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The Future of Transnational NGOs: From Anxiety to Strategy

In this blog post, George Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz, co-authors, provide a synopsis of one of the main arguments in our brand new book ‘Between Power and Irrelevance: the Future of Transnational NGOs’. You can read more about our book here, including where you can buy it — for a limited time period with a 30% discount.

Geopolitical shifts, increasing demands for accountability, and growing competition have been creating a more challenging environment for Northern-based transnational nongovernmental organizations (TNGOs). In addition to changes in TNGOs’ external environment, TNGOs’ own ambitions have increased. Many TNGOs today have adopted a greater focus on addressing the root causes of societal problems, often complementing direct service provision with longer-term strategies for sustainably improving environmental, social, and political conditions. Prominent TNGOs have expanded their strategic repertoires to include new forms of activism, including rights-based approaches to development and supporter-led digital campaigning. Over time, TNGO interventions generally have become more complex, requiring more resources and greater collaboration within and across sectors.

Why all the existential angst?

But TNGOs find themselves today at a point where their rhetoric of creating sustainable impact and social transformation has far outpaced the reality of their more limited abilities to deliver on these promises. Many individual TNGOs have moved to address this gap through organizational reforms, but these efforts have not yet addressed the larger challenges that exist at the systemic level. Meanwhile, there is continuing and sometimes growing criticism of TNGOs along several fronts, including charges of ineffectiveness, limited efforts to hand over control to local partners, and failures to live internally the values that TNGOs promote externally.

What is at the heart of the challenges confronting TNGOs? Many observers have argued that TNGOs have become too large and too focused on their own survival instead of their missions. Others have blamed the overall aid system and its inability to fundamentally change the economic conditions of millions of people living in poverty. And some have blamed increased competition and professionalization, perceived to be inimical to the sector’s ethos. These criticisms identify important issues, but they all miss a fundamental problem faced by virtually all TNGOs: TNGOs are constituted as nonprofits and therefore operate within a specific institutional and normative architecture that constrains their ability to embrace new strategies and roles essential for their future effectiveness, legitimacy, and survival.

How the sector’s architecture is failing TNGOs

In our new book, Between Power and Irrelevance: The Future of Transnational NGOs, we consider how the underlying normative and institutional conditions of TNGOs—what we refer to as the sector’s architecture—are expressed in restrictive legal regimes, societal expectations, and cultural beliefs that make it hard for TNGOs to pursue their expanded missions. The difficulties are not simply due to the magnitude and complexity of global problems or the failures of individual organizations. Instead, key stakeholders of the sector, including individual and institutional donors, the general public, and governments, have been too slow in shifting their outdated expectations about the appropriate roles of TNGOs. The gap between TNGO rhetoric and their ability to deliver on their promises is growing because TNGOs’ new strategies focused on sustainable impact are not matched by the required capabilities for executing such strategies effectively.

The modern institution of the nonprofit facilitates and carries forward centuries-old traditions of charity in which social value is consummated in the act of giving itself and in the virtuous intentions and actions of staff and volunteers. Although recent decades have seen the term impact become a ubiquitous buzzword throughout the sector, underlying societal expectations about how nonprofits should raise funds and operate have failed to change in step. Today, more and more TNGOs have adopted the rhetoric of impact and have staked their reputations on claims of not just being good stewards of donor resources, but of also making a demonstrable difference in the lives of those they claim to serve. Philanthropy is becoming more data-driven and outcome-oriented, stakeholders are demanding new forms of accountability and participation, and more sophisticated operational strategies are requiring longer-term time horizons and significant new investments in organizational capacities. However, the organizational forms and norms of the sector’s architecture are preventing TNGOs from fully embracing the kinds of changes needed to successfully adapt and evolve, and above all else, to reach their potential in serving their missions. We show, for example, how the architecture provides a permissive environment for ‘successful irrelevance’ (survival based on fiscal propriety, regardless of impact), how it binds TNGOs to a Northern donor-focused accountability model, and how it inhibits specific organizational investments in areas such as digital technology, measurement and evaluation, governance reform, leadership development, and collaboration necessary for long-term mission success

The need for collective action in addition to individual reforms

To make TNGOs fit for the future, individual actions and limited organizational change initiatives will only go so far. The sector must move beyond the false comfort of the status quo and confront the architecture with collective action. TNGOs have already decided what kinds of organizations they want to be, now they must work together to create an institutional and normative environment in which those kinds of organizations can flourish.

