, of the book ‘Viral Change’ about change management and a frequent, I might say caustic commentator on organizational dynamics, highlights the role of organizational dissenters, such as in this recent blog post. And the recent surge of attention paid to organizational diversity strategies in the private and public sectors also points to benefits in terms of creativity and innovation. In fact, the NeuroLeadership Institute argues that our brains must work harder and consider a broader set of ideas when we are surrounded by people who are different, i.e. ‘rebels’ within our workplace – and thus we do better work.

My skepticism

While I see the point of ‘rebels’ entirely, I am somewhat skeptical of how much space they are typically given in NGOs . In my observation, many NGOs I interact with have a limited ability to work with ‘strange bedfellows’; in fact, they form strong ‘antibodies’ against incoming ‘rebels’ who have been hired to change the culture. We tend to primarily be open to information that originates within our own sector. I wrote about this in a 2018 essay for CIVICUS’s Annual State of Civil Society report. In fact, the view that ‘radical, new leadership’ is critical and the only thing that is going to make culture change happen causes me to be skeptic in two ways. One, can leaders with formal positional power really drive transformational change in our rather leadership-averse, consultative cultures? And two, do our civil society organizations truly accept ‘radical leaders’? Or are we in fact quite good at spitting them out soon after they have entered?

So what to do?

What is your experience with this? And how can we be more open and inviting to rebels, once hired? Have them be sponsored as well as mentored more effectively (by people who already have much informal capital in the organization)? Have important meetings facilitated by outside facilitators so that rebels’ ideas and suggestions are given enough airtime? Let me know!

Striking out with a bold new strategy in a shifting civic space in Asia

Interview with one of Oxfam’s smartest civic activists: Lan Mercado, Asia Regional Director

Some INGOs are keenly aware that they cannot take continued relevance or legitimacy for granted. My interaction with several Oxfam colleagues, for example, in the last several years indicates that this is on the mind of quite a few Oxfammers. (And this is unrelated to the recent crisis around sexual abuse and other harassment and bullying issues which hit Oxfam as well as some others). The Transnational NGO Initiative at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, which I directed until very recently, hosted Lan Mercado – Oxfam’s Asia Director – in recent week. That gave me an opportunity to chat with her about Oxfam Asia’s new regional strategy, which I appreciate for its relative boldness.

Oxfam’s new regional Asia strategy….

The new Oxfam strategy ‘leans into’ a real change in role, for example. Its focus on data justice, and on a changed role as well as positionality vis-a-vis the Asian private sector are other examples. And it poses Oxfam in the role of apprentice in some areas – now how’s that for an aspiration for change in Oxfam’s mindset 🙂 !

…. is taking place in a changed civic space in Asia

Lan’s research while at Maxwell focused on how Oxfam Asia needs to change its role, programming, partnership strategy and ways of working given the strong shifts in civic space in Asia (and elsewhere). Civic space actually is not closing for all civic activists (though it definitely is for progressive and human rights-focused ones). What does this imply for Oxfam’s partnership strategy?

Listen in to Lan’s analysis of what this means for new Oxfam partnership strategies in the region. And let me know how you see this!

Women leading tech NGOs: what does effective leadership look like?

Many INGOs are aware they need to keep innovating in order to remain relevant and effective. The tech industry is of interest to them: it is seen to be strong on innovation and agility. NGOs are also interested in the digitization of organizations and economies, which makes them interested in tech companies.

Separately, some INGOs are increasingly focused on what we can learn from women leaders. According to some research (although this is disputed elsewhere) women may have a greater tendency to apply ‘post-heroic leadership approaches‘. Joyce Fletcher, a professor at Simmons School of Management in the UK, writes in a thoughtful way about this. I use her material in my role as senior NGO leadership trainer and NGO leaders consistently appreciate its content.

This short interview combines both topics. Lise Fuhr is the Director General of ETNO, the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association. I interviewed her about what gives her meaning when leading an industry association such as ETNO – in what historically has been a male dominated industry.

