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21 May 2012

Making the step up to the board of an international NGO

Written by
Keith Johnston

American folk icon Pete Seeger, when he encourages his audiences to sing along with him, often notes that by the time you have learnt the words of one of his songs you have got to the end.   He says, “It’s like life really, isn’t it.  But with a song you can sing it over again.”  In my experience it is much like this being on the board of an international non-government organisation.

One friend, with a few years on an international NGO board, says he wondered:

“Should I speak from my heart first, before worrying about if that could be counter-productive?  In a world of strangers, it’s always less risky to reserve frank opinions and try to establish some rapport first. But in the context of an INGO, there really is not much time for board members to establish rapport that is rooted in extensive and intensive interaction.”

On any board a new member’s challenge is always how to get to know the people and the issues fast enough to begin to engage effectively. For the person stepping up to the board of an international NGO alliance these challenges are amplified in three ways.

  • Firstly, the board is likely to meet less frequently (at least face-to-face) so it is harder to get to know your colleagues.
  • Secondly, because the issues involved are global they are generally more challenging than those facing national boards.
  • Thirdly, you may have less time overall because many INGO boards are made up of people who also serve on the boards of national bodies and by the time they make the international body they may have a limited term to serve.

Too often by the time we get clear about our role and start to develop a global perspective our term is up, people are saying nice words at our farewell, and another newbie is in our seat blinking at an alphabet soup of new abbreviations and acronyms and grappling to get a grip on what is expected of them.

This is tough on individuals and it is way less than ideal for NGO alliances. INGOs have expanded rapidly in the past 20 years.  They are trying to become more global and diverse (and less ‘Northern’).  They strive to be more influential in global debates.  They face challenging issues about their roles and priorities, effectiveness and accountability, and how they can best organise themselves.  The governance agenda has expanded dramatically.

I have been fortunate to be chair of Oxfam International, the confederation of 17 Oxfams who do humanitarian, development, and advocacy work in about 90 other countries and at many international fora.  Like many other alliances we have been going through a period of rapid change.  I am also lucky to get to share INGO leadership experiences with the chairs and executive directors of many of the other development, human rights, and environmental alliances when we meet at the annual Vision Works meeting organised by the Berlin Civil Society Center. From these discussion over that past four years I have thought a lot about how new board members might more easily make the step up from national to international boards.

In a recent working paper I have prepared on the topic “Acting Globally – Thinking Globally” I suggest new board members can take steps to prepare themselves in response to six questions:

  1. Where have we come from?
  2. Do we have the diversity we need to govern our alliance and how can we draw these diverse views into an effective whole?
  3. What are we trying to become?
  4. How do we work at a global scale?
  5. What are we accountable for internationally and to whom?
  6. What is my role and how might I grow in this role?

I will address some of these questions in more detail in subsequent blogs.

A copy of the working paper can be found here.

This blog has been previously published on the website of the Hauser Center at Harvard University. You can see that one here.

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