In search of the ideal intermediary

Barry Knight

Just as economic developers need ‘infrastructure’ such as roads, railways and telephone lines, civil society developers need infrastructure such as information, intelligence, training, technical assistance and opportunities for networking. Thomas Nunn saw this as long ago as 1906 when he set up Hampstead Council of Social Service to give assistance to voluntary groups working with London’s poor.

The idea spread, and the notion of an ‘umbrella’, ‘peak’ or ‘intermediary’ organization has become the classical means of organizing the voluntary sector throughout the world. We now have the Fiji Council of Social Services, the Romanian NGO Development Centre, the South African NGO Coalition (SANGOCO) and the US-based Independent Sector, among many others. These organizations vary in what they do, but they have a common purpose of strengthening civil society organizations.

In the last decade we have seen the emergence of membership-based civil society intermediaries at global level. Intermediaries with specific purposes include the International Society for Third Sector Research (ISTR) for academics, WINGS for associations of grantmakers, and the Forum International Montreal (FIM) for NGOs that work with multilateral institutions. We also now have a general civil society intermediary: CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

Developing global institutions

Such developments are encouraging, and a sign that global civil society is beginning to take off. Or is it? Caroline Hartnell’s article ‘CIVICUS at a crossroads’ (see p24) records the many concerns about CIVICUS. My own view is that we should recognize that global intermediaries are in their infancy and need nurturing so that they can become fully functioning adults.

Perhaps the most helpful thing to do is to consider what kind of body we would want a global civil society intermediary to be. To answer this question, we need to ‘think different’. There are scores of global institutions that show us how not to do it. The world is full of well-funded bureaucracies that occasionally do good things by accident but which are for the most part a waste of money. The Bretton Woods institutions, for example, set up to usher in a brave new post-war world, are now commonly regarded as part of the problem rather than the solution.

We need to take a creative approach to organizational development, using the messy condition of civil society as the starting point. With so many different kinds of organizations competing for space and resources, battles over turf are common. ‘NGOs, they love the work and they hate each other’ is how one seasoned observer of the scene described it to me. The consequence is that civil society is splintered. One thousand flowers may bloom individually, but the price of this healthy pluralism is a field that is weak collectively.

Locating the power in civil society

An imperative for a global civil society intermediary is to build the power and influence of the civil society sector. The best way to do this is to organize civil society on a coalition-building model as set out by the late Saul Alinsky.[1] His basic view is that coalitions must come together around the principle of pursuing mutual self-interests, focusing on what people can agree on while setting aside differences. The UK-based Citizen Organizing Foundation provides a brilliant example of how ordinary Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Humanists and atheists in poor areas can work on common political concerns, such as pursuing a national minimum wage, while putting aside their religious beliefs and cultural differences.[2] This works at local and national level. Can it work internationally?

The first step in building power in civil society is to go where the power is. This lies in people’s own organizations such as tribes and village associations, broad-based coalitions at local level and social movements, not just in NGOs. A new study by the Commonwealth Foundation suggests that people’s own organizations are far more relevant than NGOs, which are often as remote as governments.[3] The case of Shack Dwellers International (see Michael Edwards’ article on p19) shows how 650,000 people can share practical solidarity, mutual support and the exchange of useful information and at the same time become a powerful player on the global stage. It is vital for the ideal intermediary to harness this type of energy and imagination.

Building coalitions

Having located where the power is in civil society, the next step is to build relationships between different organizations. This involves working out what organizations can agree on and what they need to set to one side, carving out turf, and deciding the agenda for action. This will involve horse-trading, but the collective effort will then be greater than the sum of the parts. Such principles have enabled global coalitions to achieve successes in banning landmines, forestalling the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and winning concessions on third world debt. Can we translate what has worked on single issues to working on multiple issues?

Such a strategy is possible only if the intermediary uses a new approach to power. Intermediaries need to build ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’. This entails a humble approach on the part of the intermediary, which should regard itself as less important than the field that it is serving. It is important to bury the ego.

