Thinking Globally, Acting Globally: Representing more of the world

Posted on 23 April 2012

This is the third of a five-part series of blog posts by Keith Johnston on the role of international board members in the governance of international NGOs.

By Keith Johnston

A consistent endeavour is for each organisation to be more representative of the whole world in which it is working and to be able to draw on a much more international range of thinking in its leadership. All the major INGOs are moving to be more diverse at multiple levels. Governance has been one of the slower areas of change. Here it no longer works to be just “male, pale, and stale” (Author’s disclosure: I am male, pale – although tending to pinkish – and trying hard to be more ripe than stale).

The drive to greater diversity brings its own challenges. First it is not always easy to achieve a practical working diversity given the current structures and locations. Different INGOs are taking different approaches. These include: establishing national affiliates in a wide range of countries, including all of the elements of the network in governance, or changing the makeup of boards and committees, or relocating key international offices to be more global.

Having changed the forms of the organisation to be more diverse, how does it work in practice? Often a central paradox arises. The INGO needs to be more diverse to be more global but including more diversity in the group means it is harder to achieve coherence and especially the coherence needed to take on the large global issues of eliminating poverty or injustice, advancing human rights, tackling climate change, and protecting the environment.

Also different forms of diversity bring differing challenges. How much are board members there to represent different constituencies? How might differences in money and power be dealt with? How are conflicts best addressed?

Having built in necessary diversity you want the spectrum of views to work for your alliance. This can often be very hard, and literally ‘disagreeable’, work. We pay lip service to diversity yet often underestimate the depth of the differences that exist in culture, values, experiences, and mindsets. To build a trusting and truly diverse board takes conscious and consistent efforts.

It is also the case that diversity is, in part, valuable because it increases the possibilities of conflict . The INGO needs to lift its game to use that conflict constructively. However, because INGOs tend to put less time into their governance than national NGOs (it is often harder to get people together) and the board members often know each other less well, they are less well equipped to create the trust and mutual understanding needed to achieve cohesion amid diversity. These practical difficulties and the pressures to take a representative approach can drive INGO boards to make lowest-common-denominator compromises. These are LCDs that do not light us up!

Managing these paradoxes will be central to the longer-term success of INGOs. Leaders need to be explicit in addressing these governance issues and also in equipping their board members, the new ones and the old hands, to take a whole-of-alliance view.

A working paper I have prepared on this and related themes – “Acting Globally – Thinking Globally” – is available here.

Keith Johnston has served as Chair of Oxfam International since 2007 and is a partner at Cultivating Leadership.


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