Acting Globally, Thinking Globally: What are we trying to become?

Posted on 24 April 2012

This is the fourth 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

The central governance questions for any board are: What are we trying to become? Where are we going? These are the core questions for the board of an International Non-Governmental Organization (INGO) too but the international context may make them even harder to answer.

Burkhard Gnärig, Executive Director of the Berlin Civil Society Center, challenges global board members to answer the question: “what are the GLOBAL decisions my organisation has to take?” and then to make sure that these can be taken from a truly global perspective. The international board needs to be clear about what its INGO is there to do and what the board of the INGO needs to govern. What value is the international board seeking to add to the work of the whole INGO? What is its role and its reach?

Once you have a sense of these questions, you have to be sure you are doing the right work. Observers of board performance often point to boards spending too much time on reworking the past and responding to the present and challenge them to instead lift their focus to work on shaping the future. Different advisers suggest rules of thumb of between 60-80 per cent future-focused and 40-20 per cent on the past and present.

How would your board ratios compare? How would the ratio be for INGO boards if the ratios were recast to follow Burkhard’s prescription? What if we aimed for 70 per cent of the time of the INGO board being focused on the future global issues the board needed to address? And what if we added a performance measure that we were addressing these issues from truly global perspective?

There may be some stellar INGO boards already achieving this level of performance. Well done if you are. Care to share your secret? Email me on For most of us this is more a noble aspiration. But what might you need to do to achieve a performance like this in your board over the next three years?

At the international level it is one thing to put future-focused global issues on the table. It is another to have the board achieve a global perspective on those issues. Getting to global brings more factors into play: the scale of the issues gets much larger, there are more intersecting factors and thus greater complexity, and decisions are more removed from the actual implementation and necessarily involve more abstraction. Boards find it hard to think strategically about global issues and how the specific work of the INGO will shape and be shaped by these global factors. In part boards find this work hard because staff find it hard. If it is hard for staff to get their arms, and their heads, around these global issues and their implications, then it is hard for them to shape up the issues and options in ways that boards can discuss them and work the issues through to an effective resolution.

One of the constraints here is that we are light on ‘theories of change’ or the logics for why we intervene in the ways we do and why that might be the most effective way to respond. We often do things because that is the way we have done them in the past or we have observed others doing them with apparent success or our partners or supporters might have been keen on these initiatives.

It may be a struggle for the board and staff to identify actions that will have the greatest impact on the INGO’s mission and then making sure those actions are done well. Almost inevitably, these theories of change will start out being uncertain, incomplete, and experimental. The international view also may be that the theories cannot be worked up at the global level and the role for the international board may be to ensure this work is being done at whatever is the appropriate level – regional, country, thematic. The biggest wins come from the board and staff going through the process of trying to think more clearly about what needs to be achieved and what actions will be most effective.

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.

2 responses to Acting Globally, Thinking Globally: What are we trying to become?

  • Elisa Peter says:

    Those are all important questions. I am the Chair of a small international nonprofit organization. At our annual meetings, we devote about 35% of our time on what we call “blue sky thinking”. In essence, this is a brainstorming session with all board members on the upcoming challenges of relevance to the work of the organization. We often invite outside experts to inform our discussions during this blue sky thinking. It has proven extremely useful in anticipating change and modifying the organization’s strategy accordingly.

    Perhaps we could increase the time we spend on exploring the future but it seems complicated if not impossible to me to bring this up to the recommended 70%. Board members also have legal and financial responsibilities and a chunk of time during board meetings is devoted to reviewing annual accounts, budget, fundraising plans, staff contracts/organigram, annual work plan, annual report, etc. Those are also important aspects of any board meeting. So how do you reconcile the two?


  • PACS says:

    Thanks for Sharing…these all are global issues…

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