Five Oaks Consulting

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.

Your comments are very much welcomed.

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!

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!

Desire but also urgency? Driving organizational innovation in NGOs: learn from two innovation masters

Organizational innovation strategies – everybody in ‘NGO land’ is on the lookout for them. But how do you drive innovation, as NGO leaders and managers? Listen to these two innovation masters: Aleem Walji of Aga Khan Foundation USA, and Chris Proulx of Humentum. I recently interviewed them on Facebook Live as part of my series ‘Leading with Meaning’.

Here are highlights:

Chris on the role of urgency: NGOs may lack the urgency that spurs innovation in the private sector. The changeable wishes of private sector customers as well as shareholder needs for return on investment create this urgency. NGOs, on the other hand, tend to to be long term focused because of their mission. Moreover, the people paying for NGO services or outputs are not the NGO’s clients which means that the feedback loops are indirect.

Solution: bring in talent who are as such perhaps less committed to the mission (this can be culturally difficult to accept for NGOs). Build diverse and agile teams. And use lean project management methods.

Aleem on ‘connecting the dots’: Have people in your teams from across diverse sectors. Be able to ‘connect the dots’ by exposing a problem or asset to people from different backgrounds, people who normally don’t talk with each other – ‘unlike-minded characters’.

Have translators and bridge builders to help these people connect.

It is important that people across these different sectors respect and appreciate each others’ skills and worldviews, and are willing to listen and learn from people who are nothing like themselves. Over time, they develop a new shared vocabulary.

Second: Think big but test small: develop small scale prototypes with hypotheses you will test, disciplined data collection, failing forward and iterating as you go.

My reflection after listening to these two leaders: It strikes me that some of the advice of Aleem and Chris is not necessarily immediately palatable to the mindset of our sector. Clearly, however, NGOs need to integrate organizational innovation capacity if they are to remain relevant. So how does your NGO go about spurring innovation?

The future of transnational NGO advocacy: three contrasting scenarios

What are several different scenarios one can envisage for the future of transnational NGO advocacy? Five of my academic colleagues (with whom I collaborated until recently, when I left the Maxwell School to launch my independent consulting practice) and I laid out three of such views in this piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR).

We purposely designed this short reading to offer some contrasts. Which of these scenarios do you consider most likely? A combination of all? Something different altogether? Let me know!

Managing remote teams is hard work: views from the former CIO of Amnesty International

These are the views of John Gillespie (ex Chief Information Officer of Amnesty International); they do not necessarily represent the views of Five Oaks Consulting. You can reach John at mail@johnagillespie.com

Are people more inventive when they come together?

Back in 2013, Marissa Mayer the then CEO of Yahoo banned working from home.  As she said at the time “People are more collaborative, more inventive when people come together.” She provoked a great deal of resistance in Yahoo and ignited a simmering debate that rolls on to this day.

Marissa Mayer made her announcement soon after I arrived at Amnesty International. We were embarking on a major transformation to decentralize our operation from a single office in London to a network of 16 offices around the globe. Amnesty also reduced its office space in London and encouraged staff to work from home. We had to make remote working work. As CIO I was responsible for putting in the technology – that turned out to be the straightforward part.

Now I am inclined to agree with Marissa. We are social animals and remote working is not natural. We build relationships with the people we rub shoulder with every day. Like our colleagues or not, over time we find ways of working together. The timely snippets of advice (or criticism) from colleagues keep us on track. Remote working loses the human contact that is necessary for good teamwork, cohesive organizational culture and personal growth.

Managing a distributed team poses some challenges

Whatever we may think, distributed teams have become a part of INGOs structure. They may be necessary for inclusiveness, but they may not be effective. The recent upheaval facing Amnesty International that Tosca has written about here was certainly exacerbated by a distributed organisation that lacked cultural cohesion.

Then there is the reality of management. Most of the time as a manager, I really don’t know how long it will take a person to complete a task. I assign work and I track progress. If a person is struggling, I give them support and more time. If they are cruising, I give them more responsibility. This is so much harder if you don’t have regular human contact.

So what to do?

Nevertheless, sometimes remote working the only way of running a team with the right expertise. So, what can you do?

First establish good meeting discipline. I insist on regular weekly meetings with the team. Don’t miss them. I make sure everyone participates and I don’t let people slip below the radar. Meetings become more important not less. Agree on a communication technology across the whole team. It doesn’t really matter if you choose Slack, or Microsoft Teams, or Facebook Workplace, or whatever is currently fashionable. Choose one and insist everyone uses it. I believe that video conferencing makes people more ‘present’ and is much more effective than audio conferences

I find you can get reasonable visibility of workload and individual performance by selecting a project management method and a good project management tool. Trello or Microsoft Planner work well for agile teams. If a person is stuck on the same task, or appears much less productive than their colleagues, they are either struggling or loafing. You can intervene before the behaviour becomes entrenched.

