This article originally appeared on TwentyThirty.

Like many corporations, NGOs and social businesses are challenged by the rapid digital transformation. Instead of building clusters and creating more impact, many NGOs focus on their individual cause. This attitude contradicts an emerging consensus among change-makers, who are convinced that they need to develop systemic answers to the most urgent challenges. Joana Breidenbach makes the case for looking at problems not in isolation but in their context. This is her call for Responsible Leadership in the digital-social ecosystem.

At the betterplace lab we regularly host thematic lunches for a diverse bunch of social sector people. We follow simple rules: Chatham House confidentiality and a whole-table discussion, where people speak not as representatives of their institutions but from their individual points of view.

One of the most recent discussions circled around the challenges NGOs, activists, and social entrepreneurs face with regard to the digital transformation. At one point an interesting consensus emerged between the guests, which included CEOs and digital officers from developmental NGOs, social sector consultants, and a member of a German ministry: everyone lamented their dependence on large, mostly US-based digital platforms for communication and infrastructure – from Facebook and Instagram to Survey Monkey and Zoom. Not only did they fear that their data, often involving marginalized and vulnerable people, could be misused by commercial companies, but they were also wary of the wider socio-political implications of the powerful platforms, whose values often seem far removed from the social sector and civil society representing the common good.

With so much alignment between NGOs, I asked why they didn’t get together to create parts of the needed digital infrastructure themselves? The answer of one CEO was highly revealing: “I would love to invest part of my innovation budget in a digital infrastructure which represents our civil society values,” he said. “But I am alone in this. First of all, there is no way that I could communicate such a use of funds to our donors. They want me to eradicate hunger, not build a digital platform. But an even bigger obstacle is my board. Their focus is on organizational growth: more donors, more donations, more projects.”

Diving deeper into the dynamics revealed an interesting but sobering logic: most people on the board of this NGO came from the business world and transferred their business logic to the social sector, with the result that quantity trumped quality, and the advantage of their own individual organization counted much more than the health of the sector itself. Even though the CEO of this particular organization badly wanted to pursue a policy which also benefited the social sector as a whole, both his donors and governing bodies insisted on a much narrower and more selfish focus.

"Most people on the board of this NGO came from the business world and transferred their business logic to the social sector."

Joana Breidenbach

Systemic Problems Need Systemic Answers 

This attitude contradicts an emerging consensus among forward-thinking change-makers. They are more and more convinced that they need to develop systemic answers to the most urgent contemporary challenges — among them environmental destruction, the wealth gap, and the loneliness crisis. We need to look at problems not in isolation but in their context – i.e., the broader system they are embedded in. In a highly interconnected world, the relationships between cause and effect change. Instead of being linear and predictable, phenomena are non-linear and thus difficult to predict. If we approach complex, systemic questions with a linear logic, we will, at best, create mechanisms that are ineffective or, at worst, contribute to the collapse of the larger system.

But in the real world of projects and funding, we rarely see a wider perspective that takes complexity into account. What NGO does subject its work to a systems analysis, trying to find those (probably new) acupuncture points where system change could be effected? Where are clusters of NGOs coming together, dividing their labor based on an analysis of where they can create most impact? Do individual organizations freely share their know-how, including those aspects which give them a competitive advantage (in the short run)? Similar questions can be asked of funders: Where are the funders who support collaboration between diverse organizations, including the capacity building needed for such exchanges?

Instead, I see many examples of the opposite: practices which are benefiting individual actors, while harming the health of the social change sector as a whole.

A Race to the Bottom

Let’s take the common practice of development agencies or foundations placing an order with those organizations that have submitted the cheapest proposal. Time and time again, the betterplace lab has been outbid by NGOs that have offered to work for much cheaper per diem rates. Of course, cost can and should be one criterion for the selection of partners. But the rates some organizations are willing to work for can only be called self-exploitative and create a race to the bottom hurting everyone. Funders supporting these dynamics might save money in the short run but risk harming the wider ecosystem.

"Yet for our work to be efficient and effective, individual actors need to have an overview of what is happening where and who is doing what." The third sector is lacking a clear compass that could help build clusters and create more impact.

