“The only thing that is constant is change.” Attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, this phrase has been used many times since then, but in no era has it been truer than in our own. In the civil society sector, change is coming from many directions simultaneously:

  1. Demographics. The baby boomers, who took civil society organizations to a new level, are now feeling the influence of a younger generation less focused on labels and structure. In 2010, 63 percent of Africa’s overall population was below the age of 25; China and India were both estimated to have more than 300 million young people. According to youthpolicy.org, “This is the largest number of young people ever to transition into adulthood.” Although youth have always played a “radicalizing” role, the number of young people who are now bypassing existing entities and starting their own organizations—many with new ways of operating—seems unprecedented. Youth for International Development, Edgeryders; and the Kenya Wazimba Youth Foundation are just a few of the new organizations founded by young people.
  2. Social entrepreneur impact and boundary blurring. The social entrepreneur movement is influencing discussions about organizational structure and outcomes, leading to the creation of hybrid organizations such as the low-profit limited liability company (L3C) in the United States and Community Interest Companies (CICs) in the UK. In the Stanford Social Innovation Review article “In Search of the Hybrid Ideal,” the authors predict that: “Someday, we may look at the advance of hybrid organizations as an early step in a broad reformulation of a current economic order, which for all of its successes has left many disenfranchised.”
  3. Virtual communications. The ability to communicate directly, rapidly, inexpensively, and globally means that organizations and movements can operate virtually and with more of a decentralized, “starfish” approach, where operational decisions can be made locally. WiserEarth is an example of an organization modeling this approach.
  4. Fragmentation. Though we’ve improved our ability to communicate globally, in many ways we are becoming more fragmented. We talk and meet as youth, women, the technology community, international development practitioners and myriad other interest groups, but rare are the forums and gatherings that encourage cross-sector dialogue.
  5. New international configurations and players. Historically, leadership in government and private foundation funding for development came from Europe, the United States, and Australia. We are now seeing the growing influence of a range of donors (such as Brazil and China) and new ways of providing aid.

How should NGOs and other civil society organizations deal with this tide of change? People are tackling this challenge, but conversations are often limited to institutes, think tanks, and exclusive gatherings. We need to take these conversations to new cross-sector, multigenerational venues and include practitioners who can help focus the conversation on how to transition from talk to action. How can we better engage practitioners (as time-limited as they are) to take charge of the transformative discussions that they and their boards need to be having? And how can we more widely share information about the ideas we are talking about and testing?

A few organizations are on the right track:

  1. CIVICUS’s Youth Assembly started in 2007, bringing together young activists for a peer-to-peer exchange and orientation before the organization’s annual conference. It is now making youth more integral to the organization through a Youth Advisory Group to work on mainstreaming youth participation in civil society. CIVICUS Secretary General Danny Sriskandarajah explains, “We know young citizens are at the heart of driving change. But too often, they find that their pathways to participate are blocked or closed off. After a series of global youth assemblies, this year we've set up a Youth Advisory Group to help us make sure that the CIVICUS alliance is always sensitive to youth participation and to help us establish customized programs to strengthen youth participation in global civil society.”
  2. Greenpeace's Mobilisation Lab is “an open, collaborative hub among networks—inside and outside of Greenpeace” that aims to “push the envelope on the use of technology in campaigns.” It is looking to identify, test, and co-create new ways of engaging individuals to become involved in campaigns. The lab is investing in a wide range of in-person learning and sharing opportunities, and sharing much of what it’s learning online.

Focusing on process may not seem as exciting or energizing as talking about the issues themselves. But when processes are ineffective and we do not share ways to improve them across our silos, we waste a lot of resources through needless replication. When processes are more effective, we can help more people—and that's what social change is ultimately all about. Given the scope and urgency of the many changes facing the social sector, it’s time that we open up discussions and idea-sharing, and build new bridges for cross-sector and cross-generation learning.