Reimagining our organisations

Guest article by Pauline Martin[1]

“We have to confront ourselves. Do we like what we see in the mirror? And, according to our light, according to our understanding, according to our courage, we will have to say yea or nay - and rise!” - Maya Angelou

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” - Albert Einstein


Organisations have always been an expression of collaboration in our societies and a container of our human hopes, ambitions, fears, tensions and contradictions. They are a microcosm of cultures and subcultures in our societies and are therefore important when we reflect on democracy and democratic practices now and for the future. Progressive civil society organisations (CSOs), including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), are forms of collaboration that express our search and struggle for something better for our world. Our identity, vision and mission are guided by values that are embedded in human rights and democratic principles. We do not exist to accept the status quo but to challenge and transform it.

The term ‘CSO’ and ‘NGO’ are often used interchangeably. For the purposes of this contribution to CIVICUS’ thematic report on reimagining democracy, we consider CSOs and NGOs to be a part of a wider civil society, acknowledging that there are broader issues of legitimacy and accountability that anchor many CSOs in social organisations and movements in ways that differ from large NGOs. However, while many CSOs have avoided building big bureaucracies to service their needs, the issues we will explore are still relevant to them.

This article puts forward some of the challenges faced by organisations in the 21st century and connects them to deeper reflections on gender, diversity and power inside CSOs. If democratic values and human rights are the basis for us to reimagine democracy in our societies then reimagining our organisations requires us to take a fresh look at ourselves and our ways of working: to look at our words and actions but equally, at who we are and how we apply our values internally as well as externally. In our organisations, as in society, there is often a tension between democratic principles and practices and more vertical and centralised methods of decision-making and exercising control.

Our window into this reflection is the issue of sexual abuse and misconduct and the crisis this has generated for many in civil society. There is a need to examine why these events have happened as well as the transformations and new thinking required if we are to restore and retain trust in our organisations.

The tip of the iceberg and civil society’s Me Too moment

International civil society has been badly shaken by the extensive press revelations which began in the UK media in February 2018 about the sexual misbehaviour of a small number of Oxfam GB male humanitarian workers in Haiti after the 2011 earthquake and also in Chad and South Sudan in earlier years. These revelations were followed by news of allegations of sexual misconduct by the CEO and another senior leader of Save the Children UK. The leaders of these international CSOs have been accused of orchestrating a cover up and placing their organisational reputation before the needs, protection and well-being of their partners and staff.

In response to these revelations, the UK Charity Commissioners launched an investigation into abuse in UK CSOs; the UK Parliamentary Commission on International Development set up an enquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector; and Oxfam International initiated a high-level independent Commission to review its safeguarding and culture. Across civil society internationally many CSOs are carrying out their own investigations and strengthening or setting up safeguarding policies and practices as a means of stopping abuse in the future.

Meanwhile the impact for these organisations and their programmes is material and huge: Oxfam GB revealed in June 2018 that it has to make cuts of over £16 million (approx. US$21 million) due to falling income while Save the Children UK expects a £67 million (approx. US$87 million) drop in its income.[2]

As a sector we are confronting multiple crises of conflict and disruption internally as well as externally and this situation raises many deeper questions. How can sexual abuse happen within organisations that claim to be values-based? Is the current aid and development model broken? Have large CSOs become so oriented to their business success that they have become self-serving? Have we failed to walk the talk in upholding within our organisations the values that we fight for externally? As we hold the mirror to ourselves, what are we seeing?

We shall explore these questions further in the context of a wider framing around why many of our organisations may be running out of steam. Frederic Laloux, in ‘Reinventing Organizations’,[3] has given us insights into the changing paradigms of organisational models historically and has tracked over time the ways in which our forms of collaboration at different stages of human development have shifted. He argues that we are now in an era when such shifts are taking place and new possibilities can be opened:

“…many people sense that the current way we run organizations has been stretched to its limits. We are increasingly disillusioned by organizational life. For people who toil away at the bottom of the pyramids, surveys consistently report that work is more often than not dread and drudgery, not passion or purpose…..”

Sexual abuse and misconduct is one tip of a much bigger iceberg that has grown over the last four decades as civil society has evolved and grown, making strategic choices of direction on the way. Our organisational histories and the choices we have made around our identity and role define us. Who we are matters as much as what we do professionally. Most of us have made the choice to work in civil society because we bring our passion for change into organisations whose values we share and we have expectations of democratic participation based on shared commitment to a ‘greater good’. We hope that our contribution, no matter how small, is valued, and any loss of this sense of value or purpose risks leaving organisations as empty shells and its people disillusioned and exhausted.

The iceberg

Many people are ‘surprised at the surprise’ that followed the media reports of experiences of sexual misconduct and the abuse of women, as they are not recent and have not gone unreported by women who have witnessed or experienced such abuse. In some CSOs, as well as in United Nations humanitarian agencies, complaints have too often been met with resistance or indifference. Managers have found complaints too uncomfortable to deal with, too risky, or not a priority when there is ‘more important’ work to be done, or they may believe that perpetrators are ‘so good at their job’ that it trumps any misbehaviour or that there are a ‘few bad apples in the barrel’, implying that all else is fine. Policies and systems intended to protect staff and partners from abuse and protect whistle blowers have failed terribly in many instances. A growing sense of loss and disillusion has been gnawing away among many women inside many CSOs, especially given the public claims of most to the advancement of gender equality and women’s rights. Time is indeed up and we must summon our courage to look critically at the ‘problems’ we have created over time, bring them to the surface and generate fresh thinking on how we move forward.

The following are some critical areas to analyse:

  • Experience has shown that abuses of power are often endemic in hierarchical systems where gender inequalities are entrenched and the management of organisational diversity is limited to monitoring numbers and percentages.[4] More women and greater diversity in senior roles does not in itself bring about changes in the organisational culture that made it so hard for women and people from other excluded groups to get there in the first place; adaptation to the mainstream culture is often the only way to be heard and taken seriously. Challenges to that culture can be threatening to the prevailing power dynamics and it requires a lot of courage and conviction to swim against such a powerful tide. Many women think twice before putting themselves forward for leadership positions when they witness the possible costs, especially if an organisation is in denial about the nature of power and privilege in its own structures and ways of working. This appears to be the case in Save the Children UK, where the CEO and another senior leader were allegedly both the perpetrators of sexual misconduct and leaders of a bullying culture operating with the complicity and cover up of other senior staff and some board members.
  • The impact of numerous massive changes over the past 20 years in our organisational structures and staff profiles is key to understanding how the scales have tipped in many CSOs towards high levels of pragmatism, where efficiencies, demonstrable results and value for money justify the means to get there and internal process is trumped by the pressure to deliver results. Competitive fundraising across civil society and the complexity of donor requirements have significantly increased demand on CSOs to meet stringent planning and reporting requirements and fuelled the need for more skilled and experienced staff to manage them. This is a significant part of the changing donor landscape and there is also growing public scepticism around the value of aid, going beyond the usual culprits who have always criticised aid as a waste of public money.[5] We also hear voices from aid recipient countries - from governments, but also from local CSOs and communities - expressing the view that the current modus operandi is post-colonial and broken. There is a search for independent paths to building more resilient organisations in the global south based on new relationships, partnerships and other forms of international solidarity that mark a break from historical donor-recipient relationships.
  • In large organisations overwork and exhaustion is rife and many staff who work in country programmes find themselves spending increasing amounts of time ‘feeding the beast’ of reporting requirements as their main job while their programme work becomes the ‘night job’. Many jobs at all levels have become increasingly untenable, particularly for women who carry caring responsibilities and cannot work long hours or over weekends, or undertake long absences from home. While great commitment as well as the need for a job drive most people to keep going, organisations that ignore the well-being of their staff and do not nurture passion and commitment through meaningful participation in the life of the organisation risk creating  ‘emptiness’ and loss of passion.
  • Objectives of becoming more corporate and professional as a response to the imperatives of growth, raising standards, accountability and raising performance all bring measures intended to make an organisation fit for purpose in a competitive market. In response, line management systems and clear decision-making hierarchies are established and organisational cultures created that often end up valuing and rewarding competition over collaboration, ego over teamwork, personal ambition over the success of the whole and action over reflection. We have to ask ourselves the question of whether the balance has tipped too far towards efficiency and results whatever the costs to our people and indeed our values? Is it possible to retain democratic principles and values of solidarity, equality of opportunity, participation and empowerment while also running sustainable, efficient and effective organisations? Is the time ripe for a much more radical rethink around the role and ways of working of our organisations?
  • All organisations need to draw on different leadership and management styles and a range of talents and skills depending on their mandate and role but it is important to test assumptions and examine closely how we define job roles, the requirements for a job and expectations from leaders and managers. In humanitarian emergencies, when decisions are needed quickly and consistently, ‘command and control’ leadership is often necessary. In fast-moving advocacy and campaigning situations this may also be the case. However, it is in emergency situations that many of the abuses of women have taken place, and explanations provided about the urgency to recruit, getting the right skills and finding people willing and able to go into often chaotic, violent and rough-living locations. The assumptions that need to be tested here are around the model itself and the culture it can nurture, which has enabled acts of courage and kindness as well as permitting a small number of men to cause great hurt and harm to women.

Some ideas on what we can do

The following are some steps that CSOs could take to demonstrate progress in developing and enhancing their internal democracy and living up to their values:

  • Policies on safeguarding women from abuse and harassment are very important but will not on their own address the much deeper consequences of maintaining a gender rights discourse while not fundamentally addressing the bigger issue of internal systems and cultures of privilege and power that are embedded in hierarchies. Safe spaces for women are needed alongside ‘unsafe spaces’ for the perpetrators and zero tolerance. Much more work is also needed with men to raise self-awareness and ensure their responsibility in shaping as well as leading with women the culture change that eliminates abuse and enables the talents of all to be successful in our organisations.
  • ‘Vital power’ is a concept developed by feminism based on years of work with community organisations and movement building at grassroots levels in a number of continents. A power matrix provides a creative framework for organisations and groups to analyse their context and develop appropriate strategies that are grounded in their individual as well as their collective power. Three dimensions of power are described in the framework - ‘power within’, ‘power with’ and ‘power to’ - as a basis for inter-connected strategies that challenge and transform ‘power over’. Vital power advances a much more egalitarian and nurturing approach of human agency and actions and is an effective tool to use inside our organisations to strengthen our analysis and design the multiple strategies needed to make changes in our organisational culture.[6]
  • The current crisis is a manifestation of longer-term global and institutional trends that lead to a profound questioning by many people of the core purpose of CSOs in the 21st century. As Michael Edwards has put it:

“At the moment asking organizations like Oxfam or Save the Children to envisage a world outside the foreign aid industry is like asking a fish to imagine a world without the water in which it swims… planning for such a future is the first step towards the transformations required for NGOs to flourish in a world without the asymmetries and contradictions that bedevil the current system…”[7]

Counter arguments to this view express the realities of the massive and growing humanitarian needs of 65 million refugees, growing inequalities between and within countries, deteriorating human rights around the globe, struggles to save the planet from environmental destruction and so much more. CSOs remain necessary. We have the same problems that we have always faced and many new ones, but we need fresh thinking on solutions guided by a refresh of how to put our values into practice in the world today. If we were to start in the context of today we would probably build quite different organisations.

  • A new vision of values-based organisations is needed to inspire future directions. Chris Roche reports a suggestion that we do not need a theory of change: we need a theory of people based on relationships, trust and notions of being in it together.[8] We need to be able to admit mistakes in order to learn and to be more honest about our uncertainties. By focusing on the more visible aspects of power we miss out on the dynamics that underpin outcomes that are about relationships, power and politics. In this context gender relationships are critical, as is imagining how our organisations would be if their structures, systems, processes and culture developed on the foundations of being safe for women.


To reimagine democracy in CSOs we have to redraw the contextual landscape, including the role of donors and the new forms taken by ‘old problems’ of social injustice, gross inequalities and violations of human rights. These are problems that have a gender and an identity within our organisations as well as in the wider world. Skills and experience together with passion and commitment must drive the fresh insights we need to renew our role in transformational change. Our organisations are complex, as gender inequalities and lack of diversity are often deeply embedded in systems, structures and cultures of power and privilege that are accepted as the norm in many CSOs. Our values and principles are the foundations of our organisational identities and we have to get much better at managing the tensions in many of our organisations between what we do, how we do it and who we are.


[1] Many of the ideas expressed in this article are the product of in-depth bilateral discussions during 2018 with Francisco Alvarez, Sarah Burton, Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith and Joanna Maycock. Responsibility lies with the author.

[2] ‘Oxfam to axe jobs and aid programmes in £16m cuts after scandal’, The Guardian, 15 June 2018,; ‘Save the Children expects UK income drop after aid sex abuse scandal’, Thomson Reuters Foundation, 10 July 2018,

[3] ‘Reinventing Organizations’, Frederic Laloux, 2014.

[4] The UK-based Gender and Development Network brought together women’s rights and gender equality staff across a wide spectrum of agencies in a workshop in April 2018 to make sense of sexual harassment, abuse and safeguarding and point to a narrative that is “reinforcing a frame and a narrative of ‘a few bad apples’ rather than a recognition that such harassment and abuse is inevitable and endemic in hierarchical systems where gender inequality is entrenched and re-made.”

[5] In the same week as press revelations about Oxfam staff in Haiti, a group of Conservatives in the UK presented a petition to the Prime Minister for a reduction in foreign aid as part of a wider campaign for the UK government to drop its commitment to allocate 0.7 per cent of GDP to aid.

[6] ‘A New Weave of Power, People & Politics: the Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation’, Lisa VeneKlasen and Valerie Miller, 2007,

[7] ‘Could NGOs flourish in a future without foreign aid?’, Michael Edwards, openDemocracy, 24 June 2016,

[8] ‘Simplicity, Accountability and Relationships: Three ways to ensure MEL supports Adaptive Management’, From Poverty to Power, 3 July 2018,