Picture: Heidi Sandstrom / Unspleash

Another example is the apparent lack of interest in enabling “civil society to see itself” by creating greater transparency. Civil society and the non-profit sector are beautifully diverse but also highly fragmented, with many players working in ignorance of one another. Yet for our work to be efficient and effective, individual actors need to have an overview of what is happening where and who is doing what. In the digital age, such an overview, like a stakeholder mapping, should be quite easily achievable, with mapping software and open source tools. But many efforts to achieve such a systematic overview have failed.

This is not due to lack of intention and funding. When clarat, a platform aiming to “connect the disconnected” by providing a comprehensive overview of German child and youth services, started in 2014, they had substantial funding as well as a highly professional and devoted team. But three years later, clarat was shut down. It failed largely because there was very little interest from other stakeholders, such as the large welfare organizations, to support such a mapping. Transparency, it seems, is often perceived to be a dangerous thing, or at the very least, unimportant.

"There is a strong emphasis on self-sustaining individual operations, rather than confronting one's own impact in a more radically honest way." 

Joana Breidenbach

My impression after a dozen years in the social sector is that there is a strong emphasis on self-sustaining individual operations, rather than confronting one's own impact in a more radically honest way. After the initial founding phase where the mission of organizations provides the fuel for the operation, many institutions experience at least a certain degree of mission drift. Sustaining and growing one’s own operations becomes a first priority. Of course, this is rarely addressed in public, but if organizations would really be all about impact, they would collaborate and divide their labor intelligently.

Finally, I want to mention one more aspect where I see the social sector failing to care for itself in a responsible manner: the lack of attention given to the individual wellbeing of a large part of its participants. Organizations and funders are ignoring an alarming trend: the rising rates of stress, burnout, and depression among change-makers.

In her talk at the World Economic Forum, Kathleen Milligan, CEO of the Schwab Foundation, addressed this topic in strong words, stating that “nearly 50% of the social entrepreneurs attending the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2018 reported struggling with burnout and depression. (...) Donors, boards and investors need to acknowledge better the realities of long-term exhaustion, and provide resources to support social sector leaders. Foundations and investors need to come to grips with how their practices contribute to burnout and long-term exhaustion of the very leaders they seek to support.”

Yet the topic of wellbeing for change-makers meets deaf ears, at least in the German funder landscape. I am speaking from painful personal experience: for the last nine months I have been trying in vain to get funding for a wellbeing program for a large civil society hub in Berlin.

An open discussion about the necessary preconditions for effective social and environmental change is urgently needed. It is not easy. The systems view of life, even though more and more accepted as the most adequate perspective on our complex global society, asks of us to develop a different kind of thinking and doing. Instead of analyzing individual parts and connecting them linearly, it requires us to host a confusing, sometimes contradictory amount of information and see connections, interdependencies, and patterns between the parts. It needs us to listen actively. And it needs us to move from an organization-centric to a systems-centric worldview.

Picture: Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

"A first step could be for social-change stakeholders to come together and discuss questions such as these: Who is part of our system and what dynamics operate in it?" 

Joana Breidenbach

A first step could be for social-change stakeholders – NGOs, funders, and beneficiaries – to come together and discuss questions such as these: Who is part of our system and what dynamics operate in it? What joint infrastructure needs to be built for the global-digital age? How can our institutions become healthy and thriving places for the individuals working there?

If you feel inspired to share your experiences regarding obstacles to systemic change and have developed some answers, leave a comment here or drop me a note. Maybe we can take a next step together – as a follow-up article or Zoom conference call – in order for change to be more effective and sustainable.


Joana Breidenbach has a PhD in cultural anthropology and is the author of several books on the cultural impact of globalization, migration, and tourism. She is co-founder of, a crowdfunding platform for social projects.


This article is presented in collaboration with TwentyThirty

TwentyThirty is an online magazine presented by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. It sheds light on the social, political, and environmental challenges we face and features inspiring Responsible Leaders who are working to solve them. Follow their work on Facebook.

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