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Archive for June, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.34.52 AMThis is a summary by Daniel Ramirez-Raftree* of Kurante‘s June 18th Google Hangout Debate on Poverty Porn. Tom Murphy’s “storify” version of the discussion can be found here.

Most everyone has seen photographs of emaciated African children being consoled by one famous Hollywood movie star or other. Images like these are effective at moving people to donate. If success were measured solely on profits brought in, then “poverty porn” (the name for these sorts of images and stories that exploit the personal suffering caused by poverty) would indeed be a grand success.

Fundraising is not the end goal of non-profit organizations, however. With the use of these tactics, what organizations gain in funds, poor communities lose in dignity, empowerment and voice. When poverty porn saturates the media, these images become the single story told about the poor.

As part of an effort to generate discussion around (and alternatives to) the use of poverty porn as a marketing and media strategy, Kurante organized a Google Hangout on June 18. This livestream discussion touched on the problematic questions that surround the ethics and practicality of changing marketing and media approaches. Moderated by Lindsay Poirier, panelists Lina Srivastava, Ethan Zuckerman, Teddy Ruge, Linda Raftree and Charlie Beckett discussed why and how we should be moving away from poverty porn to a more dignified portrayal of the poor.

Poverty Porn’s Effects and Drawbacks: Poverty porn is effective as a means for raising funds because it elicits strong emotional responses. This can be a problem, however, because people are not necessarily driven to help or donate because of a comprehensive understanding of the actual work that’s being done, but rather by feelings of pity, sympathy, and guilt. Education systems in “the global North” don’t always teach students about the world as it exists in its entirety, they tend to rely on stereotypes that uniformly categorize “developing” countries around the world as poor, miserable, and disastrous. This sets the general public up to respond to marketing and advocacy campaigns that utilize poverty porn, and, in turn, the marketing strategy further reinforces the stereotype. Ultimately, this technique is a shortcut to getting necessary funds. It works to that end, but it does not encourage a deeper and more egalitarian human connection among different cultures, people and societies.

Power Dynamics. Power relationships are inherently at play when those with more resources help those with less. The wealthy and more powerful are generally accustomed to (and feel entitled to) making decisions about what needs to be done in the community they are helping, and, conversely, individuals or groups on the receiving end of this help may feel as if they cannot (or should not) raise their voice to speak up for what they wants to see done or what type of help they need. This is the result of a “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality, where “beneficiaries” and “recipients” are expected to feel grateful for any support given. As media outlets and ideas about what it means to be involved in aid and development work change, this mentality is being subverted by development workers and outspoken community members. For example, when the documentary Prostitutes of God was released, sex workers portrayed in the documentary were offended by how they were represented. They banded together to create a response video that quickly spread through social media channels. This type of response does not happen all the time, but as access to social media increases, there are more and more opportunities for the poor to speak up about how they are being represented.

Community Voice: One step towards improving how “the poor” are represented is trusting communities to speak for themselves. External agents need to stop dictating what community members should talk about or say or what the boundaries of their stories should be. A full story can only be conveyed through multiple points of view, but the perspective of the poor has historically been missing. Social media is playing a role in opening up some of these channels for expression and platforms for more voices. In this way, media and development agency audiences can begin getting the “full story” behind development work and life in developing countries. If stereotypes and clichés are replaced by this more ethnographic method, the wider social goals of non-profit work can be better served.

Perceptions: To bring about change, emphasis must be placed on the way development agencies look at themselves, at the individuals and communities they work with, and at the way that relationships are portrayed in marketing and media materials. The narratives of the western hero and the benevolent savior that are implicit in many poverty porn images are the immediate result of power dynamics. This notion of what it means to “help the poor” lingers in the minds of the general public, those doing aid work, and even in many communities on the receiving end of aid and development funding and projects. If the aim is to empower communities to help themselves in a sustainable way, paternalistic attitudes must be replaced by actively egalitarian partnerships. Transforming media can help to achieve this.

