The article below was written with Virginie Coulloudon of Transparency International, following a four-day workshop on CSO Accountability in the Digital Age, facilitated by the INGO Accountability Charter. The workshop included advocates and social movement experts from groups including Greenpeace, Oxfam, Amnesty,, the Engagement Lab in Boston, Feedback Labs in Washington, DC, and several others whose insights informed our point of view. Cross-posted from the Disrupt & Innovate blog.

As citizens in many democracies seek greater participation in public debate, international civil society organisations (ICSOs) are seeking a new model for advocacy: one where supporters become fuller participants in priority-setting and tactics, and where leadership demonstrates accountability to those participants on an ongoing basis.

“People power”, unleashed and expedited by newer technologies, can help ICSOs scale their impact – through crowdsourcing projects, for instance, that harness the input of thousands of unconnected individuals, or through networked campaigns that disseminate not only information but also campaign leadership across hundreds of small groups and thousands of miles.

People power enables ICSOs to augment or even replace traditional tools of advocacy. But many ICSOs – like the governments they work to persuade – remain too bureaucratic to pivot quickly, and too mired in hierarchy to convert grassroots ideas into programming decisions. Civil society leaders struggle to adjust, even when change can yield inspiration and a heightened sense of community.

So, how do ICSOs adapt and what does “people power” mean for them? Beyond increased listening to members or supporters, beyond buzzwords like “inclusion,” people power means shifting our assumptions about creation and control.

BellagioShifting assumptions doesn’t mean discarding them, however. When supporters or staff become fuller participants in priority-setting, the leadership role of an organisation may change, but it does not disappear. Beyond a clichéd debate over top-down vs. bottom-up power, we need to define a model that draws power from both directions – a “rotated” model that replaces top-to-bottom control with “side-by-side” collaboration.

Based on our experiences managing campaigns, working with community participants (virtually and in person) and integrating participatory approaches into organisational planning, here are three distinctions we consider key for ICSOs that want to share power, agency and accountability with constituents:

Provisioning vs. prescribing: To become horizontal and increase impact, ICSOs must shift from prescribing actions to provisioning supporters so that they can take action on their own terms.

Contrary to some enthusiastic claims about people power, this new approach does not make institutions obsolete. ICSOs can provide vital resources to individuals and grassroots groups, such as:

  • Physical, virtual or conceptual space (i.e., sustained space in the public discourse)
  • Channels for influence and advocacy
  • Technology and other tools
  • Financial resources
  • Protection of individuals from physical or legal harm

Transparency International (TI) adopted a mentor-like role for campaigners in its recent project Unmask the Corrupt, which sought citizen nominations for the most symbolic cases of grand corruption around the globe. Grand corruption, in TI’s view, is not only about scale, but also about incorporating the concept of victims, and injustice, into the legal understanding of corruption. While the project offered TI many lessons in unpredictability, its successes suggested a new role for the organisation, equipping ordinary citizens to fight against day-to-day and grand corruption in their own countries, while continuing to campaign at global level using the resources only an established institution would have.

Flexibility vs. rigidity: There is not one ideal role for institutions in this model. Rather, ICSOs must diversify their model of agency between the institution and its constituents.

One compelling example to look at is the 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge – a viral video campaign that started with a few individuals posting videos to promote medical causes and eventually resulted in million of dollars channeled to the US charity fighting the disease ALS. Even though the Ice Bucket Challenge began outside an institution, the full story of how it started, how it scaled and how it offered a destination for supporter interest is a model for designing “hybrid” campaigns.

Integration vs. innovation: Organisational leaders often love the newest, “shiniest” thing. But instead of seizing on new tools for the promise of greater scale or better listening, ICSOs need to change their internal approach to power, delegation and control.

The cycle of innovation doesn’t end with the launch of a new approach. In fact, the innovation is often inert (or, at worst, innovative or participatory in name only) unless the organisation has internalised a new way to consider, adopt, and repeat inputs from the perimeter – therein lies genuine accountability.

Conclusion – A collaborative design for greater impact: Working in a truly horizontal model implies that organisations consider how people define their own interests. Informed by people’s priorities and passions, organisations can then develop a new accountability to these shared objectives. The model asks all of us to be “co-creators” if we want to achieve the fullest impact.

We invite ICSO members, activists and others to share your perspectives about people power. What is the best way to create “side-by-side” spaces to share knowledge? Is your ICSO willing to “de-brand” projects for the sake of fuller impact? How does people power change ICSO responsibilities?

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