We will provide the opportunity to address three things:

  • what we want out of global civil society more broadly
  • what that would look like from an institutional perspective
  • Identify what may need to change in the wider system and how we can work towards that

The critiques and failings of the INGO sector can’t be traced to singular challenges around management or accountability systems.  They require a whole-scale examination of the purpose, role and delivery mechanisms of the International NGO.  And it can’t be down to any one institution, or indeed sector to do this alone (eg. Environment or development).

Disruption, innovation and systemic thinking are required.  By gathering a group of dedicated people from the wider system – people who have worked in INGOs, or engaged with them, from social movements, or as partners – we intend to unpack the institutions and the way they’re organised, alongside the wider changing context in which they’re now operating.  The aim is to consider what we need institutionally to better respond to today’s and the forthcoming challenges – something dynamic, responsive and accountable.

Fortunately, the field of systems change has matured, and we can bring these methods to a systems change lab aimed at re-imagining the INGO.   We will draw on deep methods, such as the ‘U’process, developed by MIT[1]and recent innovations in design thinking, aimed at driving long-lasting change across different systems.

Key issues such a project would address (amongst other things):

  1. Taking the long view and situating the context. Is there a common starting point for INGOs across sectors? Can we imagine the world we want to see?
  2. Power and trust. How do we genuinely address concerns about power and dominance in civil society, by INGOs? Can INGOs see their role in #shiftthepower and act on it?  How do we address issues of power and gender inequalities? Or power and trust between INGOs and local NGOs? What form of partnerships, including with local NGOs, should there be and what values should guide those partnerships?
  3. Diversity and genuine inclusion. How can INGOs address racial inequities within their own structures? How can we promote racial diversity in senior leadership and decision-making processes, and foster genuine inclusion at all organisational levels?
  4. Governance and accountability. How should INGOs be governed? Who are they accountable to now? Who should they be accountable to in future?
  5. Funding/resources/ownership. How should INGOs be funded in order to ensure their legitimacy?  For many the majority of funds come from western governments. Does this harm their independence or perceived independence as non-governmental?
  6. Service delivery vs. advocacy. Do INGOs offering services (such as water, health, education or humanitarian aid) conflict with their advocacy aims? Do the two work together effectively?  What are the challenges? Is another model needed?
  7. Organisational form. Do we need to adapt the legal models of INGOs? What are other options?
  8. Legitimacy and authority. How can INGOs ensure their moral authority at a time when their role is questioned?   Is this simply about narratives or something deeper?
  9. Size, scale and reach. Is there an optimal size or form of organisation to have maximum impact?   What are the different options and how do we avoid a ‘one size fits’ all model?
  10. Culture, practice and cognition. What are the cultural norms that inform current practice? How do we emerge from mental models and assumptions that are barriers to change?



Systems change processes have been pioneered over the last decade and more to help to break down barriers between entrenched positions of groups acting as part of a wider system, connecting both their personal and institutional role in this endeavour to try to remap a solution. We will be convening a group of 30-50 participants willing to be part of the core of the journey over approximately two years to represent ‘the system’ (see below for more on who should join).

With expert systems-change facilitation, the participants will meet virtually [as a result of COVID19 limitations on travel] to explore their own role in the system, and start to identify what needs to change, and more importantly, how.  We will shape this with experts in facilitating systems change, however, a very short overview of a long process might look like this:

  • Start to explore people’s desire to bring about change – why we need it, what’s not working, from the various perspectives present in the room. It would also explore people’s motivation and intent.  We would ask them to bring their institutional knowledge, but to be present as individuals, not representing their institutions.
  • Create a roadmap for where we want to be in the future. Do we need INGOs?  What is their role? What might a more sustainable and equal INGO system look like?  We will build on work that’s already been developed around scenario planning for the sector.
  • Identify prototypes and projects that could emerge to reshape the landscape. Both during and at the end of the process, we hope to see prototypes and projects emerging, for which we aspire to create an ‘innovation/challenge’ fund.  Some of these may be immediately implementable, others scalable innovations that could help to transform the sector and in turn, how its members interact with the wider world.

Beyond the core group, we will encourage a wider engaged community to interact with the process.

A key component of systems change processes is not to pre-prescribe the solutions, but to co-design and collaborate as the process progresses.  We don’t propose to know the answers. But we want to invest in the solutions.


We know that a lot of work has been done by others to identify what needs to change. Importantly, the project aims to explore not just the ‘what’, but the ‘how’ we get there, while building opportunities to act collectively and accelerate implementation of these ideas throughout the course of our project.

We hope that the RINGO project can help with the multiple and converging challenges, by not only providing the space to think collectively about our sector — from Aid too, to Black Lives Matter, but also how we can use the crisis of COVID to genuinely reshape and transform global civil society, while accelerating our ability to implement the changes we need to see.

What are our next steps?

We have received an enabling grant from the Ford Foundation which provides us with some funding to develop the project further.

Here is what we’re actively doing to get this project fully off the ground:

  • Governance: Establishing a governance process for the project that is transparent and ensuring shared ownership – we want to model our initiative based on what we want to see from global civil society
  • Process facilitation: Identifying a facilitation process that can work in remote formats and ensure rapid prototyping can come to life as the convening progresses
  • Research: Embarking on an initial action research programme to inform, articulate and contribute to the ‘redesign’ process – and collectively gathering the research that’s already been done on transformation in the sector to date
  • Collaboration: Building partnerships with organisations in the INGO sector
  • Communication & outreach: Setting up a portal to provide insights about the process and the wider debates – linking to the many others who are also innovating in the sector
  • Process participation: Inviting participants into the process
  • Funding: Securing funds for the full convening and rapid prototyping


[1] https://www.lifeleadershipproject.com/thinking-tools/u-process/


Go back to RINGO project page.