Metrics: An important question that panelists and the Twitter audience raised was the issue of metrics. How will we measure whether or not changes in non-profit marketing and media are having their intended effect? A current problem with metrics is that the various departments within an organization are overly specialized and siloed. Each comes up with its own way of measuring success and these are often only a part of the picture. Fundraising is only a tool to help an organization achieve its larger mission, not the end goal.

Public Involvement: The general public is very difficult to change. People may “hunger” for a certain type of story (the starving child story) and not be satisfied by images of self-sufficient communities that they imagine should be struggling and helpless. However, in most cases, their money is ultimately going towards creating longer-term structural change, not to feeding the hungry child they saw on a poster. Organizations need to find ways to help people better understand what their donation is actually doing. One way to do this may be through participatory media that involves on-the-ground communities making their own media and telling their own stories.

Realigning the public’s sentiment will be the result of widespread pedagogic and cultural change. It will be a process wider in scope than a campaign against poverty porn can accomplish alone. The public is an ever-transforming entity that is affected by history and memory, thus we need to come up with engaging, creative and dynamic strategies to involve people in our work. Contending with public perceptions is a challenge, but no meaningful change can be accomplished without a widespread effort at various levels.

Poverty porn does not only have to do with the way the West views Africa, it is an expression of classism that appears wherever those with more are helping those with less. By changing the way we manage media, we can affect the way stereotypes proliferate. Here’s a taste of a debate that will surely continue as conservative thinkers react skeptically or defensively to the prospect of progress and equality of voice from those who are viewed historically as less.

*Disclosure – Daniel is my son and he is helping us out at Regarding Humanity and Kurante for the summer. I’m not sure if this is nepotism or a normal part of running a ‘family business!’

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This is a cross-post from the always thoughtful and eloquent Ian Thorpe, who notes that fundraising is a means to help non-profit organizations fulfill their wider mission; it should not be mistaken as the end goal of non-profit organizations. Consistency in how we achieve our missions across all of our operations becomes ever more important in this age of growing transparency. Read the original post here.

by Ian Thorpe

I’ve been reflecting on a couple of interesting discussions lately on aid communication and fundraising.  In the first, Kurante organized a Google Hangout on “Poverty Porn” i.e. the use of negative, shocking images in aid campaigns (the recording and the twitter storify of the discussion can be found on Tom Murphy’s blog here). During the discussion @meowtree  shared a link to this rather discouraging blog post by a fundraising guru here that suggests that those who criticize the use of negative images are undermining the organizations they work for and should be fired!

A second twitter discussion concerned a new “buy one, give one” programme and whether or not it is harmful or helpful and on what basis this type of programme might be judged.

What comes out of both of these is the potential conflict between what makes good aid versus what makes good fundraising. It’s quite possible to raise money, a lot of money, if one is willing to do whatever it takes, use any kind of images and words and tactics in order to open their wallets. Marketers and fundraisers, to give them their due, make extensive use research and evidence in their work, perhaps more so than programme people, and much research backs up the claim that negative imagery is often more successful than positive imagery in evoking a response and getting out checkbooks.

If you were a private company then “maximizing shareholder value” by going where the money is might well be a great strategy. But aid agencies and civil society organizations are generally in place to serve a mission. The mission of the organization is a huge asset both in motivating staff and in generating support – but it’s also an important constraint in that in places limits around what you will be prepared to do to raise funds or attention. Essentially, if you exist to pursue a mission then all your activities need to be consistent with it. Generally an aid mission is not simply to raise as much money as possible, it’s to achieve a purpose such as reducing poverty or protecting children from harm. And it’s often more complicated to pursue this goal to maximize the amount of positive impact on your beneficiaries – you also need to do this in a principled way informed by your organization’s values such as in respecting the human dignity of the people of the people you aim to help and not exploiting them (even if with the aim of helping them).

I recall a conversation from when I worked on communication in UNICEF with our fundraisers about a similar topic (from more than 10 years ago so I’m not spilling any secrets). At that stage the organization was looking to move more into “upstream policy work” and on scaling back on “service delivery”, especially in middle-income countries. Programmatically this made a lot of sense, but the fundraisers were naturally concerned about the impact on their ability to talk about this shift in fundraising campaigns. It’s much easier to fundraise using images of nicely branded supplies coming in on trucks being handed out by aid workers to poor people than it is to “show” work on, or the results of influencing government policy, improving data collection and building capacity of civil servants.  But at the end of the discussion we were ready to say that while it might be harder to raise money for upstream work, and we might be able to raise less money as a result – if this is the work that needs to be done, then the task was to fund better ways of fundraising about this work, rather than changing the nature of the work to make it easier to raise funds.

Of course aid organizations rely on external funding (whether government, corporate or individual) and they need professional fundraisers to be able to get the resources they need to do their work. Professional fundraisers and communicators know better than programme staff, from their experience and research, how to put together effective fundraising communications in terms of who to approach, what approaches to use and what information is needed from programme staff to support it. That can include coming up with novel approaches to raising funds for something that is already a priority, even if these appear gimmicky to aid workers on the ground (such as sending a quarter coin to people to get them to send in donations or getting them to buy something to give something).

But it’s important to ensure that the fundraising is in service of the organization’s goals rather than the reverse. It can be easy to be tempted to do something because it’s popular with donors even if it isn’t fully consistent with your mission and values, and hard to forswear potential opportunities when aid funding is tight. In particular it can be tempting to agree to programmes which are appealing to donors but for which there isn’t a demand, or worse that do unintended harm. But if the organization exists to serve a mission – then it’s important to keep that front and centre in decision-making on what opportunities to pursue or what tactics to use to pursue them – in fundraising just as much as in programmes.

In fact in an age of increasing aid transparency it becomes ever more important to focus on your mission and values since it’s much more obvious if your communications, partnerships and programmes are not consistent with each other or with your mission, and your reputation will suffer as a result –as will the cause you are pursuing.

Greater transparency is also an opportunity to bring donors and beneficiaries closer together so that donors can see and hear the results of aid work directly from those being helped rather than via a “story” whether positive or negative constructed by the aid agency for the benefit of donors. Similarly donors can also hear more from those they are helping about what they want and need, seeing them more as individuals with dignity, aspirations and agency to improve their lives aided by donors rather than as passive objects of pity and charity. This way instead of going where donors give most now, you can change the discussion to educate and encourage them to give money to where it is really needed, and to understand better what their support really does and can do.

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Verone Mankou of VMK with Senam Beheton of EtriLabs, who organized Verone's US trip.

Verone Mankou of VMK with Senam Beheton of EtriLabs, who organized Verone’s US trip.

We switched things up a little for our May 21 Technology Salon and had an evening event with Verone Mankou, the head of VMK, a company in Congo Brazzaville that designs and produces the Way-C Tablet and the Elikia smart phone. The event was graciously hosted by ThoughtWorks, and Verone’s US trip was organized by Senam Beheton of EtriLabs.

Verone told his story of starting the first African company to make mobile devices. In 2006, he said, the cheapest computer in Congo cost $1000 USD, and the cheapest Internet package was priced around $1000 per month. Verone worked in the tech industry and wondered why there was no computer or Internet that could be reasonably accessed by people in Congo. Everyone laughed and said he was young, fresh out of school, and that within 2 years he would understand the business and stop dreaming.

Verone persisted with his idea that computers and the Internet were not just for people in offices with suits. Everyone wanted to access Internet, he believed, but they just didn’t have the money. So in 2006, he started working on ideas for a laptop. After 6 months he concluded that it was impossible. To create a laptop you need a lot of money for research and development, and, unfortunately, his bank account only contained about $100 USD. He had no contacts with suppliers. Verone had a big dream but problems executing it, so he put the laptop project on hold.

