Posted By : Markus Hesse
31st March 2020
The easy way out
The easy way out-image

Restructuring for the sake of avoiding conflict – at the costs of mandate and productivity

1+1>2. Together we can achieve more. The benefits for members of international CSO federations are plausible. The idea of benefiting from an international brand, peer support, joined programme work, access to international strategic alliances – possibly institutional fundraising and synergies in operations leading to a higher productivity. Who doesn’t want to benefit from such potential. Following this logic, we saw over the last three decades a dramatic increase of national members across the CSO sector. But are these assumptions right? 

Are CSO federations a place of high efficiency, smooth cooperation and joined forces? Interesting observation: over the last decade we have seen a significant number of restructurings and members of CSO federations leaving their peers and becoming independent organisations. Key questions are  “why?“,  “what are the benefits?“, “what are the costs?“ and “who pays for these costs?“

Yes, in an ideal world, the members of a federation get along very well, working together sharing the same values, vision and mission, complement and support each other and align their efforts to achieve the strategic objectives of the federation in an effective manner, seeking to maximise social impact. However, different personalities and leadership styles can easily lead to frictions between members or between the international secretariat and members. What can international and national Boards do when realising tensions between individual leaders of the federation? Rearranging responsibilities and changing the governance structure looks at first sight like a solution – but does this really make sense?  

At a first glance, it might look like a great idea to shape the responsibilities within a storming membership model in such a way that the conflicting parties have minimal interaction and interdependencies. Motto: “There is enough work for all, so let’s split the work that our quarrelsome persons can avoid each other.” At the end, each of them add great value to the organisation and hence one doesn’t fall into the trap of losing one or even more. Problem solved…. REALLY? 


Boards following this convenient path don’t solve the problem at all. As a matter of fact, they have set the root cause for a continental drift within their federation – an effect which leads to severe silo thinking and can put the entire organisation at risk. 

Why? Because each party will develop their own approach, leading to different priorities. 


The problem escalates when behavior and mindset cascade down throughout the different levels of the member’s hierarchy. “Them” and “us” will determine the future collaboration leading to duplication of infrastructure, increase in operating costs and micro-conflicts mirroring the unsolved problems at the top level. Cross functional communication across members and secretariat decreases dramatically because everybody wants to limit interactions dealing with “them”. Often in these situations we see an increase of micro-politics. Two (or more) kingdoms have been created and it becomes tempting to replace the actual strategic goals with a new informal objective, demonstrating that “we” are right and “they” are wrong. Consequence is a decrease in productivity which in the overwhelming majority of cases leads to less funds available for direct mandate work. This challenges the federation’s measurements for success, because still many federations see generated income as the number one objective and driver for influence at governance level – not social impact.

As a consequence, cross organisational initiatives and decisions (budget, strategic projects, etc.) are taken for proxy wars. Winning against the other team becomes more important than winning the entire game – and achieving the social impact which should be the Northern star for all activities in the first place. 

Don’t get me wrong – separating from a federation because of different values or focus in mandate can be the right thing to do, particularly when the decision processes of the big federation getting in the way of agile solutions. Important is a honest point of reflection – particularly on the side of the federation. 

From our work with federations going through tough phases in their life cycle, we recommend to strictly leave personalities out and to focus on the following provocative questions:

  1. Are your vision, mission and values shared across your federation? 
  2. Is your strategy aspirational but also specific enough to align direction, decision making and priorities? 
  3. Do you have clarity and agreement about roles and responsibilities across the membership? Are local partners included in the governance model? How? Does your membership model promote adequate participation and joined ownership?
  4. Does your governance model ensure professional understanding, unity, joined accountability and evidence-based oversight of the organisation at Board level? Are the relationships between key decision makers of members trustful?
  5. What efficiency gains did you achieve over the last 3-5 years with your membership model? Did these gains benefit your mandate and lead to higher contributions to direct mandate work?
  6. What is your road-map to further increased efficiency over the next 1-3 years by utilising your joined infrastructure? Is this road map executed successfully?
  7. Do you have the right measurements in place to actually evaluate questions 4 and 5 in a meaningful and honest way? Relabelling administrative functions into programme costs doesn’t count (even if your national certification allows all kind of creative reporting)! 
  8. Do you have simple, meaningful and impact driven Key Indicators of Strategic Success in place (measuring organisational success by growth in donations doesn’t count – and you know it!). 
  9. Do we have accountability mechanisms in place that ensure high quality work across the membership? Having just 1 or 2 flagship members which get external quality stamps doesn’t count!
  10. What evidence do you have for your answers to question 1-9?

If you find these questions interesting and think it is worthwhile reflecting on them, we can help you with our field tested self diagnosis tool for self reflection of CSO federations.

So, coming back to the initial problem: If structure is not the solution to tensions in the governance of an international CSO federation, what is the best approach? That depends of course on the gravity of the conflict and the situation. Ask yourself, if the decision to separate is driven by maximizing social impact or by unsolved conflicts  at governance and leadership level. But whatever you do: don’t take the easy way at the cost of your beneficiaries…

Markus Hesse

Markus is the co-founder and managing partner of Direct Impact Group, ltd. He combines experience as consultant and coach of international projects in a variety of industries for Fortune 500 and mid-sized companies with experience in executive management of international organisations. His core competencies are agile strategies and transformative change programmes. Markus Hesse’s educational background includes an M.A. in Business Coaching and Change Management. He is author for the EURO-FH university in Hamburg on change management and accredited member of the Europan Association of Supervision and Coaching.