Winsight 16 Virtual implementing organisations: A new kid in town
1 Virtual organisations
Virtual organisations have a long history in India and the world. One of the most famous is the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) that shook the conscience of the world. The national policy and law regarding Resettlement and Rehabilitation is directly the result of their advocacy with the World Bank and the Supreme Court, a direct outcome of perception management and sophisticated media engagement. Yet the NBA is not registered under any law—whether as a company, trade union, cooperative, society or trust.
That does not mean they are illegal or illegitimate—far from it. Though it is better known as a ‘campaign’, it runs schools, publishes magazines and does virtually everything that a civil society organisation does, including internet and social media presence. It even raises money and accepts donations—but is not a ‘welfare’ or ‘service’ entity. It is not registered, but is quite effective. It uses the formal banking system, but apart from that NBA is completely outside the formal system in terms of a registered office, CEO/chief functionary or staff.
There are others less well known but equally effective. However, most of them, including the NBA initiated National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) remain(ed) amorphous or campaign specific networks at best. The campaigns for Right to Food, (RTF), Education (RTE), health, local governance and Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA) are heavily peppered with CSOs of all hues. They effectively engage with the state, at times even help draft policies and are on formal state consultative bodies. But all of them are unregistered. Sometimes they do not even have an office. NBA – Delhi Forum is one such example. Delhi Forum (itself a programme of Programme for Social Action, PSA) provided support to the NBA in New Delhi for coordination, advocacy, media and perception management. Both are not legal entities, meaning they are not registered.
Virtual organisations are distinct from seasonal or event based organisations such as the charity aid marathons. It goes considerably beyond the charity aid marathons. They are episodic and function with a skeleton staff between events. The army of volunteers come in closer to the event, while others come in for specific tasks. The field marshal is literally on call and the CEO is for a couple of months only.
For sheer audacity of vision, inclusiveness of participation, breadth of the framework and dynamism of organisation, none can match the World Social Forum, the world’s premier virtual organisation. That is has permanent presence in the mind is testimony to its almost institutional nature. The WSF and similar platform organisations are tailor mode for virtual organisations.
2 Accountability: The legal gymnastics
If the litmus test of organisational accountability is the ability to sue and be sued on behalf of the organisation, then the ‘convenor’ and ‘core group’ fail the test, for they can neither sue nor be sued on behalf of the host organisation. In many cases, the ‘host organisation’ is little more than a funding conduit, but under the law is fully liable for all acts of commission and omission. The ‘convenor’ of the virtual organisation, not to mention the ‘core group members’, are seldom in any way connected to it, let alone legally accountable for any of its acts.
The more formal, CSO led campaigns do an office, but often these offices have only skeleton staff, since these are ‘campaign’ offices, and dance to a different beat. The ‘secretariat’ functions out of the office of a ‘host organisation’ as a ‘desk’ or a ‘programme unit’. They are not ‘legal entities’. Though they do function on public money, the ‘legal entity’ that ‘hosts’ the secretariat is different. Though the paid staff would be ‘appointed’ by, and be administratively accountable, to the legal entity that hosts the secretariat (and through whom their salaries are paid), in virtually all other matters they are accountable to, and function under the mandate of, the respective ‘core group’. Though not legally accountable, the programmatic and functional accountability to the core group often matches or exceeds the legal standards.
This distinction between the financial and administrative accountability on the one hand, and the programmatic and functional accountability on the other is a critical one for all virtual organisations.
3 The need for virtual organisations
These multiple levels of legal ring fencing and buffering become important as the state seeks to criminalise all democratic dissent. Just as corporations and Limited Liability Partnerships (LLPs) limit liability in the corporate sector, these virtual organisations limit liability in the social sector. The legal entity is required only for a bank account. The ham handed state response to the people’s movement against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant shows that the state is aware of the contours of the multiple layers within campaigns, but not the details. (In the Kudankulam case it erred, and badly at that).
4 From VOs to VIOs
Campaign organisations need to be VOs for ring fencing and shielding. The new phenomenon is these virtual organisations, sometimes transcending national boundaries, implementing multi-million dollar projects. They become a new sub-set, if not a new category altogether: the virtual implementing organisation (VIO). The necessity and rationale for VIOs is different from the rationale campaign organisations.
In the case of WNTA mentioned earlier, it hosts within it the Social Watch Coalition and the Peoples Budget Initiative—both of which, in turn, are virtual organisations. However, both are implementing organisations in that they have a specific programme deliverable (annual Social Watch and Budget Analysis reports), activities (training) state chapters, and national secretariats with staff. Legally both Social Watch and People’s Budget Initiative are ‘projects’ of registered non-profit organisations.
Similar is the case of the Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation (HRFDL) in Karnataka and Tamilnadu. They are unregistered bodies, with significant presence at the grassroots and in corridors of power. They implement projects from housing to micro-credit worth several million Rupees. Yet they do not have a single employee or a budget or even a bank account.
5 When and where they are needed
VIOs are required when setting up permanent institutional structures, going the legal route of registration and non profit compliances and permissions is cumbersome, and would probably result in the window of opportunity closing. It would typically be when the implementation (or ‘joint programme’) is only for a project (when assured funding is for a short time only and the programme is dependent on short funding cycles).