Order ‘Between Power and Irrelevance’ online at www.oup.com/academic with promo code ASFLYQ6 to save 30%!

Northern-founded NGOs: the time has come to face existential funding challenges

Guest blog written by Barney Tallack, a long-time collaborator of Five Oaks Consulting and former Director of Strategy at Oxfam International with 29 years of experience in the INGO sector. The views expressed are Barney’s. He is an independent consultant and specialist in INGO strategy, transformation, and governance, with a focus on European-founded NGOs. This post is based on his recent paper ‘The Existential Funding Challenge for Northern NGOs’. Barney can be reached at barneytallack[at]gmail.com


How the pandemic may work out for NGOs is uncertain

It would be folly to attempt to forecast with certitude the impacts on Northern INGOs of the COVID-19 crisis. Their ability to achieve the mission will change for sure   – in both positive and negative ways. On the positive side, for example, we might see a shift in normative thinking by citizens, politicians and investment funds on the need to address climate change, inequality and other global issues because the pandemic has once again highlighted our global interdependencies. On the negative side, we could enter an even more isolationist, nativist way of thinking that exacerbates rather than addresses our global challenges.

But what is certain is that the pandemic further accentuates longer term downward financial trends

I would argue that northern-founded NGOs’ sustainability (and that of their national members for those who have those) had already been a problem for some years. By sustainability I mean both financially and in terms of relevance. The current pandemic-induced crisis merely accelerates this.

In studying the long term income trends of seven of the larger INGO families, several challenges are apparent:

  • INGO income grew at a steady rate between 2003-2009, followed by a more rapid growth until 2015/6, followed by a plateauing and then decline
  • The growth has come primarily from significant increases in institutional donor aid to the point where this is now more than half of their income for many
  • All the NGO ‘families’ of (con)federated NGOs are dependent for a significant amount of their income (as much as 2/3 at times) on the largest member of their federation/confederation. This means that a decline in that member’s income disproportionately affects all of them
  • There are five markets – for both public and institutional funding (US, UK, Canada, Germany, and Australia) which these INGO ‘families’ are dependent on. They are also competing for the second-tier markets (in terms of volume of income) – Scandinavian, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy.

Northern INGOs were already facing pre-existing headwinds — political and public attention to international development has declined since the 2005 ‘Make Poverty History’ moment. The rise of nativism and the political environment since then means that ruling political parties have less of a mandate or are not as interested in the issues. Only 5 donors now give 0.7% or more for development co-operation and humanitarian issues. The public fundraising markets have been saturated in these same countries and the “cost of acquisition” of new individual donors grinds down the returns on fundraising investments. Humanitarian crises have increased but are frequently slow onset, protracted, and are frequently seen as political issues, making it hard to get media and public awareness.  

The economic crisis caused by COVID-19, and the need to service hugely expanded government debt will put further pressure on development co-operation budgets – in the near and medium-term. The endowment funds of the major Foundations have taken varying degrees of hit. Recruiting new individual donors at a faster rate than the rate with which existing ones are ‘lapsing’ will get harder. Nativism and hostile media have driven trust in INGOs down over the last years and these trends do not seem to let up.

Growing new markets or new (global South) members requires major investment over very significant periods and hasn’t led yet to the kinds of growth in income that would significanty improve funding source diversity.    