A new model of leadership

At the same time, there is a need for leadership – a word that hardly dares to speak its name. The ‘power with’ model is difficult to reconcile with leadership of a top-down kind. Instead, leadership needs to be based on intellectual and moral authority rooted in the collective wisdom of the field. This entails creating a body of normative text that shows how civil society organizations can make progress on the problems that they are facing. A good starting point is Alan Fowler’s recent book The Virtuous Spiral, which deals with how development NGOs can become sustainable.[4] The book has a practical centre of gravity, and is illuminating about how we can make progress to meet basic needs, create gender equity, pursue social justice and create other common goods.

We need to build on this approach and then move on to the third step: building the theory of civil society development from the visions, experiences and difficulties of people who are actually involved in it. The ideal intermediary would look to its members to produce this information. Rather than merely sending out newsletters and email news, which do little to build real engagement, information flows need to be based on a two-way street. The point is mutual learning.

The end product would be a body of content on ‘how we develop civil society’. This would not be yet another manual of ‘good governance’ or ‘how to fundraise’. This would be a ‘warts and all’ account of the learning of a wide range of practitioners. A new model of publication, banning jargon, it would be an amalgam of stories, triumphs and failures, analysis and synthesis, description and advice. It would both be theoretical and practical and build the literature of civil society from its current arid base to something that the young person starting in the field could obtain as their first text.

The effect of this work would be advance the field beyond the identification of challenges and the evincing of correct values that has tended to characterize CIVICUS conferences to date. We need this so that people can begin to agree what this field is about and where it is headed. Otherwise we will always be trapped in what is often merely virtuous rhetoric.

Organizing the movement

Once we know where we are headed, the next step is to organize the movement. The key to such organizing is inclusiveness. The history of non-profit development is full of examples of well-meaning people sitting around kitchen tables to set up organizations with the mission of building an inclusive society, only to find later that the structures set up to achieve inclusivity actually exclude people. The challenge is to start from a broad-based model of organizing that includes people from the start, keeping them on the inside of the organization, making them feel that it is ‘theirs’ rather then ‘for them’.

Members have two roles: one is to contribute; the other is to gain. They would be expected to contribute to the development of the body of knowledge as described above. They would also have the right to help on terms identified by them. Rather than experiencing a pre-packaged set of services delivered on high from the intermediary, they would be able to determine the services that they want. This would replace the notion of supply-driven services with bespoke services based on needs. Members could deliver services to other members with the intermediary instigating a mechanism of licensing and quality control.

The ideal intermediary would eschew the idea of building the organization from the top down through a structure of regional offices. Since all members are part of the intermediary, both delivering and receiving services, there would be no need for a large superstructure A small core staff would form the hub of the network and ensure that members did most of the work.

Having developed mutual strength and learning on the inside of the network, the ideal intermediary is then in a good position to move to the final step. This is to develop means of influencing constituencies outside of civil society. Here, the intermediary can again build on the experience and contacts of its members, and ensure that it can involve people of sufficient stature to get their telephone calls answered by world leaders.
A global intermediary that follows these principles can become a movement with common goals and techniques that will be fit to meet the challenges posed by Michael Edwards (p19), who notes major concerns about legitimacy, representation, accountability and structure in civil society organizations. We need, in the words of Mary Redmond, to recognize that

‘The wheel of voluntarism is yet unturned. Think of how powerful it will be when it is turning, its spokes accommodating the rich diversity of the voluntary sector, its centre the distillation of the great energy which drives it.’[5]

Barry Knight works for CENTRIS and for the Commonwealth Foundation, and is the lead author of Reviving Democracy to be published by Earthscan on 5 January 2002. He can be contacted at
1 Saul Alinsky (1971) Rules for Radicals Random House, New York (Vintage Books edition 1989, New York).
2 Peter Stokes and Barry Knight (1997) Organizing a Civil Society Foundation for Civil Society, Birmingham.
3 Barry Knight, Hope Chigudu and Rajesh Tandon (2002) Reviving Democracy Earthscan, London.
4 Alan Fowler (2000) The Virtuous Spiral Earthscan, London
5 Quoted in Fergus O’ Ferrall (2000) Citizenship and Public Service Adelaide Hospital Society, Dublin

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