Movement roles/Peer organizations/Why now

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Peer organizations :   Models and recommendations  ·  Why now  ·  Other notes

"The purpose of the movement roles project is to clarify the roles and responsibilites of different entities, groups and people working to support the international Wikimedia movement." With this goal, the proposal for the movement roles project was approved by the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees in October.

A number of reasons were advanced in October for launching the movement roles project; for example:

  • Current role confusion (later borne out by interviews conducted by the movement roles working group)
"By clarifying how different parts of the movement can support and rely on one another, we can develop a coherent global network and avoid the risks of dissipated energies or duplicated effort."
  • A belief that with time it will get harder to clarify roles:
"These sorts of issues can be solved more easily now, while most chapters and other Wikimedia groups (and the Foundation itself) are still developing their individual and community identities. Uncertainties about movement roles will only become harder to resolve in the future, so it is important to start addressing them now."

The challenge: globally coherent AND decentralized[edit]

Designing the right roles for the Wikimedia movement is challenging as the movement wants to be BOTH globally coherent AND decentralized.

Why globally coherent?[edit]

The Wikimedia movement strategic plan requires global coherence: achieving shared global goals will require collaboration from across the world. The parts of the movement richest in resources will need to support the parts with the highest potential for impact. Many Wikimedia projects, such as Wikipedia, operate globally.

Global coherence has already enabled the Wikimedia movement to create a Wikipedia in ~250 different languages, Wiktionary, Wikinews, and much more. Most of these cut across national boundaries, and draw strength from being able to work globally. The English language Wikipedia is enjoyed and edited on six continents. The Tamil Wikipedia is primarily edited in North America by the diaspora, while 99% of Tamil speakers live in Asia.

The Wikimedia movement also has global brands, shared mission and goals, and relationships that hold the movement together.

It would be easy to build global coherence by centralizing, but this would go against the aims and culture.

Why decentralized?[edit]

The board of the Wikimedia Foundation agreed on the following resolution during its meeting in February 2010:

“The board affirms the importance of a strong decentralized movement structure and its own responsibility to lead organizational development of the international Wikimedia movement, and directs the ED to dedicate necessary resources to this.”

Decentralization is central to the spirit and success of Wikimedia, described by many Wikimedians and assorted observers, such as Clay Shirkey [1] and Joseph Reagle.[2]

It would be easy to decentralize, but fragment global coherence. To remain BOTH globally coherent AND decentralized, the Wikimedia movement needs to define clear movement roles:

Lessons from peer organizations[edit]

Other global NGOs have wrestled with these and similar issues. Here are a few observations from a broad scan of organizations that have been described as "peers". Each suggests that role clarity helps movements achieve more impact through more effective programs and sharper advocacy. It can also help secure more resources: money and volunteers. At the same time, role confusion can cause a movement to 'run on the spot'. Role confusion can breed mistrust and corrode the bonds that keep a movement together.

But, before you read on, a quick health warning. Each global NGO, NGO network, or NGO movement is unique. Each has evolved its own organization. It is impossible to "deduce" which "model" which the Wikimedia movement should follow. The Wikimedia movement can pick from a number of options, and design its own organization.

Globally coherent decentralized movements define clear roles[edit]

For Wikimedia be BOTH globally coherent AND decentralized it needs to define clear roles:

  • what does each entity do (or not) – what's done locally, what's done globally
  • who is accountable (and for what)
  • which decisions are made globally, and which are made locally
  • how global decisions are taken (e.g. how much resources are moved between entities)

The Olympic movement[edit]

For example, for the Olympic movement to be both decentralized and globally coherent, it defines roles:

  • the IOC staff and board in Lausanne run the games and negotiates with broadcasters and sponsors
  • national associations are accountable for their use of the brand
  • the location of the Olympics is decided globally (and, for example, does not rotate around regions)
  • the decision of the location of the each Olympic games is made by the annual "session" of the IOC

The Olympic movement consists of over 100 recognized international sports federations (IFs), 205 National Olympic Committees (NOCs), the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC, which is also split among five continental associations),and the International Olympic Committee. The IOC runs the Olympic Games, makes global decisions (e.g for the use of the brand), and convenes the movement. The IOC collects over half of the revenue of the entire movement from broadcast rights, sponsorship, etc.[3] Headquartered in Lausanne, the IOC employs a full-time staff of about 150, managed by an International Executive Board of 15, in turn elected by the annual "session" of 115 members, representing 205 national associations, athletes, and staff.

