Could Amnesty International, Greenpeace, or Oxfam be hit by disruption and disappear within a few years’ time just like Kodak did when digital photography replaced chemical film? And if that danger is real, what can they do to manage disruption and continue pursuing their mission?

Disruption is taking shape

International civil society organizations (ICSOs) like Oxfam, Greenpeace, and Amnesty International are working in a fast-changing and increasingly unpredictable environment. Major disruptions that may affect their work are emerging from three directions:

Planetary disruption. Climate change is the most obvious sign that we are over-exploiting our planet in unsustainable ways. But we are also driving the extinction of species, depleting our sources of fresh water, and polluting and overfishing the oceans. Our unsustainable lifestyles threaten humanity’s very survival—and they are challenging ICSOs’ missions of working toward a sustainable and equitable world. And as the window of relatively cheap mitigation and painless adaptation closes, and a major global crisis takes shape, can ICSOs continue curing the symptoms or do they need to address the causes of the crisis?

Political disruption: For years CIVICUS has been documenting the fact that in many countries around the world, the space for civil society is shrinking. In an increasing number of provinces, countries, and whole regions, political interference and violence against civil society activists make their work difficult, dangerous, or completely impossible. In these situations, our sector needs to come together to defend citizens’ rights to express themselves and work for their aims. However, all too many civil society organizations (CSOs) and ICSOs are predominantly focused on their own issues and reluctant to cooperate, and all too often conflicts between different organizations detract attention from much more serious challenges.

Technological disruption. Many of today’s most successful ICSOs provide intermediary services; they link donors of aid in the Global North to recipients in the Global South, they organize campaigns that provide a platform for people to meet. With the rise of digital communications these services do no longer require formal organization; donors and recipients can find each other on Internet platforms, and the Arab Spring and other events show that social networks are powerful platforms for campaigning. ICSOs’ roles as intermediaries are under threat. And if that is the predominant or even the only role an organization plays, its business model is endangered.

The ICSO business model links mission with action and income

Against this background, the International Civil Society Centre brought together a group of thought leaders to review ICSO business models and propose ways to adapt to new opportunities and threats. The group agreed on the following understanding of ICSO business models (using business models in the most common sense):

A successful business model will align mission, action, and income in sustainable ways to achieve the goals of the organization. (Image courtesy of The Value Web)

ICSO business models describe how an organization pursues its mission by conducting specific actions and generating income to sustain its operations.

  • Mission: a clear and coherent social purpose, defining the framework for actions and income generation
  • Action: a set of activities designed to optimise the organization’s potential to achieve its mission, and provide a sound basis for income generation
  • Income: sources of income to fund those activities, in line with the organization’s mission and values

How to Navigate Disruption

We found three strands of action that would help ICSOs benefit rather than suffer from disruption:

Diversify. Relying on one major business model (for example, project support or child sponsorship) is a high-risk strategy. Should this model be seriously affected by disruption, the organization would not have another basis for their activities or alternative source of funding. ICSOs should develop several business models, and acquire the skills and capacity to run all of them successfully.

Adapt. ICSOs should permanently scan relevant developments and identify those that may affect them. They need to build an organizational culture that embraces change. They should adapt their highly successful business models to new demands while they are still successful; once disruption strikes it may be too late.

Innovate. Developing new innovative approaches and copying appropriate ones that work for others are important strategies for managing disruption. Two examples that emerged from our discussions are:

  • Online brokerage models link up people online who are concerned about a global issue with people and projects that are seeking to address that issue. Online brokerage enables people to connect at a lower cost and with wider reach.
  • Social enterprise models provide goods or services from which the recipients can generate an income for themselves and make small-scale payments for the goods or services, thus contributing to funding them.

Call to action

Leaders should protect and strengthen their organization’s innovators and entrepreneurs, and encourage every single member of staff to embrace change. ICSOs’ governance structures should become more diverse and predominantly competency-based, and include external voices. Organizational culture should become more entrepreneurial and less introspective. Recruitment needs to secure diversity and develop a flexible workforce ready to adapt to changing conditions and demands. Valuing the lessons from failure and celebrating successes will drive successful adaptation. While ICSOs should maintain their values and identity, they should be prepared to pursue them differently as new opportunities arise and external demand changes. Building effective networks and alliances will increase ICSOs’ influence and protect civil society’s space for action.