Mapping the disruptive change ecosystem for Southern CSOs

Getting good at disruption has become a key challenge for Southern civil society organisations – and it's very different from the methods taught by business leaders.

Halina Ward's picture
Insight by 
Halina Ward
Halina Ward is an IIED senior associate
21 December 2016
Understanding disruptive change is vital for Southern civil society organisations, and organisations such as IIED can help partners (Image: IIED)

Understanding disruptive change is vital for Southern civil society organisations, and organisations such as IIED can help partners (Image: IIED)

A three-day retreat at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center earlier this month explored what it takes for Southern civil society organisations (CSOs) to get good at disruption. The retreat was part of IIED's disruptive change initiative, which has been exploring Southern CSOs' experiences of organisational 'disruptive changes' that have lasting impacts on mission, values, or ways of working.

Our group of 16, including IIED's Lila Buckley and Tom Bigg, shared personal insights, looked at our organisations' roles in the broader political economy of disruptive change, and considered a wide range of disruptive forces.

Much of the thinking that emerged was far from the stuff of management school literature on disruptive change (reviewed in Getting good at disruption in an uncertain world: insights from Southern NGO leaders).

Participants felt that some of what organisations might need to engage with disruption and thrive in uncertain times depends on:

  1. How CSOs sense disruption
  2. The commitment and values with which CSOs engage with disruption
  3. The qualities that are expressed in CSOs' engagement with disruptive change, and
  4. What could be transformed – internally and externally – when CSOs engage with disruptive change.

These four elements are part of the 'disruptive change ecosystem'.

1. Sensing disruption

Sensing disruption is about using all of an organisation's senses to see and understand disruptive change; whether it's somewhere on the horizon or already felt in the here-and-now. Understanding disruptive forces needs to be broken down to its relevance at the local level. 

International NGOs can provide useful additional antennae for Southern CSOs, including by sharing understanding of the politics of Northern overseas development assistance (ODA) and Northern policy frameworks. It's also helpful to recognise that success itself can prove disruptive to organisations. 

CSOs need to be alert to this, and also to recognise the temporal dimension of disruptive change that can unfold over a long period of time. Whether disruption is sensed as a dark storm cloud approaching overhead or a boulder to be pushed up a hill will impact approaches for engaging with it. 

2. Organisational commitment 

An organisation's commitment to addressing change will depend on the passion the CSO has in pursuit of the common good. But that commitment must also be suffused with organisational principles and values. 

There is an inherent value, described by one participant and adopted by others, as the need for 'amazing truth-telling' in times of disruptive change. That applies to Northern CSOs too, who should be truthful about their own challenges, both internally and when engaging with Southern CSOs. 

CSOs' commitment to engaging with different aspects of disruptive change should also align with its core set of values agreed by participatory democracy, so that through engagement with disruptive change, CSOs reinforce commitment to a participatory process. 

The value of trust is also crucial when engaging with disruptive change. Trust takes time to build, and comes about through collaboration and shared practice. When trust can be translated into action in times of disruption, it is a precious resource for CSOs. 

3. Connect, connect, connect

When CSOs engage with disruptive change in ways that are 'good', it will reflect the ethos 'connect, connect, connect'.

An awareness of connectivity means being mindful about how disruptive change will impact different relationships, including those not in the immediate circle. The connections should happen in ways that are relevant to communities and those people and places CSOs exist to serve.

In turn, this could lead to a demand for new campaigns and alliances; and recognising that most finance is not via official aid but from multiple sources, including locally-generated money from government budgets and philanthropic giving. 

Good engagement can activate significant bottom-up innovation for the poorest communities, or position CSOs so they are able to create positive disruptive innovation out of organisational experiences of disruption.

CSO-led innovation in relation to the new generation of technology-driven currencies, such as M-pesa (mobile phone microfinancing), is one example that illustrates (and connects) the disruption of shifting CSO finance to disruptive innovation. 

CSOs engaging with disruption often requires brave choices – but individuals or organisations will each have their limits here. It will be important to reflect on how far individual or organisational judgement influences the way CSOs engage with disruption. 

CSOs will often need to be agile. They must dare to innovate, and do so in ways that bring broad social benefits that express the distinctive roles and strengths of CSOs.

4. Seeing differently

There are transformative consequences of engaging with disruptive change in all of the ways outlined above: it's important to recognise that individuals within CSOs live the reality of disruptive change through individual inner change, as well as change at the organisational level. 

Using a phrase coined by one of the Bellagio participants: "In a liquid world, civil society organisations are less solid than they might at first glance seem. And it is people and their experiences who shape them". 

Finally, disruptive change can also have a 'boomerang effect'. For if we engage with disruption by creating disruption, Southern CSOs – and those of us who work with them – will be changed ourselves. We can and should celebrate that.

We concluded our discussions in Bellagio by mapping out elements of a longer-term agenda for collaboration based around getting good at disruption, which we hope to develop and share over the next few months. Watch this space!

Halina Ward ([email protected]) is a senior associate with IIED's Strategy and Learning Group.