By Sol Castagnino, Operational Support Assistant, Forus

As a network, Forus benefits from an exceptionally diverse governance. Forus' Council members come from 15 different countries, each one bringing its own unique backgrounds and perspectives to the table. In April, Forus celebrated its General Assembly in a virtual format and elected the new Council for 2021-2023. Congratulations to all the new members ! 

Last time the Council was able to meet in person was in October 2019, then the Covid pandemic happened, stopping all travel opportunities. Since then, the Council has continued to meet online each semester. On Thursday 11th March 2021, Forus organized a webinar on “Governing a network”, in which approximately 68 participants from 28 Forus members participated, joining from all over the world. This was a unique opportunity for the CEO/Directors, Chairs/Presidents, and other representatives of the Boards of National NGO platforms and Regional Coalitions to meet each other and share experiences. This led to a collective reflection on the realities of working for an NGO in a particularly troubled context, which focused on five of our network’s current priorities.

Working with transparency and accountability

Ms Naila Farouky (Chair of the WINGS network (Worldwide initiative for Grantmaker support) and CEO of the Arab Foundations Forum), the Keynote speaker of the event, spoke with passion about her experiences and challenges as a member of a Board. [You can find her keynote speech on Youtube.]

She highlighted the weight of the socio-political environment on NGO activities in the Arab world. Concepts of accountability and transparency are understood differently in varying contexts, and in some cases, for philanthropic organisations, “the lack of transparency isn’t due to nefarious reasons but is actually a mode of survival allowing the entity to do good”. In situations like these, where governments expect NGOs to be very transparent, at the risk of censoring them or exposing human rights defenders working on sensitive topics, we should interrogate how accountability and transparency are practiced to recognize their various modalities.

Addressing staff wellbeing

Ms Naila Farouky also discussed how governance bodies address the question of wellbeing, and how the Covid-19 pandemic context has made her, as a Board member, more aware of matters related to staff physical and mental wellbeing. She highlighted that governing relationships are evolving, and it has become crucial to take these new elements into account. She explained: “I feel it is important to apply those valuable principles of accountability and transparency to the ways we deal with each other, professionally, but also personally.” 

Promoting inclusivity and diversity 

In small groups, the webinar participants discussed important  matters  for NGOs governance bodies: issues linked to cultural diversity and specificities due to age and generational transitions, to language (especially in multilingual countries) and the representation of minorities (ethnic, indigenous…). JANIC - Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation (National platform in Japan) discussed the age gap existing in NGOs between the old generations and the young activists joining in recent years while NFN - NGO Federation of Nepal (National platform in Nepal) highlighted the difficulties linked to having diverse communities, religions and languages in one country. To respond to these challenges, new working models are being tested such as the co-chairing model used on the board of Cooperation Canada (National platform in Canada), allowing for relations to be more evenly spread out between different representatives and thus more horizontal.

Sam Worthington (Vice-President of Forus and CEO of Interaction, National platform in the US) pointed out that serving on the board of an NGO is the most important leadership role one can have: it is complex, and it can be frustrating, it requires being willing to be inclusive, to bring in different voices, being willing to be participatory, to create a more equitable organization not only outside but in our own organization, and to govern by building trust.

Enhancing the political roles of the Board 

Many participants reflected on the growing tensions between NGOs and governments in a more restrictive reality characterized by a reduction or lack of State funding, shrinking civic space and dangers associated with authoritarian States. Abong - Associação Brasileira de ONGs (National platform in Brazil), CONGCOOP - Coordinación de ONG y Cooperativas (National platform in Guatemala) and CNONGD - Conseil National des ONGD de Développement (National platform in the Democratic Republic of Congo) reflected on how the COVID-19 pandemic brought to life tensions between governments and CSOs due to their different interests and approaches. On this, the Taiwan Alliance in International Development (National platform in Taiwan) explained: “The government is thinking in a political way when NGOs are thinking in terms of Human Rights issues''.  This raises the question of the need for a more political role of Board members. Restrictive contexts and the targeting of civil society requires Board members’ strategic leadership and experience, around political positioning, engagement, and communication. 

Moving Board activities online 

Covid-19 has also deeply affected the way Boards function, causing a need to adapt to a new virtual reality even though members don’t always have access to electricity or the internet, as well as a need to develop a new way to vote and take important decisions and a new way to provide support in times of crisis. PFNOSCM - Plateforme Nationale des Organisations de la Société Civile de Madagascar (National platform in Madagascar) explained how difficult it was to “circulate information in a country where only less than 10% of the people has access to electricity and where the Internet connection is not always fluid.” This led SPONG - Secrétariat Permanent des ONG du Burkina Faso (National platform in Burkina Faso), FONGTO - Fédération des Organisations Non-Gouvernementales au Togo (National platform in Togo) and more members to discuss the existing discrepancies in technological means and ways of communication from one member to another.

To conclude, what transpired from this webinar was that there is a lot that we can learn from each other by sharing learnings, challenges and cultural perspectives on governance. This was the first event of this kind organized by the network and it proved to be a success and of great interest to our members. We hope to be able to provide a space for these important conversations again to promote peer-learning exchanges and learning even more in the future.