Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been through a crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic, with many struggling to survive. For some, the struggle began prior to the pandemic, thanks to shrinking funding, growing expectations by funders and communities, and a shifting understanding of what role NGOs ought to play in society. As we start to think about how to ‘build back better’ after the crisis, where do NGOs fit in, and does the sector need to reinvent itself to fulfil its purpose? Mahmood Sonday and Colleen Magner look at four possible approaches that have been applied by Reos Partners in their work on collaboration and transformation during times of crisis.
In ordinary times, the relationship and dependency dynamics between NGOs and donors are often unsustainable and can lead to prioritising accountability to donors over communities. As a result, NGOs become focused on financial stability over impact. Beyond the demands of financial stability, NGO sector leaders face a set of creative and organisational challenges that require straddling competing pressures, and ‘business models’ that can lead to cultures of unaccountability to communities, instability as well as overwork or burnout. Insufficient means can detract NGOs from a sharper focus on strategy and impact. Evolving simplified, linear approaches to truly encompass the complexity and systemic nature of the issues NGOs are addressing is a significant challenge.
NGO sector leaders also face a set of organisational challenges that apply competing pressures. Their ‘business models’ can lead to a culture of unaccountability to communities, instability, overwork, and burnout. Insufficient means can make them less strategic, which is worrying given the complex and systemic nature of the issues they address.
In the extraordinary times that we are living through, we have observed how the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted NGOs. Many have been forced to rethink their business models and even question their purpose. We have applied four different approaches to working in highly polarised, low-trust environments that may be useful to NGOs trying to navigate their relevance and sustainability in the world today. These are outlined later on in the article.
Surreal memories of the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic last year are still fresh. What felt like faraway news hit home overnight. One of our team members was in France for in-person training with colleagues from Europe, and someone opted out because he was exposed to a colleague who had recently returned from Italy, where Covid-19 cases were surging. The training was quickly and awkwardly converted and delivered in a hybrid online and in-person format. When it was concluded, they said their goodbyes, trying not to hug. Everyone was full of uncertainty about the months ahead but expressed gratitude for the time they had together. The stressful travel experience was lessened by the sense of anticipation of being closer to home and navigating what was unfolding in South Africa.
This experience provides a glimpse into what we have learnt about the influence of relationships in our personal and professional lives. It feels as if our individual and organisational capacities to navigate crises are shaped by factors that have already been set in motion. At the same time, the people we are in relationships with tend to shape our individual and organisational capacity to respond, cope, and adapt in times of uncertainty and rapid change.
We now know that one of the immediate impacts of Covid-19 was deepening inequality, particularly when it came
to food, jobs, healthcare, and reliable information. The NGO sector was particularly hard hit. This required courageous efforts on the part of NGO leaders and their distributed or isolated teams, facing both increased demand for emergency services and uncertainty about the future, particularly about funding.
We noticed these efforts were aided when leaders had invested in cultivating relationships across sectors, including those they may not have agreed with, liked or trusted, but with whom they shared some interests and concerns.
In times of crisis, when the impetus and opportunity to rally around a cause arises, even the weak links in an ecosystem prove to be incredibly valuable and important.
We saw this with the Southern Africa Food Lab and various civil society organisations, specifically community action networks (CANs), when concerns about the impact of lockdowns on increasing hunger were becoming evident.1 These organisations were able to leverage existing networks within communities, act as bridges by cultivating connections between different communities, and create rapid linkages between communities and influential institutions like government or donors.
The ability to activate these networks depends in large part on the quality of relationships. This is increasingly difficult as competition for resources among civil society organisations appears to be intensifying. When uncertainty reveals underlying structural and systemic weaknesses, different organisations and parts of society need to learn to build relationships as the basis for partnering. We need one another to get through crises. Counterintuitively, those that intentionally and purposefully invest in cultivating relationships in ‘normal’ times are best placed to respond in difficult times.
Spending time in the future
The effects of climate change and disruptive technology will likely usher in further crises. How will NGO leaders and organisations respond and adapt to the increasing rate of change? Moving from passive anticipation to active influencing and creation requires spending time in the future. Reos Partners’ work is to help businesses, governments, and civil society organisations to address their complex social challenges where, often, there is low trust and/or the solution is not apparent. In these conditions, it often helps to spend time thinking together about the future, a process which unlocks a type of imagination that can be both connecting and empowering for NGO leaders.
In 2020, Reos Partners facilitated a Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP) process for stakeholders from the Post- School Education and Training (PSET) sector, in partnership with JET Education Services (JET) and Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Sector Education and Training Authority (merSETA).2 There are many pathways South Africa can take that will determine whether skills supply will accurately align with skills demand in the future. A team of diverse actors across the South African PSET system came together, entirely online, to create four scenarios about what could happen up to 2030. They recognised that skills planning and provisioning will be shaped by complex interactions between various factors, certainties and uncertainties found within and beyond the boundaries of the PSET ecosystem, which they needed to understand better.3
Developing a rounded understanding of what the future could hold, beyond predictions, projections, and forecasts,
is an approach we and our clients have found useful. The focus is on imagining and creating clear, plausible, compelling stories or scenarios about what could happen. But arriving at this understanding is difficult because individual perspectives of current reality – and by extension of the future – are constrained by one’s own lenses, biases, and ‘noise’. At best, these provide a partial and often distorted picture of what is possible. Building a more complete picture requires working with your key current and future stakeholders – including those you regard as unlikely allies – to spend structured time together to think strategically and practically about the future.