In June 2007, a friend told him to hurry up and turn on the news. Steve Jobs was presenting the iPhone. “This is what I want to do,” Verone thought. “Make a big iPhone.” He felt keyboards were a deterrent for most people who were new to a computer, and that “a big iPhone” would be a solution. He started working on the idea of a tablet. It was difficult to find any suppliers on the African continent – no CPU factory, no battery factory. He could not find hardware engineers because in Congo there is no engineering high school. He realized he needed to go outside, to Asia. He made a first trip to China in 2007 and learned many things. By 2009 he had a plan, an Android system, and a finished project.

The next problem, however, was that he had no money for mass production. “In Congo we don’t have venture capitalists. Also as a youth, you cannot get any money. You will have a bad experience if you go to the bank to ask. People will tell you to start a hotel and not to waste your money on something different.” Verone did not go quiet when he could not find capital, however. He kept looking.

Meanwhile, Steve Jobs presented a new device: a big iPhone – otherwise known as the iPad. Verone was disappointed that Jobs had moved more quickly than he could with his tablet launch. On the other hand, everyone suddenly understood Verone’s project.

His miracle came a few months later when a minister from Congo was on a plane from Brazzaville to Singapore and came across a magazine article talking about a boy in Congo making a tablet. The minister could not believe someone in his country was doing this and he did not know about it. He contacted Verone and asked how he could help. Verone asked for $200k USD and gave the minister a prototype. Within 2 hours, the minister secured the funding and Verone was able to begin manufacturing.

He had enough funds to do a mass prototype of 1000 tablets and imagined that he could sell them in 3 months if they were marketed well. There was a buzz around the tablets, however, and they sold out in 1 week and he increased production to 10,000. Compared to the cost of an iPad in Congo (around $1500), Verone’s tablet was going for $200-300. He set his sights on making a good quality, low-cost smart phone.

Good quality is key for Verone. “Why do Samsung and Nokia come to Africa and think Africans need cheap, low quality devices?” As an African, Verone felt uniquely placed to create something for the continent – something cheap but good quality. He did this by eliminating unnecessary features and keeping only the necessary elements.

Next he needed to ensure that there was good content and an opportunity for monetization. Africans needed applications and content for their own purposes and context, he felt. Not maps of pharmacies in New York City. However most Africans do not have credit cards, so another way to pay for content and applications was needed. VMK created a marketplace for Africans that used scratch cards for payment, since everyone understands how scratch cards work.

VMK launched their smart phone in December of last year and  plans to sell 50K units in Congo Brazzaville. The company is also working on a cheaper phone with lower capacity that should run about $50 USD. In addition, they are working on identifying content partners and launching an “updateable school book” that would be accessible also at around $50 USD, so that students and teachers are not using outdated text books, which stunt the development of African children’s minds.  Verone’s vision is to give people access to good quality technology at a good price.

How will VMK compete with Chinese products as prices continue to go down over the next 10 years? “We will learn fast,” Verone says. “We will not sit while others advance.” He believes that expanding to African countries and developing the industry there will be good for the continent, good for developers and good for business. It’s not yet possible to do mass production in Africa because of poor education and lack of / high cost of Internet. People still cannot easily access relevant and updated information. But Internet is getting cheaper, access is improving and things are changing. People are starting to understand the importance of education. VMK currently has teams working in China and India, but they hope to move these functions to Africa as soon as possible. VMK plans to train staff up, offer internships and to get African youth skilled up in order to do this work.

The important thing is not to sit still, Verone says. “We can’t just keep waiting for things to change. We need to change them ourselves.”

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M4 Version 5[4]I’ve been looking around for a good read for the past several months and finding myself dissatisfied with the airport bookstore. So I was glad to get a review copy of J’s latest: Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit.

