Embodying a New Era: Models for NGOs in the 21st Century

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The World Economic Forum recently published a report that lists numerous emerging roles among organizations in civil society. This included watchdogs, advocates, service providers, experts, capacity builders, incubators, representatives, citizenship champions, solidarity supporters, and definers of standards. But ultimately, who actually reads these 60 page reports? Certainly, the moderator, panelists, and the audience of the Open Forum session on New Models for NGOs in the 21st Century were not among the readers. The result thus was a failure to provide an appropriate context for the discussion.

Throughout the session, it became apparent that both the moderator and the audience had a hard time reaching any conclusions based on the discussion. The moderator, Esther Dyson, a passionate and industry-changing entrepreneur and investor, almost gave up in the middle of the session, stating that “the conclusion of the panel could be that there are no single answers.” The session’s lack of clear direction and conclusion perhaps represents the main crux of the problems facing NGOs today – an outdated focus on old structures that should be replaced by visioning for new models.

As one of the session’s attendees pointed out, “the current language in the sector, such as accountability or the adoption of business practices, does not support the sector´s intentions.” Accountability, which dominated most of the discussion, is a protectionist and defensive tactic to improve trust. But trust seems to be the least of the problems facing NGOs. According to the recently published Edelman Trust Barometer, both the leaders and institutions of the NGO sector garner more trust than those operating as businesses and government organizations.

Embracing Change – Aging of NGO sector

Then there is the evolving nature of NGOs themselves. The discussion was often mired in the old ways of thinking, as it never focused on the modern models upon which NGOs could be built. The confusion over the “old” and “new” versions of NGOs was apparent; long-standing Open Forum attendee Dr. Helmut Kaiser, a Zurich-based ethics professor, exemplified how deep the misunderstandings went. In an interview, Mr. Kaiser told me, “I missed a definition of NGOs. 80% or even more of the discussion was about profit orientated NGOs.”

For Mr. Kaiser, “the progressive forces of the sixties’ movements” coined his notions of NGOs. Words like “profits” and “hybrid NGOs” don’t sit well with such definitions and this too became a source of debate.

At one point, panelist David Nabarro, the “Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Food Security and Nutrition”, joined the discussion and argued, “I never feel comfortable in a discussion when somebody is saying there is no answer.”

Eventually, the most contrarian panelist, Greenpeace’s Executive Director Kumi Naidoo, reminded us of the session´s headline, that “NGOs, as we currently exist, are not new models for the 21st century – we have run out of steam.” He describes the situation as “the aging of the NGO sector.”

Today’s era is unique in its trend of disruptive technologies, new tools-driven objectives of single purpose ventures (which can sometimes be labelled as “hybrid organizations”), and emerging social movements. These are the trends to which NGOs need to develop a response. Mr Nabarr0 believes that the necessary change will happen “not through big intergovernmental NGOs with lots of accountants who can show where everything is gone”, but through the actions of the “most humble and invisible agents for social change.” One need not look much further than the Arab Spring and new social movements for corroboration of his statement.

So where does panelist Amit Garg, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, fit into this frame? A single purpose entrepreneur, he is driven to mobilize tools and solutions, and adapt different models, in the purpose of addressing a specific problem. His venture today applies big data technologies and social media crowd sourcing to address global health problems such as obesity. Despite his passion for his purpose and NGO, he barely got a word in during the session, as his single purpose venture was not a familiar territory in these NGO discussions.

But when interviewed before the panel started, Mr Garg had a lot of interesting insights, all of which need to be taken note of by the entire sector. Only recently, well-recognized sociologists wrote that the conjunction of poorly understood environments and ineffective technologies forces large NGOs to export high amounts of uncertainty to their “complex chain of subcontractors and affiliates whose activities they then struggle to manage and rationalize”. By complementing the methods and tools applied by conventional NGOs (such as capacity building or training) with cutting-edge Silicon Valley technological trends, Mr Garg seems to address this challenge quite successfully. “Non-profits and for profits are in the same continuum – a non-profit organization can still be very profitable… I believe you can do a tremendous amount of good and still make a lot of money,” he said.

In Twitter We Trust?

One emerging but hardly addressed topic in the session was the revival of social movements spurred by disruptive innovations that “may undermine the need for and importance of organized civil society. As people connect and mobilize spontaneously, key actors may question why we need institutionalized NGOs,” says Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, secretary-general of CIVICUS, in the aforementioned report. People increasingly connect, and are connected, through disruptive social media technologies. Even Mr. Garg admits that “what [he does] today, [he] could not have done only five years ago.” Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, defends his global organization, saying that, even though he embraces the new technologies, we should not be too distracted by what he dismisses as “the flavors of the month”.

On the contrary, someone from the same dynasty as Mr. Roth, Jim Leape, Director-General of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) confessed in an interview with me “that there is a lot we don’t know about how this space (new social movements and technologies) is going to evolve.” However, he argued, “there is still a role for large NGOs. We need to know how to catalyze movements that can be political or change movements, such as the sustainable consumer movements.”

One exemplary new social movement WWF experiments with is the Earth Hour project. On every third Saturday at 8:30 pm local time, WWF asks people around the world to switch off their lights for an hour. Through social media, traditional media and celebrity campaigns, WWF has reached 7000 cities in more than 150 countries, thereby not only saving energy consumption but foremost creating awareness for climate change.

Setting the Stage for WWF 2050

Now, imagine how  an organization such as the WWF could look like in 2050 if you would establish it today and embody it within the current civil society zeitgeist? The effects these trends have on conventional NGOs can no longer be denied or ignored. As Mr Leape puts it, they need to understand these trends – the WWFs and Human Rights Watches of this world need to embrace the single, short-lived “flavored” means and objectives of single purpose ventures and new social movements, while embodying the broader long-term claims that serve structural change, such as protecting the environment and creating strong watchdog positions.

We don’t know it yet, but we should be excited about how we could envision a new WWF (or some other NGO) in 2050 and not be afraid of it with all the trust we put in them. Nevertheless as Jim Leape pointed out, there will always be on one hand, “the need to protect tiger reservations on the ground” and, on the other, for “political credibility and influence to shape the decisions that matter for sustainability”.

Image: Open Forum - Naidoo, Gornitzka, Gark, Roth; Source: World Economic Forum.

Feature Image: World Economic Forum Future of Civil Society Report; Source: World Economic Fourm.

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