Another example of how we have worked with non-governmental leaders to better understand the future happened in early 2020, when a group of changemakers from international non-governmental organisations (iNGOs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs), donor organisations, consultants, platforms, and academia came together to explore options to ‘reinvent the iNGO system’. This group was convened by Reos Partners and Purpose+Motion, with support from the Oak Foundation.4
As part of the process, the group developed four scenarios about possible futures of the iNGO system in 2030. The stories are based on relevant, current political, economic, social, cultural, and international dynamics and the trends emerging from the diverse responses to Covid-19.
Reinventing the iNGO system for 2030 – four scenarios
“Compromise to survive” tells the story of a divided iNGO sector. Pressured by budgetary constraints and shrinking support for human rights and other advocacy work, national-level NGOs and many major iNGOs position themselves as effective implementers of government service provision programmes. A few iNGOs resist this compromise and fill the advocacy gap at the national level, but struggle to survive. In the world of “Reconfigured humanity”, the focus shifts from the “welfare of capital” to “human welfare”. The response to Covid-19 demonstrates the benefits of collaboration across sectors and the power of political will and international cooperation. Some iNGOs prove their ability to respond quickly to the needs of marginalised populations where funding is made available.
“Business as the solution” tells the story of focusing on economic recovery from Covid-19. This leads to diminishing influence for iNGOs, which in this scenario are poorly funded and thus poorly equipped to tackle many of the humanitarian and developmental challenges of the 2030 world. However, social enterprises and purpose-led businesses increasingly take over the work done by many iNGOs.
In the world of “A depleted grassroots revival”, iNGOs begin reorganising their work in a more cost-effective, decentralised manner, with a stronger focus on shifting power, funding, and valuing the voices of those closest to their own contexts. They improve their own organisational cultures, including tackling racism and sexism stemming from inherent power imbalances.
Learning from alternative plausible futures
As NGO leaders and their stakeholders engage about the future, they learn about their own and one another’s perspectives, assumptions, and blind spots, and develop a better shared understanding of the key driving forces that are shaping their respective organisations, the NGO sector, and the broader context.
By placing yourself in the alternative plausible futures that you can imagine and inhabit, you not only learn how to adapt, but you also discover ingredients that help you to act strategically towards a more desirable future. The past and present are contested, but the future remains in the realm of creation and imagination. This can be a differentiator between a measured response and an ill-considered reaction in a fight for survival. As a step to help you spend time in the future, understand it better and respond more strategically, address the following with colleagues and partners:
- What is happening outside of your organisation, in society, that concerns you? Invite others to think about this alongside you. A diversity of perspectives will enrich your inquiry.
- Which of these concerns are you most uncertain about in the future?
- Prioritise these ‘key uncertainties’ and tell stories about how these uncertainties might unfold between now and five, ten and 15 years ahead. It is important that these stories about the future are not your personal desires and preferences – they need to be plausible and also introduce new thinking.
- Consider how could your organisation respond more effectively should any of these stories happen?
- What opportunities for collaboration and innovation are presented for your organisation in these stories?
The realm of radical experimentation involves finding more creative ways to resolve ‘stuck’ situations that are not working optimally. Hard evidence shows that creativity yields more effective outputs, and the birthplace of creativity is our collective imagination. Ultimately, this is the best antidote to being stuck in an increasingly fearful and polarised world.
The goal is to find untested solutions through collaboration, even though everyone may have different ideas about what to do. What is important is that this process is not about people getting along, or about consensus or peacemaking. It is about collaborating across interests.
As we help people to imagine new and often more efficient ways of finding solutions, we always start by answering two interrelated questions: How do we help teams move from a fear-based response to a more creative and open response? Then, how do we move from one fixed view of an outcome towards experimenting with multiple ideas to come up with a new way of doing things?
When we do not have a best practice to fall back on, we tap into a design and systems-thinking approach and start learning through experimentation. For the NGO leader, this comes with a shift in orientation, away from assuring individuals by telling them what to do, and towards encouraging them to work together and experiment to find solutions.
Ultimately, experimentation gives people the courage to try out new ideas quickly and cost effectively, as well as a licence to fail and the freedom to try again until a workable and sustainable solution is found. This type of innovation does not have space for people to protect their ideas from colleagues or try to hold onto projects from inception to execution.
In a time of crisis, a transparent culture encourages sharing learnings and mistakes, then acting in the spirit of support and cooperation underpinned by a shared sense of psychological safety.
This work can happen in environments where there is low trust and the solution is not apparent, and in places where governance is compromised and needs are not fully being met. On advancing justice issues, we have most recently worked in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Syria, and Mali. We helped stakeholders in these situations to collaborate to address practical justice needs, like land rights or safety, which are the foundation of any stable society.