I read it in one sitting on the plane home from a meeting about disruption, civil society and the capacity of international development/aid organizations to adapt, so it was through that lens that I consumed the book. It pretty much answered the question “can INGOs adapt?” (Spoiler alert: prognosis is not good.)

And make no mistake: These structural issues are universal. It’s not Oxfam or WAC or Save or CARE. You don’t escape this problem by moving to another organization or taking a different job in your current organization, because this is the nature of the aid industry itself.

J’s description of personal agendas, bureaucracy, competition, jostling for position, stressed local government workers, exhausted staff, and unrealistic demands from donors and headquarters is an insider’s view of why INGOs have a hard time adapting and changing. The book describes the complexity of aid and humanitarian work in detail, bringing in the conflicting push and pull of the different stakeholders.

Rather than complexity encouraging adaptation and organizations that are more “fit for purpose,” however, J’s main characters are trapped in complexity that paralyzes, breeds mediocrity, loses sight of the mission and rewards the “wrong” motives and decisions.

Aid is not broken because aid workers are cynical, hedonistic alcoholics. Aid workers are cynical alcoholics because aid is broken, and further, because they have been repeatedly slapped down by their own leaders for trying to make it better.

J does recognize the conflicts, however, and (with only a little bit of blame and harsh judgment), he shows the demands made on people at all levels of the aid machine:

Management and leadership are the easiest things in the world until you actually have to do them.

J does a good job of humanizing the aid worker and his or her personal and professional struggles within this dysfunctional system. He writes about how the passion for aid work conflicts with the personal choices each aid worker makes, most significantly when the addiction to aid work obliterates the possibility of having “normal” and healthy relationships with one’s family and home country society. The book also highlights the internal doubts and fears of self-aggrandizement that any self-reflective aid worker experiences:

…Suddenly Mary-Anne felt overwhelmed with the feeling that her career in the humanitarian world had thus far been built on so much self-important dishonesty….

….“You come here, you and your foreign friends. You spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to instruct refugees about drinking enough water or where they should shit every day.” He snorted derisively. “These people were mapping the stars and perfecting mathematics while your ancestors were painting themselves blue and dancing naked around fires in the forest…. You children come here to patiently explain to Ethiopians about accountability and honesty… You think we need you to help us know right from wrong. You come here to ‘supervise’ people old enough to be your parents. My youngest daughter is your age. ”

Reading the book was like having a long conversation with J over Skype or beers where he offers you career advice and makes you feel better by acknowledging you that you are not the first person to experience internal conflict and self-doubt. There is a fair bit of J bestowing his wisdom on the reader, but I find that J normally has good insights and offers solid advice, so this did not bother me.

I did feel that the book was half-finished. Several of the characters introduced early in the book were not developed out in the rest of it. Given the “to be continued” on the last page, I assume that their stories will be picked up in the next book in the series. I also would have liked more about the setting and history woven in, and more active roles for some of the “local” characters, as well as a chance to get inside their heads and see their perspectives in more depth. This would have rounded the book out and brought it fully from the tongue-in-cheek harlequin romance novel style of J’s first book (Disastrous Passion) to a more solid kind of “historical fiction”.

Some have criticized the book for being aimed solely at those in the aid and development world and making too many “insider” assumptions. I suspect, however, that J purposely wrote it for “Expat Aid Workers,” and I didn’t find that to be a problem. Simplifying things for a mainstream audience would water the book down, making it less “real” for those working in the sector. This choice means that this book will not become a best seller outside of the industry — but I don’t think it is meant to.

I will note that the fact that I didn’t have a problem with the level of detail-that-only-an-aid-or-development-worker-would-appreciate probably means that I am sitting firmly in the category of “Misfit.” Read the book and you’ll understand what I mean!

Disclosures: I was provided with a free copy for review. I have known J for quite some time and consider him a friend, which may color my opinions about the book.

