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


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