Disruptive Change in the Civil Society Sector

Change has always happened – and international civil society organisations (ICSOs) such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Oxfam have often brought about significant change. But over the last 20 years change itself has changed: it has become faster, more fundamental and more surprising. When these three elements come together, we experience disruption. To date, there have not yet been major examples of disruptive change affecting ICSOs. However, clear signs are emerging that ICSOs are no longer safe from being disrupted.

The International Civil Society Centre invited experts and leaders from the civil society sector to explore sources of disruption and develop guidance on how ICSOs can position themselves to benefit, rather than suffer, from change.

Digital communication is one of the most critical sources of disruption. Until a few years ago donors in the Global North had to go through an ICSO to identify and support recipients in the Global South. ICSOs recovered the costs for the intermediary services they provided from the donations they received. With the rise of the internet, donors and recipients of aid can connect directly with each other without the help of an ICSO. This connection is not only more immediate, it is also carries much lower overheads.

Defenders of the traditional approach often point to the much higher risk of fraud when selecting a project from a completely unregulated market place without solid verification.  However, examples like e-bay show that appropriate verification systems can be developed and sufficient trust among the users can be established to make such structures run. In this situation it only seems logical that most donors will eventually chose the cheaper and more direct way of giving.

Another example of the disruptive effects digital communication can produce affects campaigning organisations: popular movements like Occupy, the Arab Spring and protests in Turkey and other countries show that large numbers of people can self-mobilise through social networks. They do not need well-established organisations to provide that service.

ICSOs’ most successful business models such as project support, child sponsorship, humanitarian intervention, and campaigning are based on income from intermediation services. Should these services no longer be required ICSOs will be in serious financial difficulties. However, hiding from or fighting the threat is not the best strategy for tackling disruption. Much more promising is a positive perspective: identifying disruptive change as an opportunity and positioning the organisation to exploit disruption for the benefit of its mission.

Adapting existing business models in order to benefit from new forms of communication and to develop new services is one option. Another is reviewing, testing and employing completely new business models, many of which can be found in virtual CSOs and social enterprises. Increasing the numbers of business models and diversifying income streams are important steps to minimising the risks of being disrupted.

The main recommendation for ICSOs is to stop ignoring emerging disruptions and start preparing for the related opportunities and threats, both within their own organisation and in cooperation with other organisations. For more detailed recommendations, have a look at this video or the publication Riding the Wave.

The International Civil Society Centre is the global action platform for international civil society organisations. Founded in 2007, the Centre brings together the leadership of the largest ICSOs such as Amnesty, Oxfam, World Vision, CARE, Greenpeace and Transparency International to trigger conversations around strategic collaboration. Please find more information on our website www.icscentre.org.

About the author(s)

Executive Director
International Civil Society Centre