Anger and grievance among Amnesty staff: should the broader INGO sector pay attention?

Introduction

When was the last time you read that an entire Senior Leadership Team (SLT) of a major NGO offered to resign? This happened recently in Amnesty International (shy of Kumi Naidoo, the relatively new Secretary General). It occurred after Amnesty made public (to its credit!) an independent report on the state of its staff well- being. The report put allegations of unfair treatment of staff, negatively impacted by a recent big organizational change process, and of racism, gender discrimination and bullying front and center as part of a longer standing cultural issue.

Why I write about this

I have followed these developments in Amnesty closely because I was part of a team that between 2014-2017 undertook a two part External Assessment of Amnesty’s Global Transition Program (GTP) . This big organizational change effort, as embodied in its informal name ‘Moving Closer to the Ground’, in effect decentralized Amnesty’s International Secretariat away from London to 11 Regional Offices, led (among others) to the appointment of many more global South staff and leaders, instilled a greater focus on gaining more global South members and supporters and led to the departure of a relative large number of staff who often had been with Amnesty for a long time.  In effect, GTP also led to some redistribution of power within Amnesty.  The Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University, USA, which I directed at the time, undertook the External Assessment. Co-authors in this effort included Ramesh Singh, Steve Lux and Shreeya Neupane. In addition, I also was the co-trainer in an annual Senior Leadership Development Program for major INGOs including Amnesty since 2013, and in that process have heard many observations about Amnesty culture, including when it comes to interpersonal communication styles.

Our Assessment had a much broader scope than effects on staff of the Global Transition Program (GTP) alone, but it certainly included those effects. We included data on persistent and legitimate staff grievances as a result of especially weak change management capacity and practice, particularly during the first (crucial) stages of GTP implementation. We indicated that Amnesty’s Management seemed to consider these grievances in ways that we found to be unhelpful. Our report came out in May 2017, and from the Staff Well-being report produced by the consulting group Konterra which just came out it appears that our work did not make much of a difference – a not uncommon limitation of externally commissioned work!

It should be said that the internal communication culture of Amnesty was known to be ‘confrontational’ well before the Global Transition Program. By this we mean a style of communicating that is dominated by attempts to persuade others through internal advocacy style communication, the use of argumentation and attacks – instead of on skillful interpersonal communication that leads to greater mutual understanding, conflict management and collaboration. This communication culture, anecdotally, is not just reported in Amnesty, but also in some other campaigning NGOs. The phenomenon is described by David La Piana, for instance, in “The Nonprofit Paradox (Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2010).

This made me reflect on some things[1]:

  1. Symbolically, the offer of collective resignation by Amnesty’s Senior Leadership Team was a necessary and useful action – this is irrespective of whether it accomplishes anything ‘structural’. It met the emotional needs of some staff (though not all) and the political needs of Amnesty’s  Board. 
  2. It gives the current Secretary General a free hand to start afresh with new leadership – even if Kumi decides to hold on to some SLT members while accepting the resignation of others. This can help with top leadership getting ‘unstuck’ with regard to certain ‘mental models’ of how staff grievances should be understood.
  3. Based on work I have done with other mid to large size NGOs who have gone through big change processes, I wonder if two realities co-exist in terms of whose voices counted or were privileged in the Staff Well-being report: on the one hand, there is a widespread, deeply shared and easily understood set of grievances. At the same time, it is my sense that there is also a set of voices that is critical of all the attention that has gone into ‘looking to the past’, who think that the power imbalances within the movement as well as the very identity of Amnesty needed to change, and who think the Staff Wellbeing report is (somewhat) overblown. The latter people just want to move on with the direction of travel that Amnesty is on, because they deeply believe in this direction and feel that the significant amount of change the organization went through was badly needed. I would have been interested to see in the Staff Well-being report, for instance, whether the latter voices had certain characteristics in common or not?
  4. And I also struggle with this question: on the one hand, a human rights organization cannot be seen to violate staff rights within the organization. And people certainly cannot work productively and contribute to worthwhile outcomes if they feel strongly aggrieved. On the other hand, all this attention is inward looking instead of outward looking, to rights holders who Amnesty aims to support and promote. And this is after the GTP change process itself already instilled a strongly inward looking climate for staff in the International Secretariat for several years.
  5. We all know there is a perennial debate within civil society as to what is the importance of having ‘passion for the cause’ and having ‘the right values’ (reflected in what some call the ‘soul’ of civil society), relative to the aim to professionalize. And it is obvious that mission and values-focused NGO staff are driven more by intrinsic motivations than by extrinsic rewards such as salary.  However, we as staff still need to be competent (professional) in how we communicate and treat each other; and we also may need to be more concerned with external effectiveness, and less with ‘good intentions and passion’.
  6. This in turn reminds me of the time I facilitated a senior leadership training, and we discussed the concept of a ‘psychological contract’. This concept (developed by Denise Rousseau) points to the set of – often unspoken – mutual beliefs and perceptions with regard to the informal obligations that may exist between employers and employees. As trainers, we asked each participant to indicate what their psychological contract was with their NGO employer. I recall how one set of participants indicated that theirs consisted of two things: having passion for ‘the cause’ and a willingness to work long hours for not that high a salary. I remember thinking to myself: but what about actual outcomes for the people or causes you work on? Outcomes did not seem to be part of the equation.
  7. This also brought back memories of the time when I set out to work in the international development field – a long time ago. I never saw myself as a ‘do gooder’ even though that was the assumption that many people had about young people like me. I did want to work on public causes, but I was weary of any notion of ‘saving the world’: the arrogance and ego that was personified in that idea was not something I was comfortable with. II just wanted to do meaningful work well. Please note that I am not saying I always succeeded! But doing work well was my main mission.
  8. Coming back to Amnesty’s current situation, this sentence in an editorial of The Times (after the publication of the Staff Well-being report therefore stuck with me: “Staff and managers employed … may pride themselves more on their commitment than on their professionalism. Being morally right all the time can induce an attitude towards fellow employees which is characterised by impatience and intolerance. Due process can come to be seen as an impediment to doing what seems to be the right thing, rather than as an assistance. Nothing is as “toxic” in the workplace as the resulting arbitrariness.” (The Times, February 6, 2019)

In conclusion, perhaps we as a sector should get better at balancing being ‘morally right’ (which is in any event depending on one’s viewpoint of the world), with being focused on skillfully interacting with our colleagues, so that we may support the creation of better outcomes. Why does our ‘moral outrage’ entitle us to treat others badly? Does this showcase a certain amount of ego and self-gratification, while masking as ‘doing good’? Should we apply a bit more humility, honesty and self-awareness?

This is a highly complex situation. What do you think? I look forward to hearing your comments and to learning from your perspective.


[1] I am grateful to Catherine Gerard, my colleague at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University (USA), who has been my mentor as well as co-trainer in the Senior Leadership Development Program since 2011, for inputs received.

Leading mission-driven organizations in the Internet tech sector: takeaways for INGO leaders

I am experimenting with Facebook Live interviews as part of an interview series on ‘Leading with Meaning’. While at the ICANN conference in Kobe, Japan, I interviewed Jay Daley, owner of TechObscura consulting company and somebody with 30 years of experience in the technology sector. Jay and I are both board members at Public Interest Registry PIR is an organization with nonprofit status which, at the wholesale level, operates the .ORG and .NGO Internet domain names, which so many of us in civil society choose for our web presence. Fifty cents of every dollar that PIR earns through selling domain names goes to the Internet Society, whose mission is to make the Internet accessible, safe and trusted for people all over the world. The main reason why I chose to interview Jay is because of his astute observations on organizational leadership, strategy and people management. Take a listen!