Now I have never bought into the argument that a person can work anywhere. The work we do need focus and concentration, or at the very least space to make a phone call uninterrupted. Make sure everyone has a quiet workplace and a reliable internet connection. Only a couple of years back one of my team members complained that he found it hard to work at home because he didn’t have an internet connection. Remote working was suspended until a good broadband connection was installed. Another colleague always appears on conference calls sitting on a sofa. Call me old fashioned but I don’t know how you can work without a desk for your notes and papers.

It’s as much about the environment as about the tech

Good video conferencing is not hard. Everyone likes to blame the software; in my experience it is not the software. You need a quiet space, good lighting, and a fast internet connection. If you have a poor internet connection and lots of background noise, there is nothing Skype can do for you. No one has ever had a good VC from a coffee shop, or worse an airport departure lounge. That might be necessary on occasion but if it becomes a norm you are going to be forever plagued by interruptions and lack of focus on the matter at hand.

Finally, I need to remember that remote working isn’t for everyone and needs to be embarked upon with care. Some people find it is easier to focus when they are by themselves, some don’t. Some people find it just too tempting to skip work. Even with all the technology and process and meetings, for some projects and some people, remote working really doesn’t work and a physical hub, an office, is a necessity. Beware of progressing with remote work policies too quickly; reversing a remote working policy, as Marissa Mayer found out, really is hard work.

Why we need virtual water coolers: Four reasons why virtual NGO team leadership has its challenges

The context

Do you lead and manage (largely) virtual teams? It can definitely be a suboptimal experience, both for you as a team leader and for your team members. Most of us NGO managers and leaders do a lot of virtual team management these days. Yet NGOs have not planned for this, and managers and leaders are not equipped with virtual team leadership skills. Some NGOs do increasingly have technology tools at their disposal, but they have not necessarily planned how to use these well. And some think, incorrectly, that having the right technology will be the answer. But it is not. As with any technological intervention, what matters is how people interact with the technology. The behaviors that need to accompany the use of the technology matter most. Moreover, on the whole, if you ask NGO staff, I would venture most would say that they still prefer face to face communication as being more effective (as well as more pleasant!). In the meantime, I have heard many a story of a manager who typically has 6-8 Skype meetings per day, which altogether makes me wonder whether that is optimal….

How I learned about virtual team leadership

For the past six years, my former team at the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University and I provided a shared Senior Leadership Development Program to a group of major NGOs (ActionAid International,Amnesty International, Greenpeace International, Oxfam International and CIVICUS) As part of this, last year we offered a workshop on virtual team leadership. This blog posts reflects our research findings as well as input from workshop participants on some of the most pressing reasons why virtual team leadership can be so challenging.

Virtual teams face particular challenges

Research[1] indicates that virtual teams face some challenges that are either specific to this type of team or are germane to teams in general but are extra vexing in the case of virtual teams.

Here is a list:

  1. ‘Social Inhibitors’ to team work | Most importantly, it is simply more difficult to establish trust in virtual teams. Language and cultural differences are harder to navigate when one cannot observe body language. And it is more difficult to establish and communicate a desired team culture as a leader.
  2. ‘Social loafing’ is more possible | Humans tend to hold back in giving their best effort and ideas to the work, when they work in the relative anonymity of virtual teams. They also are more prone to withhold new information. Social loafing is compounded when people sense that their individual contributions will not be noted or rewarded in the same way as when it comes to face to face teams.
  3. Motivating staff can be more challenging | In virtual teams, staff are at higher risk of social isolation. They are also less able to  access opportunities for skill development and career growth. Staff are thus at a higher risk of demotivation and employee loyalty and engagement may suffer.
  4. It is more difficult to monitor team performance | It is harder to enforce norms for team communication and team performance: observing who is deviating from those norms is harder. Holding individuals accountable for lack of performance is harder, as is recognizing team members for their contributions. It is also more challenging  to utilize team member skills to the full in virtual teams.

Your experience?

So what is your experience? To what extent do you relate to these issues identified in the research? And what other challenges have you encountered in your practice?

If you want your NGO to learn about good, research-based practices that will help you manage and lead your virtual NGO teams in better ways, then please contact me: tosca@5oaksconsulting.org

Additional resources

Regretfully, most in-depth resources on virtual team management and leadership are behind ‘pay walls’. The two following short readings, while somewhat superficial by necessity, are freely available:

Watkins, M.D. Making virtual teams work: Ten Basic Principles, Harvard Business Review, June 27, 2013

Ferrazzi, K. Getting Virtual Teams Right, Harvard Business Review, December 2014


[1] Credit goes to Kishauna Soljour, former program coordinator of the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University who also obtained her PhD at that University. Kishauna’s research significantly informed this blog post. I also am indebted to Catherine Gerard, Director of the Program on the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration at Syracuse University, who help crystallize the messages from our research.

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.