All the evidence suggests that charities working overseas and international NGOs are facing a time of extraordinary change. This is not just about adapting to a rapidly changing international environment or the impact of global trends, but also in the way that international NGOs work and are structured, as well as their relationship with partner NGOs in the South and new thinking about how to collaborate and develop new strategic partnerships.
The implications for charities and INGOs of this changing context is well documented in two recent reports. The first, Tomorrow’s World, analyses how global mega-trends will reshape the way that international NGOs work and how they might respond. It was published by BOND, the umbrella body of UK INGOs, and explores how the UK’s development charities can build on the distinctive nature, reputation and experience of the UK NGO sector to face these future challenges and the changing world in which they will have to work.
The second is IIED’s report Getting Good at Disruption in an Uncertain World which explores the consequences of the way NGOs manage change. It specifically analyses how NGOs, particularly those based in the South, cope with disruptive change and what strategies they adopt to ensure that major change does not derail their activities. One notable aspect of this report is how NGO leaders deal with the repercussions of significant external changes. Interestingly, many conclude that such disruption should not be seen as inherently negative, but should be appreciated for its creative potential — notably the way that changes in the external environment promote creativity, encourage new ways of working and seed innovation.
Both reports highlight the array of challenges and changes facing the sector as a whole, but they also identify the different ways that charities, NGOs and other civil society organisations are learning to cope with such changes.
One of the implications of this analysis of these trends is the recognition that over the next twenty years international NGOs will have to redefine their role and transform themselves. They need to reposition themselves in civil society and the wider development community by reframing their mission and role (e.g. moving towards a more brokering role as knowledge mobilizers or co-creators), and potentially restructuring or downsizing their operations in the North. Implicit in this redefined role is the changing nature of their relations with international partners – a set of relationships that will have to be based on such intangible capabilities as shared trust and greater mutuality.
A key lesson from these studies is that the answer does not lie solely in NGOs repositioning themselves or concocting new strategies, but also in investing in developing new capabilities and competencies to ensure they continue to meet their mission, add value, are sustainable and are "future proofed". In recognition of these new challenges, Cass Business School has redesigned its part-time Masters in NGO Management to enable NGO staff to develop the new skills and competencies needed as NGOs develop new ways of working.
It is increasingly clear that in light of the range of mega-trends and the consequences of disruptive change, the staff of NGOs working internationally face extraordinary challenges - both at a personal and organisational level. Investment in developing new skills and capabilities, and the provision of new programmes like the Cass course, is crucial to help staff handle these challenges and manage the complex change processes needed if such charities are to continue to be relevant and sustainable.
Professor John Hailey is the Course Director for Cass Business School’s MSc in NGO Management