Alongside this, leaders of many northern-founded NGOs have been wrestling with the “relevance” challenge – in a world where most countries are or were about to become middle-income countries, where Southern civil society is (rightfully) claiming its space from Northern INGOs and where the ability to get big advocacy led impact is dependent on local rootedness for legitimacy and accountability.

Consequently, Northern-founded NGOs may be able to weather the immediate storm – but the underlying fundamentals which were a challenge for their financial sustainability before the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated.

Therefore, now is the time to say: nothing’s off the table

Now is the time for Boards and Executive Leadership teams to make the tough decisions that have been looming for the last five years (or more). Four areas to explore are:

  1. How do we ensure we are relevant, what is our unique niche and the best role we can play – in the wider movement – to achieve the shared social justice mission?
  2. Where do we focus, to deliver at scale and with quality in our niche – and where should we be more robust (should we cut our presence in countries, or drop (sub) themes? Let’s be honest with ourselves!
  3. Do we really need to grow global South members – what is our rationale and how does this fit with our response to the increasingly vocal call for localisation?  Should we at least, in parallel mode, consider mergers between smaller global North members for greater resilience and cost-effectiveness?
  4. Be realistic about financial growth.  Question whether equating financial growth with more impact is the right approach. Set flat or lower-income targets.

Global north-founded NGOs do have options

There are options for the future of northern INGOs and their respective members. Three might be:

a) to transform: through a more focused role, niche, programming approach, geography and consolidated members – based on a role and ‘theory of change’ that can be articulated to all stakeholders

b) to ‘die well’: transitioning expertise, power, connections and other assets to other global North or South-founded civil society organisations (merge, spin-off or close)

c) to ‘die badly’ – through financial collapse, without securing an appropriate legacy and handover of partners, resources, and programs.

The world needs Northern-founded NGOs, even if in a different role, niche, form or size

Just as the high street retailers who were most challenged by the move of consumers to online shopping were the first to collapse in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis – those members of INGO families with pre-existing challenges will need to address these soonest.

The good news is that some INGO families and/or some of their members had already begun to do this, for instance through a much tighter focus on theme, target group, expertise, or geography.

A world with global challenges needs a global civil society – working in solidarity and based on complementary strengths –  alongside other actors if we are to overcome the negative impacts of the pandemic, and deal with climate change, inequality, barriers to citizens exercising their human rights and the other global challenges of our time. Realism now about the existential funding issues gives global North-founded NGOs the chance to continue and to address those global challenges.

Nine tips for virtual NGO team leadership from a pro

Guest post by Amanda Briggs-Hastie, Head of Fundraising Support, Oxfam International. Amanda also spent several years in INGO leadership roles at GreenpeaceThis guest post is a bit longer than usual because it is so chock-full of practical lessons.

I have spent six years building and managing virtual (global) teams. I’ve stumbled many times in figuring out how to make virtual team leadership work, so here are my top 9 practical suggestions: 

1. Embrace the challenge of being the best possible virtual leader you can be — or don’t bother trying. 

This requires leading and managing in a different way.  You need to see yourself as the virtual team-working architect, consciously planning and designing how you will lead and develop a team in a remote working context. For example: How you will have a shared strategy, owned by everyone? How will you make sure your team feel bonded to each other even when apart? How will you build those critical one-on-one relationships with each of your line reports? I see many virtual teams failing because their managers continue to manage their teams in pretty much the same way they did their in-office team and wonder why their teams are but a group of isolated and demotivated workers.  

2. Consciously design your culture and way of working together – and revisit it often! 

Discuss which sort of team you want to be and what rules and ways of working you need to get there – including those specific to a virtual team. Then choose a small number of rules you will all live by (and can remember).  

Our team’s WOW (ways of working) are: 

  • We say Hi! – We check in and support each other professionally.  
  • We speak our truth – We tell the truth with integrity and sensitivity, also when it’s difficult.  
  • Appreciate differences and create space for individual styles.  
  • We are all on the same page – We take a united approach. We support each other’s views. 

