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Posts Tagged ‘disruption’

Back in May I participated in a discussion on if and how International Civil Society Organizations (ICSOs) are adapting to changes around them. Here’s my summary of the conversations: Can International Civil Society Organizations be nimble?

A final report from the meeting is ready (download Riding the Wave: A proposal for Boards and CEOs on how to prepare their organizations for disruptive change) and here’s a video summary:

I’m curious what other folks think about this topic and the analysis and recommendations in the report.

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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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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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As part of the work I’m doing with the mEducation Alliance around mobile technologies and youth workforce development (mYWD), we’re putting together an event focused on innovation in the mYWD space on October 15  from 9-12.30 EDT.

Some of the topics we’ll be looking at include:

  • How do workforce development programs address different forms of exclusion? And how do different forms of exclusion affect approaches to youth and workforce development programming?
  • What do innovation and ‘disruption’ mean in the context of mobile technologies and youth workforce development?  What are some different frameworks for thinking about innovation?
  • What role might mobile technologies play in increasing access to information and work/entrepreneurial opportunities for young people?
  • Where are there opportunities for innovation with mobile technologies in YWD? What are some examples? What are some precautions?
  • What can mYWD learn from other areas/sectors? What can be adapted and built upon?

Philip Auerswald (The Coming Prosperity: How Entrepreneurs are Transforming the Global Economy and the Innovations: Technology, Globalization, Governance Journal), Nick Martin (Tech Change), John Zoltner (FHI360), and a host of development and technology practitioners working in mobiles and youth workforce development (mYWD) and related fields will be joining.

From the event preparation research and the discussions, we’ll assemble a short publication to share, and (if all goes well!) we’ll do some short videos exploring what innovation means to different people working in this space.

If you’d like to join the meeting, RSVP now by emailing Matthew French at MFrench [at] jbsinternational [dot] com. In person space is limited, so hurry! The event will take place at FHI 360 Conference Center, 1825 Connecticut Avenue NW 8th Floor, Washington, DC 20009 (Map)

If you are not able to participate in person, contact Matthew by October 11 for details on joining the session online.

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