The IOC has responded quickly to global crises. In 2002 allegations of bribery in Salt Lake City threatened a considerable proportion of sponsorship revenue. After investigation, twenty members of the IOC were expelled or sanctioned. New term and age limits were put into place for IOC membership, and fifteen former Olympic athletes were added to the committee. In 1982 the USOC and IOC sued the organizers of the Gay Olympics – now called the Gay Games – for using the name "Olympics". Defendants of the lawsuit contended that the law was capriciously applied and that if the Nebraska Rat Olympics and the Police Olympics did not face similar lawsuits, neither should the Gay Olympics. The IOC was able, however, to retain global control of its brand.

Fragmentation can hurt a movement[edit]

A number of global movements decentralized early, often by "replicating" in different countries, and giving local management great autonomy to adopt and adapt. Some of these have been spurred to reintegrate due to the problems brought by decentralization without global coherence.

Conflicting priorities and public voices[edit]

In 1985 Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) almost fell apart because of a disagreement over priorities: delivering aid vs. speaking out for the suffering in Ethiopia.

"... after a billion people watched Bob Geldof's televised Live Aid concerts for famine relief, MSF watched Ethiopia's Communist dictator, Colonel Mengistu, abuse that aid. With the vehicles, cash and food he received from international donors, Mengistu moved people from the drought ravaged north to the more fertile south. On the surface, the plan seemed logical, but soon it became clear that Mengistu was using the promise of food to uproot people against their will, often with the consent of aid organizations - some were not allowed to distrubute food to hungry children unless their parents agreed to the resettlement plan. But because the organizations wanted to remain in Ethiopia and help where they could, they kept silent – including MSF Belgium. The French section, however publicly denounced the Mengistu regime and was promptly expelled from the country in December 1985. ... relations strained further after the sections disagreed over how to respond in Ethiopia, and the Paris office launched a lawsuit to try to prevent the Belgians from using the MSF name ..."[4]

Conflicting programs[edit]

In 1976 half a dozen affiliates of Oxfam arrived independently in Guatemala in response to an earthquake. At that time Oxfam was a loose movement with no forum in which to make global decisions. Lack of coordination prompted Oxfam to integrate, starting with initial relief efforts.[5] Save the Children and other humanitarian movements have similar stories of how their responses to emergencies was hampered by lack of coordination among their national organizations.

Corrosion of the reputation and values[edit]

A global brand for a decentralized organization can be jeopardized by weak members.

"DFID, the UK Department for International Development, declined support for microfinance initiatives run by a network of affiliates after one if its members failed after receiving DFID investment. DFID felt that the netework was not supporting the failing entity adequately. Future investments with the same network therefore looked less attractive."[6]

Comments heard in interviews include:

  • “One failure will bring the whole thing down” - failure in one member organization can hurt the rest of the network
  • "First issue is getting governance right at chapter and national levels"
  • "Local organizations need to have democratic governance or the organization is taken over"
  • "Need limited terms of office - otherwise leaders become too attached"
  • "Cultures mushroom. Many of the national societies have a distinct capability to mirror their country's culture"

All of which, it must be said, emphasizes the need for the highest standards of governance and transparency in any global organization!

Rebuilding global coherence from a loose network takes time[edit]

The effort required to re-integrate a fragmented movement suggests that if Wikimedia wants to remain coherent, then it might be easier to design the right organization for the long haul now, rather than let it fragment, and then try to pull it together again. Wikimedia is already has much of the global coherence for which other movements strive. Examples of slow journeys integration journeys include:

Save the Children is transforming from a 'movement' to an 'organization'

  • Founded in 1919 in UK and replicated in other developed countries over decades, with each 'replicant' operating in the developing world, often alongside or overlapping other 'replicants'
  • Twenty years ago was more of a 'movement' than an organization, with little ability to coordinate quickly, e.g. responses to global disasters
  • Different constituent parts of Save the Children (developing country NGOs) operating in the same developing country now share a 'unified presence', e.g. shared office space, especially when national organizations are too small to deliver scale in many functions.
  • Save the Children has developed an international board with global capabilities to act in the field

Oxfam has become a tighter network around a shared name

  • Founded in 1946 in UK and now replicated in a variety of countries, e.g. Oxfam America
  • Twenty years ago had no regular meeting to make movement-wide decisions
  • Has developed ability to act coherently globally, partly to respond to humanitarian disasters, and partly to be able to advocate clearly and cogently on development issues

Médecins San Frontières) has reorganized on more than one occasion to improve its response to humanitarian disasters, refining its global decision-making and how national resources are shared or consolidated.

