Civil society actors – including NGOs, labour organizations, faith groups and a range of other emerging actors – are more important than ever. The past decade has seen the rise of the increasingly aware, connected and educated global citizen demanding new ways of engaging with business and governments in a time of economic and political turbulence. In light of these and other trends, leaders from organized civil society interviewed by the World Economic Forum have identified five key strategic issues:

1. Where will our funding come from?

Financial sustainability is the top priority for organizations dealing with budget cuts and the shifting priorities of the donor community. Civil society leaders identified competition for resources and visibility as a key barrier to effectiveness. Several interviewees identified opportunities and even a necessity to rationalize and/or merge organizations in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Online technology, which can connect directly funders and beneficiaries, or individuals and causes, cutting out the middleman, is perceived as a significant challenge to traditional business models of international civil society organizations. Overall it was felt that, in this period of great uncertainty, resource competition is driving division, just when the sector would benefit from greater cohesion.

2. How can we better demonstrate accountability and impact?

The increased focus of donors and the public on outcomes creates an environment where CSOs are under pressure to measure and communicate impact and results. In the current environment, the diversity of these instruments and approaches are contested and can be an administrative burden. Civil society leaders have expressed concerns about how best to develop a standardized model for measuring outcomes that is equivalent to the business concept of return on investment, while also being adaptable to the hugely diverse activities within the CSO community. Leaders have identified the broader threat of delegitimization, and with heightened scrutiny of methods, representativeness and results, there is also a need to demonstrate effectiveness and progressiveness through greater transparency and accountability.

3. How do we stay relevant in and capitalize on a hyperconnected and youth-oriented world?

Civil society organizations are attempting to find their footing in an increasingly networked global context where younger generations are educated, civically aware and have high expectations. The millennial generation’s technology-enabled power to influence is growing in rapid and interconnected ways. In a period that has seen social movements drive momentous change, organized civil society is asking, “where were we?” and looking to build links to translate spontaneous activity into long-term change.

4. How do we collectively engage to make an impact in global governance processes?

Reflecting on global processes such as the G20, Rio+20 summit and ongoing climate negotiations, civil society leaders are looking for ways to deliver greater impact and better outcomes in global governance architecture. On the one hand, there is the challenge of being heard in the corridors of power and of being recognized as an equal stakeholder – but civil society leaders also recognize the challenge of coordinating to achieve results, and have expressed frustration that while institutions such as the United Nations open their doors to civil society, it can be difficult for diverse civil society to effectively engage.

5. How do we adapt to shifting roles among stakeholders so as to maximize the value that civil society actors bring to solving societal challenges?

Civil society leaders are keen to understand and adapt to the shifting landscape – emerging roles, challenging trends and new strategic concerns – in order that they and others are as effective as possible in solving societal challenges.

New social movements may undermine the need for and importance of organized civil society. As people connect and mobilize spontaneously, key actors (citizens, policy-makers, business) may question why we need institutionalized NGOs.

This post originally appeared in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 report  ‘The Future Role of Civil Society‘.

Author: Silvia Magnoni is Head of Civil Society Communities at the World Economic Forum

Image: Syrian boys walk shoulder to shoulder in the rain at the Boynuyogun refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province February 8, 2012. REUTERS/Murad Sezer