‘Kicking back while falling upwards’ or, Is this solution scalable?

Shortly after the Camp, we learned that one of our campers, Niels ten Oever, a programme coordinator at Free Press Unlimited, was on a sabbatical to rethink organisations, technology and access to information. Here, in his own [lightly edited] words, he tells us why.

I know you have been working for some time fighting for social justice and human rights. And actually, when you think back, you had quite some successes. Of course there were hard times, long days (and often also nights) of work, but your organisation is growing. You’re successful in attracting funding and you’re implementing bigger projects. Nice!

On the other hand, you also have to deal with loads of administration and reporting now, and don’t get started about things like human resources and monitoring and evaluation…! But you’re great at telling donors your projects success stories, and how you’re supporting your beneficiaries in achieving their goals. Increasingly you spend your time writing reports, managing people, attending conferences, and perhaps sometimes you’re leading a brainstorm while other people implement ideas. You hardly ever design a training or campaign yourself, let alone run it.

Recognise this? You’re probably not the only one. You’re falling upwards.  Your ambitions are becoming real, but is this actually what you really wanted?

Civil society organisations are busy focusing on output, outcome and impact. That’s why they were set up, to protect, support and/or strengthen [FILL IN YOUR FAVOURITE CAUSE HERE]. Which is actually a good thing, this way they don’t waste money on internal processes and procedures and just get things done. Unfortunately things are a bit more difficult since how things are done heavily impacts the organisation and its work. Examples?


The first that would come to mind would be funding: without being able to pay for materials,  office space or salaries it might hard to get things done. But money always comes with strings attached. Donors set priorities in terms of topics, geographical areas but it also takes quite some time and manpower to actually manage these funds. And more often than not, institutional donors are asking for organisations’ ‘own contributions’, which means that organisations need to fundraise from elsewhere to match the funding they receive. Thus creating more work for fundraisers, which means more overhead costs because the fundraiser also needs to be paid. And all of a sudden, you’re no longer that cute small organisation, no you’re running an NGO with a director, a financial person, program staff and project staff.

What happened is that you became a “real” organisation with its own culture, hierarchies and focus. And deeply ingrained in every organisation is the need to survive, if necessary at the costs of other organisations. This need to survive consumes so much time and energy that the main focus often is: can we get funding, instead of: are we heading the right way?

NGOs demand of governments that they are accountable and transparent, that labor laws should protect workers and that reforms should be made. But what about NGO leadership? What about transparency on funding sources and contract details? Often a subgrantee of an NGO doesn’t even know where the money is coming from.

The way in which NGOs are organized dates back to Weber’s ideas of bureaucracy, first formulated in 1922. Times have changed. Political parties, unions, and NGOs are no longer necessarily bodies for progressive political change. Rapidly emerging structures of affected people and experts focusing on a specific issue or cause that dissolve when the matter is dealt with seem far more relevant and able to deal with contemporary issues than NGOs or other existing institutions. And technology in theory would allow us to do this better.

Right now, this is not the case yet. But perhaps you can help make this happen by not choosing the default organisational model, by being more dynamic, assuming different roles in different organisations. We can only defeat unaccountable and centralised power if we do it ourselves.