Here is a lovely presentation and screensaver so our team can look at it all the time. We also do a session on WOW at every meeting to make sure it’s current, understood by any newbies and represents the heart and soul of our team

3. Have basic but good virtual working software tools 

It’s best to stick with the basic stuff people are already familiar with. Ask yourself, what is the software the least tech savvy team member can easily master? In my experience the following are the best tools and uses: 

Skype chat groups –for day to day team chat and all the instant questions you might ask your colleagues if you were in an office e.g. “Morning everyone! – What did you get up to over the weekend?” (we share photos and stories) or “Hey anyone know where that 5-year strategy file is saved?” or “Wow, Thembisa, that was an incredible workshop you just ran – well done!” 

WhatsApp – same as above. Useful for when the team are travelling and for after hours when people are away from their computer screens. Our WhatsApp group is filled with pictures of our kids, cats and holiday snaps! 

Zoom – A fantastic video conferencing tool. Use this for all your team meetings, for one-on-ones with your team and with a bit of planning Zoom can even be used for large meetings. We used it for a global skill-share with up to 300 participants. It has lots of clever functionality such as break-out rooms and instant polls and is very easy to use (plus affordable). 

Google docs and spreadsheets – Use for working collaboratively on documents e.g. writing a strategy document together, a shared travel calendar, a joint workplan. This way everyone has easy access, can edit together, see who has written what, see each other’s comments etc.

4.  Facilitation, facilitation, facilitation 

Let’s face it there are a lot of issues with having meetings virtually: 

  • People are less likely to turn up 
  • It’s harder to get full understanding with less body language to aid interpretation 
  • It’s much harder to maintain concentration 
  • People tend to be less likely to speak up or take the initiative/lead 

So good virtual facilitation is essential. Whoever is leading the meeting needs to understand these challenges and how to overcome. These skills can be trained (our team even have a virtual meeting facilitation workshop we run) but don’t under-estimate how much confidence, preparation and skill it takes to do virtual facilitation well. 

Some practical ways we facilitate meetings are: 

House-keeping rules always apply (and are reiterated at the start of meetings):

  • Be visible: Cameras on and use a headset to avoid noise disruption 
  • Be present: Absolutely no emailing or other distractions 
  • Be engaged: speak up and participate (you can use the chat function if you don’t want to disrupt the current flow of conversation). 
  • Keep meetings to 45 mins max before a break. 
  • A clear agenda, objectives and good time management 
  • Have an icebreaker at the beginning of each meeting, even if it’s just your usual team telling you what they did at the weekend or what excites them about the meeting topic. 
  • Use visual stimuli: presentations on screen with engaging charts, tables, animated gifs, cute cat pictures etc.  
  • Use quizzes, polls and break-out rooms to make your session more fun, and interactive. 
  • Experiment with creative facilitation techniques e.g. each person has 2 mins to say everything that comes to mind on the topic; ‘fishbowl ‘ exercise with a couple of people discussing an issue and others allowed to ask questions or ask to join the ‘hot seat’. Or pretend to do a radio interview where the facilitator gets in interviewees and asks them their thoughts on an issue whilst others watch (or they can pretend-dial in as listeners with questions)

5. Be present with your team  

Managers often have to attend meetings, which their own teams are not involved in directly or have other tasks that take them away from the team. It’s really important your team knows where you are and what you are doing most of the time, so they don’t end up feeling cut off from you. In a virtual world team members otherwise may have the impression you just seem to be missing or unavailable and it’s a very short journey to your team feeling deserted and unsupported, even if you are working hard in the background trying to smooth the way for their work.  

There are some easy practical ways you can address this: 

Use a shared calendar like Google or Outlook. Set it up so that your team can see full details of your calendar at the same time as theirs and vice versa. This way they can see you are in a 1-on-1 with David right now and so they won’t try and call you. This way too, the team sees all the other meetings you have as team leader, gaining insight into your busy role. N.B. Ensure you set it up with correct permissions so the team can see full details not just the frustrating “busy” description (you still can choose to keep some meetings private).  