Global NGO networks are increasingly looking to protect and develop their brands consistently around the world (e.g. World Wildlife Fund).

As donors and investors become global, some organizations have globalized to be able to work with major philanthropists (e.g. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) or government bodies (e.g. the UK Department for International Development) which have offices and decision-makers in multiple locations. Examples include:

Action Contre La Faim has distributed global responsibilities among members organizations to build deeper expertise for specific functions (e.g. giving the UK organization global responsibility for evaluation and links to schools of tropical medicine).

Accenture Development Partners is a philanthropic arm of Accenture which helps many global NGOs lower costs by consolidating sub-scale national functions into global or regional capabilities.[7]

Local organizations are critical to most global NGO movements[edit]

A number of global NGO movements nurture local organizations to better understanding of beneficiary needs, e.g.:

  • Riders for Health has national organizations in developing countries to work with local governments)
  • WorldVision has redefined "national offices" as those in developing countries working with clients
  • CAMFED has developed a governance model to give beneficiaries control over delivery of the service

For many global NGO movements, member organizations in developed countries deliver resources

Global NGOs have used a wide variety of organizational models[edit]

Centralized global NGOs[edit]

To remain coherent, a number of NGOs with global reach are centralized. New organizations include Mozilla and Creative Commons. Older examples that have maintained a relatively centralized global organization through a number of cycles of growth while nurturing local roots, include The Nature Conservancy, Human Rights Watch, or Americares.

Decentralized global NGOs[edit]

Many other global movements decentralized over time. Some have remained decentralized, while others have tried to regain their global coherence. Examples of the most decentralized "multi-local" NGOs include the YMCA, or World Organization of the Scout Movement.

NGOs both decentralized and globally coherent[edit]

Some new movements, such as Teach for All have tried, from the start, to build in global coherence into what is already a loose, multi-brand network of Teach for America, Teach First, Teach First Deutschland and others, too.

Loose global NGO movements integrating into tighter networks[edit]

Older movements now integrating into tighter networks include Oxfam, Save the Children, WorldVision, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), Habitat for Humanity International, Opportunity International, Action Contre La Faim (Action Against Hunger) and Greenpeace. Some have been able to grow by a factor of 3x in a decade, and claim a commensurate or greater increase in impact. This, they would argue, justifies the investment in integration: reorganization, coordination, communication, etc.

Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement[edit]

The Red Cross and Red Crescent movement is a hybrid, with a highly-centralized International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as a decentralized International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which brings together 186 autonomous member national members societies, while some Red Cross or Red Crescent societies are not members. Some national members, such as the American Red Cross, are themselves federations of societies. The Geneva Convention ties the movement together, and gives the right to use the symbol of the red cross, enforced by the Swiss diplomatic corps. Switzerland itself has all of the elements of the movement: the Swiss Red Cross, headquartered in Bern, is a federation of 24 cantonal associations employing 2,000 people. One Swiss canton is Geneva, which is also the headquarters of the ICRC (where it employs 800) and the IFRCRC.

Further lessons[edit]

Further lessons from peers include the role of national organizations and decision making for a global movement.


  1. Clay Shirkey, 2010. "Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age". The Penguin Press
  2. Joseph Michael Reagle Jr., 2010. "Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia. The MIT Press
  3. John T Gournville, Marco Bertini, 2009. "The London 2012 Olympics". Harvard Business School.
  4. Dan Borlotti, 2006. "Hope in Hell: Inside the World of Doctors Without Borders". Firefly.
  5. Jon Huggett, Katie Smith Milway, and Kirk Kramer, 2009. "Increasing Effectiveness in Global NGO Networks". Bridgespan.
  6. J. Huggett, 2010. "Moving from Loose Global Associations to Linked Geographic Networks" published in Scaling Social Impact: New Thinking by Palgrave Macmillan
  7. M. Ryan and J. Crowley, 2011. "Greater than the "Sum of the Parts"? Getting in Shape? How to make a large international NGO be more than the sum of its parts". ADP.