Getting good at disruption in an uncertain world

Lila Buckley and Halina Ward


What does ‘disruptive change’ mean to NGO leaders and highly experienced development practitioners in middle- and low- income countries? This working paper summarises insights into how NGOs in the global South are addressing disruption in their external and internal operating environments. Beyond natural disasters, emerging technologies, political shifts and climate change the paper finds that financial uncertainty and rapidly changing civil society space are two sources of disruption which are felt most acutely. The report aims to help inform funding and development strategies and operating practices, and to enable donors and INGOs to more effectively support Southern NGOs facing uncertain operating environments.

23 interviews were carried out between July and September 2015.  Most interviewees held senior management or leadership roles with small- to medium- NGOs in Africa and Asia. Interviews were open-ended and evolved iteratively. While it is not possible to draw robust conclusions from this sample, some patterns do begin to emerge that reveal the characteristics of an NGO able to manage change without generating undesirable effects.

The concept of ‘disruptive change’ emerged out of business management community and is useful for making sense of an increasingly uncertain world and the responses it demands. To-date, literature which has tackled this and development futures has tended not to consider the disruptive change management insights and experiences of Southern development actors.

The international community are often disruptors of Southern NGOs’ efforts to tackle poverty and deliver positive outcomes: changes in donor policy; tendering requirements for consortia; reluctance of INGOs to share funding for organisational development with Southern partners. Particularly negative effects are felt acutely in contexts where few NGOs have the monetary reserves to support themselves financially during periods of uncertainty.

Disruptions can be catalysts for organisational change. Effective responses to change nurture, enhance and deploy internal skills base, this includes: re-thinking organisational missions and ways of working,  adopting distributional leadership approaches, fostering organisational learning and foresight thinking, and integrating social enterprise into new business models. The current discussion and action on decentralisation, nationalisation or relocation of international NGOS is seen as fostering the emergence of empowered and effective Southern NGOs, but requires careful management.

International NGOS and development cooperation agencies must renew their efforts to minimise the negative impacts of their own practices on Southern NGOs and to become better partners and collaborators in order to support positive development outcomes. Ways to do this include:

  • Stepping up efforts to expand effective civil society operating space in the South.
  • More actively nurturing innovation and continue to value resilience and adaptive capacity
  • Considering the value of – and avenues for – unrestricted financing to bolster organisational development, skills and capabilities needed to turn disruption into a creative force for innovation and sustainable development.

Interviewees also welcomed the prospect of a direct peer-to-peer exchange of experience on disruptive change.


Buckley, L. and Ward, H. (2015). Getting good at disruption in an uncertain world. Insights from Southern NGO leaders. IIED Working Paper. London, UK: IIED.