Scenarios of Systemic Change

A group of changemakers came together to explore solutions to the systemic challenges facing international non-governmental organizations by developing scenarios of possible futures.

von Mike Romig (Purpose & Motion) & David Winter (Reos Partners), September 30, 2020

Header: Amit Jain via Unsplash.

Many of us who chose a career in the social impact sector, in particular working with international Non-Governmental Organisations, did so to follow our personal purposes of creating a fairer, more meaningful and sustainable world. Unfortunately, despite such good intentions and immense energy from the large majority of those working in this sector, many feel disillusioned, frustrated or even burned out. 

Indeed, in recent years, many international Non-Government Organisations (iNGOs) have come under increasing criticism and pressure – be it for creating toxic work environments, sexual harassment or abuse, corruption or mismanangement. Hierarchical relationships and power distribution between headquarters in the Global North and operative staff in the Global South are questioned. iNGOs struggle to balance demands and accountability to funders on one side and target communities on the other side. Staff of iNGOs report the true purpose of the work, such as advancing human rights or addressing environmental challenges, is often lost amidst bureaucratic processes. It is also said these larger international organisations fail to adapt quickly enough to changes in the contexts they operate in. Meanwhile, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on iNGOs still cannot be fully foreseen. 

Addressing challenges that individuals, organisations, and the system as a whole come up against time and again

Many of these issues are simply impossible to resolve by changing oneself or one’s own organisation. It requires systemic change. Motivated by the desire to address these systemic issues head on, in early 2020, a group of changemakers from iNGOs, NGOs, donor organisations, consultants, platforms, and academia came together under the banner of “Reinventing the iNGO system”. 

This group was convened by Reos Partners and Purpose & Motion with support from the Oak Foundation. As part of the process, the group developed four scenarios about possible futures of the iNGO system in 2030. These scenarios are not stories about what will happen (forecasts) or what should happen (recommendations) but about what could happen over the coming years in and around the iNGO system. 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.

Emerging stories and diverse responses to COVID-19

“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 marginalized 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 development 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.

Informing strategic conversations within iNGOs

The four scenarios have the potential to inform strategic conversations within iNGOs and of iNGOs with funders and partners. Issues of internal organisational culture and leadership, power distribution between headquarters and operational staff in the field, and the ability of iNGOs to adapt to changing demands will determine the relevance of iNGOs in the future. We invite wide-spread use of the scenarios, for example by engaging staff and boards of iNGOs in conversations on questions such as:

  • How can your i/NGO prepare for such futures?
  • What can your organisation do to influence the future of the iNGO system?
  • How can the current COVID-19 crisis as well as the debate on racial equity be used to renew your organisation in the long-term?

The process “Re-inventing the iNGO System” is continuing and itself transforming. Some members of the group who went through the process together have set up a Medium space to continue sharing insights and thought pieces together. Further meetings and initiatives are being self-organised, so watch this space for more on reinventing this system, and get in touch if you too want to participate. 

Read the full Scenarios: 

Read more on the intention of the process: