All good things must come to an end! After several years of working together, the interests of the Baobab community have now diverged, and we have reluctantly taken the decision to wind down Baobab as an active community, with effect from early 2017.

We are maintaining the existing resources on the Baobab website as a resource for the sector, but will not be adding any new resources after this date.

For those of you who have been active members of our community, thanks for your participation, and we hope you will find ways of taking forward the learning through other channels.

With best wishes

The Baobab Team



With growing expectations of accountability, this is now one of the most important – and frequently asked – questions facing Board members of major international NGOs.

In response, leading Boards have been experimenting with a range of new approaches, but it is proving a challenging goal to achieve in ways that are practical and useful. Unlike issues of good governance, fundraising, finance, and risk management, there are no established models of good practice for Boards to follow.

To contribute to this debate, we brought together senior Board members and CEOs from a group of five major international NGOs, to explore how they are responding to these changing expectations, and to identify examples of good practice. We have just published the results of this review, as a concise practical guide for Board members.

Six key questions emerged for Boards seeking to align with emerging good practice:

  1. Does our Board have an appropriate mix of people with the knowledge, experience and networks to assess programme quality?
  2. Does our Board play an active role in shaping programme strategy and priorities, and monitoring alignment with them?
  3. Does our Board agree the approach to effective monitoring of programme quality and outcomes, and periodically review progress and learning?
  4. Does our Board spend an appropriate proportion of its time debating key issues and challenges in strengthening programme effectiveness?
  5. Does our Board periodically seek out and review direct feedback from key stakeholder groups on the effectiveness of our programmes and their experience of working with us?
  6. Does our Board have a clear policy on the key stakeholder groups to whom we accountable for programme effectiveness, and monitor how well we fulfill this accountability to each group?


The most appropriate response to these questions will depend on the range and diversity of the work of the NGO, and the business model adopted, and will vary with international NGO Board norms in different cultural contexts. The report explores these issues, and incorporates a range of good practice examples for different contexts, including both federations and individual agencies.

To review the report, click on this link

How well does this work in your context? We’d welcome your feedback, ideas, and challenges, as we work towards a broad consensus on good practice in this key area of Board responsibilities.

Ken Caldwell, Baobab


Voting is a powerful and much under-used mechanism in decision making in the International Boards and General Assemblies of INGO federations.

In most INGO federations, the established model is to seek to make all decisions by consensus across the federation. This can work well in some situations, but can also result  in deferring or ducking important decisions, or lowest common denominator decisions. Huge amounts of leadership time can be taken up seeking an elusive consensus that all are happy with.

This blog, by Baobab associate Adrio Bacchetta, argues that voting can be a powerful tool for resolving debate, and draws on his experience of working with INGO federations facing difficult decisions to explore how and when a vote can be a constructive way of moving things forward.

The Ayes Have It 01.16


External shocks can create conflicts and tensions within international CSOs, but can also be opportunities to strengthen organisational effectiveness and resilience. New research suggests that there are three key elements of organisational culture that make the difference between ICSOs that create opportunities out of shocks, and those that face crises.

The findings are based on recent work with a wide range of ICSOs by Baobab associate Alan Fowler and colleagues, and are summarised in the attached briefing note “Improving your Organisational Resilience – Taking a Path Less Travelled”.




The latest update from Baobab, reviewing recent developments in INGO leadership and governance debates, and the best of recently published resources on these issues.

This update includes new resources on:

  • Future role of ICSOs
  • Building effective multi-stakeholder initiatives
  • Changing sources of ICSO income
  • Scaling up impact



In our last update, we noted the growing debate within the sector on the future of ICSOs. This debate has gathered pace over recent months, with a number of new documents and briefings published. We have therefore set up a new topic page in our Knowledge Hub on the Future Role of ICSOs, to bring together the growing range of resources on this issue.

In addition to the resources previously featured on this topic, we’ve recently added a new analysis by Duncan Green from Oxfam, ‘Fit for the Future’, looking at how big ICSOs may need to change to respond to the growing diversity of development contexts, and a review review of Burkhard Gnaerig’s new book “The Hedgehog and the Beetle’, which throws down a challenge to ICSOs to rethink their role to remain relevant in the years ahead. Their analyses and prescriptions are quite different, and may kick off a lively debate in the sector on our future role and relevance.

You will also now find on this page the World Economic Forum’s 2013 report on the Future Role of Civil Society

If you have come across other resources on this issue – or would like to contribute to this debate, please let us know here.


Earlier this year, we launched a new Topic Page on Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives, bringing together useful articles on when and how to shape and manage multi-stakeholder initiatives across sectors to increase their prospects of being effective in tackling complex international issues.

There has been strong interest from the Baobab community in these resources over recent months, and new resources continue to emerge. We have recently added a new article from David Brown, ‘Bridge Building for Social Transformation’, looking at the common factors underlying successful partnerships, and another from FSG, ‘The Promise of Partnerships’, summarising key learning from a recent seminar for ICSO leaders on this issue.


We’ve recently published the 2015 edition of ‘ICSO Global Financial Trends’, tracking the changing pattern of income and expenditure amongst seven of the largest global civil society federations. Over the last ten years, the total income of these major federations has grown by over 70%, fuelled by strong growth of both individual and public sector income – but the pace and balance of growth varies widely between the federations. This year’s report also identifies the key growth markets for ICSO fundraising.

For those seeking new markets, we’ve recently added the new ‘Index of Philanthropic Freedom’, from the Hudson Institute, which ranks 64 countries for ease of NGO operating, NGO tax incentives, and ease of transferring funds into and out of the country.

We’ve also posted the latest updates on humanitarian aid trends: ‘Global Humanitarian Assistance 2015’ from Development Initiatives, and their new report, ’Improving ODA for a Post 2015 World’, which provides some valuable new analyses of aid in the wider context of development finance.


We are tracking continuing strong interest in ways of scaling up the impact of ICSO programmes.

We’ve recently posted a new Bridgespan article on ‘Designing for Transformative Scale’, drawing out alternative approaches to taking transformations to scale, and a new CEI article ‘The Advocacy Strategy Framework‘, looking at how ICSO boards and leaders can sharpen the strategic planning and monitoring of their advocacy initiatives.

Other resources on this issue can be found in our Topic Page on Increasing Programme Effectiveness.


We hope you will find something amongst these new resources that is relevant for you. You may also like to browse our full set of selected resources on current live topics in the sector here.

If you have come across other new or recent resources on INGO leadership and governance issues that you have found useful, please do share them with us. (There’s more detail on the type of resources we are seeking here.)  If you have suggestions for future topics, please let us know. As a non-profit service for the INGO community, we depend on your ideas and feedback!

Please feel free to forward this email to others who may be interested.

Finally, if you have not yet joined our community and would like to do so, to make sure you receive future updates, you can do so here.

With kind regards


The Baobab Team

You can contact us at


This new Baobab Briefing provides an updated overview of global financial trends amongst leading ICSO federations, and compares recent financial performance amongst them.

Highlights of this year’s report are:

  • Total income of the seven leading ICSOs covered by this report rose to €7.3 billion in 2013, a rise of 4%
  • Over the last ten years, the combined income of this group of leading ICSOs has grown by over 50% in real terms
  • Amongst this group, Save the Children has had the fastest recent rate of growth of income, averaging 12% pa over the last five years, although World Vision still has the largest global income
  • The proportion of global  income from individuals varies widely amongst this group of ICSOs, from Care at around 25% to MSF at around 75%
  • Across the group as a whole, there has been no significant change in the balance of income by source in recent years, with both individual and public sector giving growing by around 30% over the last five years. The reported share of expenditure on fundraising is growing slowly.
  • Amongst this group, the major Anglophone countries remain the most important fundraising markets, with USA, UK, Canada, and Australia accounting for nearly 60% of total income. However, the fastest growing major markets are Korea, Sweden, and Germany


To read this report, click here


The OECD has recently published the provisional headline data on official aid in 2014, showing a 2% rise in real terms over 2013 and an 8% rise over 2012. However, there was a wide diversity between the major donors, with Germany up by 12% and Sweden by 10%, but further reductions in Canada (down 11%), and Australia (down 8%).

For further details, and what this is likely to mean for official aid channeled via civil society, see the new Baobab Briefing BBAidBriefingMay2015


This week sees the launch of a new book from Burkhard Gnaerig, Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre in Berlin. “The Hedgehog and the Beetle” argues that civil society organisations will need to reinvent themselves to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world. See our Baobab review below.

You can access, browse, and comment on the online version of the book here.

Review: The Hedgehog and the Beetle by Burkhard Gnaerig

Reviewed by Alan Fowler, Baobab Associate

This book speaks about and to the top tier of some twenty-odd big international civil society organisations (ICSOs) that are transnational, in the sense of having an operational presence in multiple countries. They are the household names of the non-profit community in the aid system: ActionAid International, Care International, Save the Children, Oxfam International, World Vision and others. Written by one of the best informed people in this organisational field, his book is a call to arms for their radical reform. Insider experience and self-critical reflection provide practical analysis of what might befall these organisations if they do not make the substantial changes needed to deal with the disruptive forces they face. Two particular disrupters are disintermediation as technologies enable funders and recipients to meet each other directly, and a younger generation overtaking the older, not in age but in organisational adaptability.

Conclusions go against the flow of ICSO conventional wisdom to ‘empower’ the South by devolution. The author’s counter-argument is that a history of northern nationalisms on which this type of ICSO has been built remains a barrier to the joint decision-making needed to bite the bullet of significant organisational adaptation. An adaptation that, in his view, calls for a more unified and centralised set up to ensure that the organisational discipline needed to ‘meet and greet’ disruptive change is not bogged down by each national entity seeking its own optimal solution at the cost of the whole. This reading of the consequences of past organisational re-designs made by big ICSOs – which as the book says are long debated and known by ICSO boards and senior managers – will be of interest, and warning, to other tiers of transnational CSOs with growth aspirations.

Substantive discussion and examples, as well as sensible reflections on how to bring about transformative change, show what makes these multi-million dollar ICSOs tick and, probably, only incrementally creep from where they are – leadership quality being a key factor.

The text speculates on hybridization – a formal plus a networked arrangement. This idea reflects ongoing attempts at (income) diversification to combine previously segmented organisational values and logics seen, for example, in movement towards social enterprise and entrepreneurship. But in this case, a pitch is made for a ‘hybrid ‘of a more traditional and a networked-based set up operating under one roof. For big ICSOs, this option is yet to be a convincing way forward.

In deciding whether or not to read this book – which I would recommend to governors and senior staff – two observations may help. One is that a substantial section is dedicated to issues of (un)sustainable use of the environment which is intended to boost arguments in favour of a particular direction for organisational transformation. The two topics are not very well connected and the former may not be critical for readers interested in issues of organisational development.

Another is that the tight focus on a particular set of big ICSOs means that experiences of potential value to the mass of smaller, nimble and less historically encumbered organisations are not teased out. Yet, while overshadowed by the big ones, this is where transformational change is already in play. Readers will need to work out for themselves what is useful, for example in terms of the pitfalls of performance understood as financial growth; what makes governance work; how to satisfy multiply accountabilities; and being forward driven by mission rather than by internal inefficiencies and external relational problem-solving.

Because numerous books on organisational change come from experiences of transnational corporations, this book provides a valuable non-profit parable of different reactions to contextual challenges. The Hedgehog and the Beetle talks from and to the life worlds of ICSOs. A clear plus.

Alan Fowler



In this Viewpoint, Baobab associate Alan Fowler explores the emerging role of INGOs as instigators of multi-stakeholder initiatives.

CONNECTING THE PLAYERS: The emerging role of INGOs as instigators of multi-stakeholder initiatives

I am struck by how many post-2015 debates and sustainable development goals are full of references to the need for more and better collective action. Common labels for these increasingly complex collaborations are multi-sector and multi-stakeholder initiatives or partnerships and strategic alliances. But, less talked about are the players and processes through which collaborations are brought about and to fruition. In this Baobab contribution, I look at circumstances when INGOs have a strategic role to play in becoming “interlocutors” (i.e., the instigators and connectors of multiple stakeholders) and what they need to consider in taking on the challenges involved.

According to a recent report entitled Ahead of the Curve (featured in the Global Trends section of the Baobab Knowledge Hub), the future impact of INGOs can be enhanced if they consciously orchestrate multi-sector actions which enhance a country’s capacity to coordinate collaboration. Wide ranging interviews and case examples, such as Technoserve, Habitat for Humanity and African Health Markets for Equity Collaboration, lead to a set of recommendations intended to strengthen INGOs cross-sector relational capabilities. The logic is inviting, but important issues remain, in part because non-aid examples have not been brought into view. Doing so, points towards the arrival of a new relation-building player: an interlocutor. This role has various guises and names: a collaborative intermediary organisation (CIO), a backbone organisation, a meshworks, an Industry Facilitator and more. An interlocutor combines and optimizes a mix of relation-building attributes which can be seen elsewhere, for example in facilitators, brokers, catalysts or intermediaries. Looking at the new arrivals, I see seven key attributes needed to be a successful interlocutor:

  1.  RESPECTING VOLUNTARISM: Coerced collaboration across multiple types of actors is seldom effective.
  2. LEADERSHIP STYLE: Interlocutors need to bring a ‘servant’ quality of leadership that exerts influence without formal authority, while treating conflict between parties as a given that needs to be made productive. A harmony model of change is not relied on. From the outset, differences in interests are assumed to be in play.
  3. TRUSTWORTHINESS: An ability to gain the trust of stakeholders on the one hand while engendering trust between them on the other.
  4. SYSTEMATIC VIEW: Awareness and analysis of the ‘problem system’ they are involved with and the need for scale to make change meaningful and not piecemeal.
  5. POWER IS ON THE TABLE: Perhaps more critical is sensitivity to the distribution of power and authority that will make or break partnership efforts, allied to realistic strategies which constructively deal with this political fact of life.
  6. MULTIPLE LANGUAGES: Able to understand, translate and communicate across partners with their different jargons and vocabulary which may involve limited literacy and access to modern communication technologies.
  7. ADEQUATE SOVEREIGNTY: Finally, governance of the set up must provide sufficient autonomy in the way that decisions are taken and implemented.

The basics of interlocution are to Assemble the players, Guide collaborative processes and help Embed change in society, i.e., AGEing. Obviously, the relative weights of each attribute change as the process unfolds. For example, trust and confidence are built when stakeholders’ words are seen to match their deeds, becoming less of an issue later on.

But is this role worth it as a strategic choice? INGOs considering making multi-stakeholder processes a future strategic focus face four critical issues:

WHAT MAKES YOU CREDIBLE AS AN INTERLOCUTOR? A credible interlocutor is one with an established reputation for integrity, fairness, inclusiveness and competence/proven experience with the issue at hand. Fairness does not mean neutrality. Interlocutors have a transparent agenda but an attitude of openness to other points of view about reaching a mutual goal, such as improved nutrition or debating causes of and remedies for gender based violence. It is the ‘participatory’ track record, principles and credentials of NGOs that invite confidence in their ability to bring parties together in constructive ways. The wide range of multi-stakeholder initiatives where the World Wildlife Fund acts as an interlocutor – for example in environmental conservation – relies on reputational respect built up from knowledge of the field.

WHEN DOES IT MAKE SENSE TO TAKE ON THIS ROLE? In terms of when does it make sense, a likely condition for an NGO to take up an interlocutor role is one where weaker groups would be otherwise excluded from processes that will negatively impact their lives and livelihoods. Many years ago, the Fair Trade movement started as an interlocutor between primary, poor small-holder producers and rich consumers. This effort helped spawn ISEAL, whose members establish sustainability standards and certify business value chains and the fairness of their labour practices. In this sense, they act as interlocutors between producers, businesses and consumers who are concerned about the ecological footprint of the commodities they buy.

WHERE DO YOU FIND THE RELATIONSHIP BUILDING CAPABILITIES? Looking at organisational competencies, Mariette van Huijstee has produced a very useful guide to what competencies civil society organisations needs to build up if they wish to be in a multi-stakeholder initiative. Some correspond to the seven attributes noted above. Examples of the Fair Wear Foundation, the Ethical Trading Initiative and others illustrate the organisational demands of MSIs involving businesses. The Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) is an example of a far broader and more multi-focused form of MSIs, involving a range of ICSOs with comprehensive and narrow development approaches, such as Save the Children and Care. But interlocution demands more than competent MSI participation.

A common challenge to cope with is that interlocution processes are seldom susceptible to being projectised and pre-determined. The group dynamics involved can perhaps be anticipated, but not predicted. The leadership task therefore demands, above all, staff with negotiation rather than project management skills, imbued with sensitivity to the legitimate conflicts of interest in the room. Capacity development associated with mediation and alternative dispute resolution (ADR) may help to bring about the competencies required. Further, unlike a place as participant, an interlocution danger is the NGO putting itself forward as a technical expert. This factor may be needed in order to fully understand the issues involved and the languages and jargon being used, but it can create confusion about what role is being played when. Better, perhaps, to separate expertise as a participant from interlocutor as process guide.

HOW IS THIS ROLE FINANCED? Finally, interlocution faces the financing issue of pipers and tunes. The positioning of an interlocutor can be perceived as biased if stakeholders are not convinced that the way the role is financed is immune from manipulation. Which is one reason why self-financed foundations, like Rockefeller’s Bellagio set up, are often found as ‘convening’ interlocutors with a pro-active self-determined agenda. The resourcing issue is critical because, by being implicated and present in the process and co-responsible for the living end result, an interlocutor differs from a contracted broker, facilitator and similar professional relational trades. This is where transparency, the quality of funding and the governance of collaboration become key pre-conditions for success.


Looking post-2015, there are many reasons why NGOs are well positioned to not just join in multi-stakeholder partnerships as invitees, but to make a strategic choice to be an instigator of collective action cutting across all walks of life that would otherwise not occur because today’s power and politics prevent them from happening. The necessity will be out there, but pros and cons need to be carefully weigh

Alan Fowler

For more information about Alan, click here