The key decision points thus would be whether the project/initiative
- It is a for short duration (three years or less in most cases).
- Is large enough to require a separate programme structure.
- Has multiple implementers, each of whom needs to ‘own’ it.
- Assured funding is for a short duration.
- Permanent presence is not foreseen, or temporary presence is known.
- For testing the scaling up across geography, competency or levels.
This is not to say that these organisations have only a temporary relationship. The collaboration of these organisations may be for a long duration on issues or agendas (especially for advocacy, which is the reason they got to know each other in the first place) but the working together would be dependent on short duration funding.
6 Common characteristics
VIOs are not monolithic, though there are some broad commonalities. They have significant differences between them. However, there are some commonalities and best practice that can be drawn out.
Some characteristics common to all VIOs are
- Not registered (under any law – company, trust, society, cooperative society, trade union, political party....)
- Does not, cannot, have a ‘board’, but would have the equivalent in ‘steering committees’ and ‘core groups’ that are functionally the senior management teams. The terms are carefully chosen to reflect the non-hierarchical mode of functioning and relationships.
- Implementation of a common programme by the constituents (who may or may not be registered, or a combination of registered and unregistered constituents).
- Individual and collective financial and programmatic accountability through legally enforceable contracts.
- The staff are ‘programme staff’ appointed for the duration of the project, or are on deputation from one of the initiating organisations, for the duration of the project.
7 Best practice: When and where they are successful
VIOs function like high performance teams at the apex level. They give their best output when given time, talent and tolerance. They need time to mature, and need tolerance when they make mistakes and find their feet, even though—or perhaps, especially because—they are all CEOs. Over time however, they begin to function more cohesively, complementing each other.
All the principles of good networking apply, with some additional good practice.
- Collective initiation (or bringing in all key players together as soon as possible) and therefore collective ownership (Collegiality).
- Strong anchor organisation, often acknowledged as the leader.
- Complementary geographical presence and/or core competence (with just a little redundancy).
- Small, lean and temporary programme secretariat (often called ‘coordination office’) that is separate, with the required competencies.
- Required competencies would include those to support the constituents at national and international levels. These in house competencies include big data, IEC development and advocacy. Because of the combined scale of operations, they become necessary. Due to economy of scale they become affordable.
- Transparent monetary systems and rigorous mutual accountability procedures. The absence of this is the killer in most cases.
- The organisations have collaborated before. The longer and deeper the better.
- Matrix reporting and accountability structures. This ensures more, and more rigorous accountability. A matrix is more democratic ‘flat’ than even a lateral set up, in that there is downward accountability, multiple and multi-sectoral peer accountability.
- Open space methodologies and technology work best.
- The ‘steering committee’ (that have the CEOs of the ‘lead’ organisations) and ‘core groups’ that are functionally the senior management teams. The ‘leads’ or ‘convenors’ of these core groups form the ‘coordination committee’. The terms are carefully chosen to reflect the non-hierarchical mode of functioning and relationships.
- Internal peer ‘support groups’ help each other through shared expertise, reciprocity and mutuality rather than ‘monitoring and control’ systems.
8 The enablers
A fortuitous concatenation of circumstances has made the phenomenon of VIOs possible. These forms of organisation, especially in implementation of large complex programmes with multiple deliverables at multiple levels (and continents!) would have been virtually impossible even a decade ago.
The key enablers of this phenomenon are:
- ICT and the death of distance, made possible due to ICT (thank you internet, especially skype) and connectivity (low cost air travel is one, but also rail and other forms). ICT enables transparency at low cost (when there is the political will) and therefore increases trust, enables sharing of lessons learnt and therefore a shorter learning curve, faster adoption.
- Increasing competencies at grass root levels (a development an unintended consequence of ICT that allows for being connected from anywhere so more people are willing to make the shift to the grassroots).
- CSOs now have crossed the first generation, and have demonstrated long-term presence in the field. This makes it possible to know kindred souls and fraternal organisations from which reciprocal support and solidarity can be expected. Identifying the critical organisations to form alliances (VIOs) for essential tasks becomes easier.
- Balancing of rights and responsibilities in activist attitudes. The pressure for results, growth and influence at individual CSO level at progressively higher levels from the state and donors. This has led to a culture of collaboration rather than confrontation between CSOs.
- Donor support patterns have shifted to large programmes and macro impact. The budget levels have shifted upwards, making economies of scale possible for CSOs. Earlier, donor budget limits did not permit VIOs made by multiple CSOs.
9 Killing the baby: Formalising the ‘virtual’
VIOs work well for a short while, when the initial enthusiasm translates into momentum and CEO engagement. Active CEO engagement is possible only in short bursts. In long term VIOs, CEO engagement becomes ritualistic (if only because an informal hierarchy of duties has been established), and often only at bookends—at the beginning and closing of the project. Even in cases where the ‘secretariat’ is rotated among constituents, it is difficult to sustain the initial level of CEO interest.
Once a permanent requirement is established, often in 3-5 years, then a separate legal entity should be formalised. It should have its own secretariat, with the critical mass of staff to fulfil its collective mandate and provide services to the constituents. If not, the initiative will stagnate, or even worse, experience a living death.