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About 15 years ago, I was at a regional management meeting where a newly hired colleague was introduced. The guy next to me muttered “Welcome to the Titanic.”

In the past 20 years, we’ve seen the disruption of the record, photo, newspaper, and other industries. Though music, photos, and news continue to play a big role in people’s lives, the old ‘owners’ of the space were disrupted by changes in technology and new expectations from consumers. Similar changes are happening in the international civil society space, and organizations working there need to think more systematically about what these changes mean.

I spent last week with leadership from a dozen or so international civil society organizations (ICSOs) thinking about what is disrupting our space and strategizing about how to help the space, including our organizations, become more resilient and adaptive to disruption. Participants in the meeting came from several types of organizations (large INGOs doing service delivery and policy work, on-line organizing groups, social enterprises, think tanks, and big campaigning organizations), both new and old, headquartered and/or founded in both the “North” and the “South.”

We approached discussions from the premise that, like music, photos, and news; our sector does have value and does serve an important function. The world is not a perfect place, and government and the private sector need to be balanced and kept in check by a strong and organized “third sector.” However, many ICSOs are dinosaurs whose functions may be replaced by new players and new ways of working that better fit the external environment.

Changes around and within organizations are being prompted by a number of converging factors, including new technology, global financial shifts, new players and ways of working, and new demands from “beneficiaries,” constituencies, and donors. All of these involve shifting power. On top of power shifts, an environmental disaster looms (because we are living beyond the means of the planet), and we see civil society space closing in many contexts while at the same time organized movements are forcing open space for civic uprising and citizen voice.

ICSOs need to learn how to adapt to the shifting shape and context of civil society, and to work and collaborate in a changing ecosystem with new situations and new players. This involves:

  • Detecting and being open to changes and potential disruptors
  • Preparing in a long-term, linear way by creating more adaptive, iterative and resilient organizations
  • Responding quickly and nimbly to disruption and crises when they hit

Key elements of preparing for and navigating disruption are:

  • Maintaining trust and transparency – both internally and externally
  • Collective action
  • Adaptability
  • Being aware of and able to analyze and cope with power shifts

Organization cannot prepare for every specific disruption or crisis, and the biggest crises and shocks come out of nowhere. ICSOs should however become more adaptive and agile by creating built-in responsiveness. We surfaced a number of ideas for getting better at this:

  • Networking/Exchange: actively building networks, learning across sectors, engaging and working with non-traditional partners, bringing in external thinkers and doers for exchange and learning
  • Trend spotting and constant monitoring: watching and participating in spaces where potential disruptions are springing up (for example, challenge funds, contest and innovation prizes); exit interviews to understand why innovative staff are leaving, where they are going, and why; scanning a wide range of sources (staff, people on the ground, traditional media, social media, political analysts) including all ICSO’s audiences – eg., donors, supporters, communities
  • Predicting. Keeping predictable shocks on the radar (hurricane season, elections) and preparing for them, scenario planning as part of the preparatory phase
  • Listening: Ensuring that middle level, often unheard parts of the organization are listened to and that there are open and fluid communication lines between staff and middle and upper management; listening to customers, users, beneficiaries, constituencies; basically listening to everyone
  • Confident humility: Being humble and open, yet also confident, systematic and not desperate/chaotic
  • Meta-learning: Finding systematic ways to scan what is happening and understand it; learning from successes and failures at the ‘meta’ and the cross-sector level not just the organizational or project level
  • Slack time: Giving staff some slack for thinking, experimenting and reflecting; establishing a system for identifying what an organization can stop doing to enable staff to have slack time to think and be creative and try new things
  • Training. Ensuring that staff have skills to do strategic decision making, monitoring, scenario planning
  • Decentralized decision-making. Allow local pods and networks to take control of decision-making rather than having all decisions weighed in on by everyone or taking place at the top or the center; this should be backed by policies and protocols that enable quick decision making at the local level and quick communication across the organization
  • Trust. Hiring staff you can trust and trusting your staff (human resources departments need strengthening in order to do this well; they need to better understand the core business and what kind of staff an organization needs in these new times)