Be active yourself in the team chat. Be the first to say “Good morning!”, bring up non-work related chat (this makes it OK for your team to do the same) and to generally be involved in discussions on the chat. The chat is really where your team exists and if you are not there regularly, you’re missing from the team. It’s a great idea to post little updates on meetings you’ve had so the team can stay connected with what your doing: “Just spoke with finance, there is a new budgeting process we are going to have to follow, talk you all through it in our meeting on Friday” 

Always respond asap, when people message you. When people send you instant messages they often need to chat or get an instant answer so you should respond asap, even if it’s just to say, “Cant talk right now, should be free in 2 hours”. Oh and if you are in a 1-on-1 with Saad when Fred messages you it’s best to just be open about it and say “Hang on Saad, Fred is just messaging me and I don’t want to be distracted, I’ll just send him a quick message to tell him when I’ll be free”. That way Fred and Saad both feel valued – it’s obvious stuff but easy to get wrong. 

6. Keep your team connected and motivated by the org mission 

If you work for an NGO, you are mission driven, but remaining connected to programme delivery can be tricky when you work in your spare room and have little interaction with the programme team. This has been a persistent challenge! You need to create opportunities for connection: regular program presentations, opportunities to participate in program strategy and delivery work, program visits etc.  

7. Be relationship more than task focused  

I think relationship focused people make better leaders of virtual teams – by nature they seek to overcome the challenging distance created by working from behind a screen. They know that a motivated, informed and included employee will deliver on the tasks.  

Some things I think are key to delivering this are: 

Weekly 1-on-1’s – You need to have them more often than you would in an office, because you need to overcome the isolation factor. Some of your team may not see or speak to any colleagues for days when they are home working. I spend the first 20 minutes or so of all my 1-on-1’s connecting with my team member on a personal level, as a friend, before I go anywhere near task related topics.  

Inductions. So much of getting to grip with a new org happens round the coffee machine: “So which team do you work in? And what do they do?” etc. In a virtual team you have to engineer that organisational understanding without the chance encounters and help them feel part of the whole org. I meet with newbies daily in the first weeks. 

Use your 6th sense and don’t let things fester. One of the problems with virtual working is that a doubt can fester without the frequent contact you have in an office. For instance, the thought – “I’m not sure my manager thinks I am doing a good job”- flows through us all at some point, but when you see your manager daily you can see from their behavior and body language that’s not true. In a virtual team where you don’t get that informal feedback, such thoughts can turn into a total loss of confidence quite quickly. Virtual managers need to read between the lines or anticipate these issues and address them quickly before they get out of control. 

Managing work/life balance for your team. As with office work, virtual working can easily lead to burn out. It’s easy to roll out of bed, switch on the laptop, and keep going (especially when working with different timezones, and team members will work different hours). You need to ensure your team learns the discipline to switch off. Don’t forget to promote good work life balance habits, set an example, and make it ‘ok’ to switch off and stop working

8. Meet often, including some “in person” time

Meeting often is critical to make sure you don’t turn into a team of people working in silos (something virtual teams are prone to). Meeting on Zoom weekly as a team helps us stay connected and bond, and focus on shared team strategy and objectives. Virtual teams do still need to meet in person sometimes though. Our team meets in person twice a year. During those meetings we do fun team building activities as well as team strategy and work planning.  You could do it online too but it is so much easier to get everyone together with post-its and a big wall chart. I have found that if it’s been more than 6 months of not meeting up the team bonds loosen a little no matter how hard you have worked in the year before that to keep everyone together.