Given a balance of ingredients such as openness, flexibility, playfulness, and encouragement we have been inspired by capacity to innovate across a few different and often difficult country contexts.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was no longer possible to facilitate one of these face-to-face workshops in Mali. Instead of cancelling, we explored a digital solution. We were faced with the reality that most of the participants had never been part of a virtual process. Some were working with rural communities and a few were working in urban areas. Instead of deciding upfront that a virtual process would not work, we experimented with a new way of doing business. We shipped modems to workshop participants and organised data for everyone. We held an orientation programme to help with the use of technology. We then converted a two-day workshop into a series of modules held over several weeks. We would never have imagined this reality had we not been forced to do so. As it turned out, the outcome far exceeded our expectations and the virtual process was not only cheaper but also sufficiently participatory, inclusive, and effective. Rapidly sharing the learnings, including mistakes, gave impetus to take more risks and evolve quickly.
If you would like to practice radical experimentation, we propose a structured process that includes the following:
- Convene the group that does not necessarily agree on a solution, or even know what it is, but comprises diverse individuals who are equally invested in its outcome.
- Ensure that each stakeholder in a group process signs up to a set of collective agreements.
- Frame the invite to collaborate in a language where people are willing to step out of their ‘comfort zones’ and experiment. Although people do not agree, if you can help them see that they are collaborating on a shared challenge, they become more inclined to work with opposing opinions.
- Build a rough, shared understanding of the problematic situation and its impact on the current reality, allowing for an enhanced understanding of the big picture to emerge.
- From this deeper systemic understanding, form smaller teams to experiment with a range of approaches to address the problem where it has the highest possible impact and challenge the current norms of how things
- Ensure a rapid and open learning process with the larger group to learn from the uptake or not of these ideas.
Leading oneself and others through crisis
While our individual capacities to deal with uncertainty and change vary,
rapid ‘shocks’ can shift even those who are adept at change into the discomfort zone. Like any craft, building personal and interpersonal capacity to deal with crisis requires practice.
Purposeful exposure and leaning into disruption can build awareness of one’s default responses. There are often subtle cues that indicate how we respond in times of crisis. Beyond intentionally honing our personal capacities, legitimising a multitude of responses requires navigating a fine line between leaning into discomfort while not being paralysed by it. Leading from a place of authenticity and vulnerability, inviting and harnessing individual and team agency can be an empowering stance from which to sense new opportunities, build on latent strengths and adapt as the situation evolves.
We have seen this play out in contrasting ways. CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations, found that resilience as a leadership capability has the potential to help people to seize the disruptive moment. CIVICUS recognised that the effects of Covid-19 will reverberate and that it will also not be the last crisis or disaster that humanity will face. The intersecting issues of climate change, natural disasters, migration flows, geopolitical strategies and technological advances will reshape our world in ways we can’t fully anticipate. As a result, CIVICUS believes that its personal and collective experiences in relation to Covid-19 provide it with opportunities to humanise its organisations, creating even greater solidarity and developing a deeper understanding of the unexpected in the future.
In seeing inequality as both a key feature and potential leverage pointfor transformative change, CIVICUS has partnered with Reos Partners to embark on a journey of curating and producing an ‘interactive resilience pack’ for its members, focused on supporting individuals and organisations to respond, adapt and recover from uncertainty and disruption. It also looks at how to practice and prepare for the unexpected in the future. In practical terms, this involves working with a cohort of CIVICUS alliance members and curating a participatory, systemic, and experimental online learning journey.
Here are some suggestions to apply, where we have seen courageous leadership in crisis:
- Step into the game: acknowledge that you have only a partial view of what should happen, and your own perceptions may be keeping the status quo in your organisation intact. What are the questions or assumptions you want to test about your own views and leadership? Set aside regular quiet time to review what assumptions are changing. What are you learning about your leadership?
- Stay close to your strong relationships, like team members, and reach out to your weaker relationships outside your day-to-day operations, which might include people with whom you do not agree but with whom you have a shared concern. Invite their opinions on how the problem is manifesting and what they think your distinctive capacities are to contribute to solving the challenge. This can build a culture of community, solidarity, and support inside and outside your organisation.
- Sharing power and responsibility can be liberating for leaders and teams. Start by building a shared intention and framework for navigating change, and lead with inquiry while empowering others to lead.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it a universal sense of disruption for the NGO sector. However, it is important to recognise that we still have the power to change our social and economic trajectories. As Covid-19 has demonstrated, many things we recently thought impossible are now the ‘new normal’. As you ‘build back better’, invite innovative change into your organisational mindset. Management starts with prioritising alliances in the
face of grave challenges, spending time in the future, and practising radical experimentation. This will not necessarily yield a different result without paying attention to how you lead yourself and your teams with a vulnerable and inquiring mind in volatile times.
* In this article, the term ‘non- governmental organisations’ (NGOs) has been used. Note that NGOs are not legally defined in South Africa, but non-profit organisations (NPOs) are.
Reos Partners, JET Education Services & merSETA. (2021). PSET SCENARIOS 2021–2030: A guide on using scenarios to align skills supply & demand through interoperable data platforms.
First published in Trialogue Business in Society Handbook 2021.