Culture, management, and governance changes are all needed to improve an organization’s ability to adapt. Systems need to be adjusted so that organizations can be more flexible and adaptive. Organizational belief systems and values also need to shift. Trying out adaptive actions and flexible culture in small doses to develop an organization’s comfort level and confidence and helping to amass shared experience of acting in a new way can help move an organization forward. Leadership should also work to identify innovation across the organization, highlight it, and scale it, and to reward staff who take risk and experiment rather than punishing them.

These changes are very difficult for large, established organizations. Staff and management tend to be overworked and spread thin as it is, managing an existing workload and with little “slack time” to manage change processes. In addition, undesignated funds are shrinking, meaning that organizations have little funding to direct towards new areas or for scanning and preparing, testing and learning. Many organizations are increasingly locked into implementing projects and programs per a donor’s requirements and there are few resources to strategize and focus on organizational adaptation and change. Contractual commitments and existing promises and community partnerships can make it difficult for ICSOs to stop doing certain programs in order to dedicate resources to new areas. The problem is usually not a shortage of innovative ideas and opportunities, but rather the bandwidth to explore and test them, and the systems for determining which ideas are most likely to succeed so that scarce resources can be allocated to them.

Despite all the challenges, the organizations in the room were clear that ICSOs need to change and disrupt themselves, because if they don’t, someone else will. We profiled three types of organizations: the conservative avoider, the opportunistic navigator, and the active disruptor, and determined that the key to survival for many ICSOs will be “dialing up the pain of staying the same and reducing the pain of changing.”

What might an adaptive organization look like?

  • Focused on its mission, not its traditional means of achieving the mission (get across the water in the best way possible, don’t worry if it’s via building a bridge or taking a boat or swimming)
  • Not innovating for the sake of innovation or disrupting for the sake of it – accompanying innovation and disruption with longer-term and systematic follow through
  • Periodically updating its mission to reflect the times
  • Piloting, gaining experience, monitoring, evaluating, building evidence and learning iteratively and at the meta-level from trends and patterns
  • Sub-granting to new, innovative players and seeding new models
  • Open, in the public domain, supporting others to innovate, decentralized, networked, flexible, prepared for new levels of transparency
  • Systematically discovering new ways of working and new partners, testing them, learning and mainstreaming them
  • Keeping its ear to the ground
  • Learning to exit and say no in order to free up slack time to experiment and try new things

Many “dinosaur” organizations are adopting a head-in-the-sand approach, believing that they can rely on their age, their hierarchical systems and processes, or their brand to carry them through the current waves of change. This is no longer enough, and we can expect some of these organizations to die off. Other organizations are in the middle of an obvious shift where parts of the organization are pushing to work under new rules but other parts are not ready. This internal turmoil, along with the overstretched staff, and ineffective boards in some cases, make it difficult to deal with external disruption while managing internal change.

Newer organizations and those that are the closest to the ground seem to have the best handle on disruption. They tend to be more adaptive and nimble, whereas those far from the ground can be insulated from external realities and less aware of the need for ISCOs to change. Creating a “burning platform” can encourage organizational change and a sense of urgency, however, this type of change effort needs to be guided by a clear and positive vision of why change is needed, where change is heading, and why it will be beneficial to achieving an organization’s mission.

After our week of intense discussions, the group felt we still had not answered the question: Can ISCOs be nimble? As in any ecosystem, as the threats and problems to civil society shift and change, a wide array of responses from a number of levels, players and approaches is necessary. Some will not be fit or will not adapt and will inevitably die off. Others will shift to occupy a new space. Some will swallow others up or replace them. Totally new ones will continue to arise. For me, the important thing in the end is that the problems that civil society addresses are dealt with, not that individual organizations maintain their particular position in the ecosystem.

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