9. Last but by no means least -Make it fun!  

Working virtually has huge personal life benefits but it does require more effort and discipline. So it’s important to make sure it is fun. It’s the little things that matter: the banter on the chat, the photos from our weekends, how we recognize and celebrate each other for personal and work achievements etc. We also organise a virtual Christmas party (the most fun ones I’ve been to). I’ll finish with a description of how we Xmas party: 

  • We bring our own drinks, party snacks, decorate our desks, and wear Santa hats etc.  
  • We log in to our video conferencing programme (Zoom) with cameras and Christmas jumpers on! 
  • We play charades, guess the baby/workstation/job we wanted when kids were etc. and other games complete with cheesy slideshows. We’ve even done a bake-off competition virtually! 
  • One of our team member sends us a party bag posted to us in advance (with chocolate, silly t-shirts to wear etc.) 

Can Organizational Culture Help Explain Recent INGO Scandals?

In recent years, leading international nongovernmental organizations (INGO) such as Oxfam International, Save the Children, Amnesty International, MercyCorps and others have been implicated in scandals about sexual abuse and other forms of abuse of power and harassment. In this ‘pracademic’ essay, just published in the peer-reviewed journal Nonprofit Policy Forum (Open Access, yes!), I suggest focusing on organizational and sectoral culture as an explanatory variable for these crises, which are particularly hard-hitting for purportedly value-based organizations. In the case of NGOs, these are driven by six factors:

(1) particular individual leadership traits that may be prevalent especially in the emergency and humanitarian relief related sector

(2) the effect of power on leaders’ perspectives and behaviors

3) a culture of silence that makes it hard for NGO staff to speak up about toxic workplace behaviors

(4) the presence of deep power structures within NGOs which are not openly acknowledged and therefore addressed

(5) the myth of own innocence that leads NGOs to treat wrongdoing as aberrations instead of systemic problems; and

(6) a culture of limited individual and team-level accountability practices.

The extent to which these cultural failures can be addressed through formal policy and (self)regulatory measures is limited, given that culture is primarily about informal, covert belief systems. NGOs will have to do sustained and disciplined culture work themselves if the roots of the scandals are to be taken away.

A couple of warnings and notes: this essay is on the longer side. And I do not claim I am an expert in sexual harassment and abuse, either in the workplace or when NGOs interact with program impacted people. I am an expert in organizational effectiveness, dynamics, and culture as it relates to NGOs, and have a background in gender and gender and leadership as well. It is from those perspectives that I have written this essay. What I do is drawing links between organizational phenomena well researched in other sectors (public/government and private) and what can happen equally in NGOs, based on my 30 years of experience in the sector.

The other essays in this special issue of Nonprofit Policy Forum – written by well-known academics – are also available if you are interested.

Your comments on my essay are very much welcomed.

The leader as learner: thinking out loud while being interviewed

Lynne Gilliland and I were reflecting on leadership in her series ‘Lessons from leaders’. Lynne, a fellow independent consultant, focuses this interview series on leaders in international development.

What we covered: What have I learned in my 15 years of senior leadership development in the INGO sector about the tremendous value of robust self-awareness? How do I view failure and how to develop resilience? What is the tricky but critical balance between projecting strength and vulnerability as a leader? And what does it mean to be a ‘developmental leader’? This is what Lynne and I talked about in this 24 min interview. Have a look to see if there is a nugget of value here and there. We also spoke about a sense I have: that we as civil society people are not always honest about some of the motives of why we do the work we do. Lynne called that “provocative”; I call it necessary. You see for yourself…

Now if only I did not have this annoying habit of looking up at the ceiling every time…

A word of gratitude: Lynne has been tremendously helpful to me in offering advice about how to launch my independent consulting practice, and I am grateful to all the wisdom and resources she has so generously shared with me since I started in January!

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!

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.

Agility is all the rage in the NGO sector; how can one flex one’s leadership behaviors accordingly? A Humentum-Maxwell e-course offers answers

Tosca has co-delivered many senior leadership training programs as part of her work at the Maxwell School and beyond. One of these is currently delivered as an e-course on Agile Leadership Behaviors, through a partnership with Humentum. This pilot course will be followed up with several other e-courses once testing has confirmed there is a demand for such a series. For a ‘taste’ of the content on Agile Leadership Behaviors, see this brief promotional video: