Our research

Based primarily on market sector research and findings, we concluded from the literature review, which was that these works would not fully enable us to answer pertinent questions concerning the nature and extent of intra-organisational conflict on ICSOs given the substantial distinctions of mission, vision and organisational character.

The literature gap

We recognize that any collection of people working collectively toward common goals will encounter internal conflict.  As such, there are common forms of conflict encountered in all collective action, whether business sector, government or civil society.  Although there is substantial research on inter-organizational conflict, there are far fewer studies exploring intraorganizational conflict and collaboration (Dean 2010: 2).

As a general statement, collections of working humans will necessarily have similar features, including in organisational conflict.  However, we are aware of the substantial distinctions between ICSOs working in development and other organizations of the business or government sector, for example in therms of the logics they rely on: capital accumulation in the former and regulation of the public sphere in the latter (Alford and Friedland, 1993).  With respect to intra-organisational conflict, the literature did not adequately explain such differences.  Additionally, the dearth of literature on conflict in the ICSOs did not provide a coherent picture of conflict in the sector.  Consequently, we decided that to ascertain the landscape of conflict in civil society organizations, it was preferable to make a direct assessment rather than mechanically applying the literature or research on organisational conflict in the business sector.  We recognize, however, that other organisations, perhaps such as in the public provision of social services of education or health, may have similarities with civil society organizations.

The gap in literature concerning for organisational conflict and ICSO’s raised a number of questions in the researchers minds as follows:

  1. What is the nature of intra-organisational Conflict in ICSOs?
  2. What is the ability of ICSOs to respond to moderate to severe Conflict?
  3. What are the effects of Conflict on ICSOs?
  4. What is the ability of or limits on ICSOs to gain a benefit or upside of Conflict?
  5. Whether and to what extent ICSOs used Conflict Management Systems
  6. Are there other benefits realized from a more thoughtful approach to conflict?

In efforts to respond to these questions, we conducted a survey of ICSOs in an effort to assess the character, extent, and effects of intra-organisational conflict.  Our expressed goal was to  explore the landscape of intra organisational conflict in those organisations working internationally as members of the broader civil society.

The ICSO population and the survey

The literature about ICSOs is plagued with inconsistencies in defining the organisational field, a problem exacerbated by the arrival, in the nineteen nineties of the concept of civil society to which this community belong (Fowler, 2011).  The mix up of labels – as analytic categories – is compounded by inconsistency in legal definitions across multiple jurisdictions which further complicates a robust enumeration (Bloodgood, Tremblay-Boire and Prakash, 2014).  The approach to defing the survey population was necessarily pragmatic.  It relied on self-definition of ICSOs based on their membership of a national umbrella organsiation recognized for its (national) function in the international aid system.  In other words, no attempt was made to define a statistically relevant sample population from which firm extrapolations could be made.  Rather, comparisons of the distribution of respondents’ organisational data against secondary literatures on scale of operation and employees, distributions of financial resources (e.g., Tomlinson, 2013; DI, 2014) was used to assess the degree to which the sample was a reasonable representation, explained below.

Several umbrella organisations assisted our efforts in distributing an online survey ICSO members.  Access to respondents was sought by invitations to participate distributed through ICSO umbrella organisations in Australia, Canada, the European Union and the United States of America.  The online survey used the Typeform survey tool and contained thirty six questions, both qualitative and quantitative.

Over 100 ICSO respondents located in 23 countries provided survey information (to which we refer in this paper collectively as “Respondents”).  Two-thirds of the Respondents were from the perspective of a head office, 15 came from country or affiliate offices, 23 from observers and five which were indeterminate.  Of the 47 Respondents providing job titles, four are board members; 25 are senior management including CEOs, Vice Presidents and Directors; nine are managers; with nine as programme staff and other categories.  The bulk of respondents are in functions with an overall view of the topic. Their data was reviewed manually and an IT consultant assisted in providing visual graphic and aggregate summaries.

Recognizing the topic of intra-organisational conflict may be quite sensitive within an organisation, the survey was designed to permit respondent anonymity.  This came with a cost, in that this feature limits an ability to arrive at a definitive profile of all respondents or their organisations.  Nonetheless, The multiple types of information requested, ICSO literature (e.g., Ronalds, 2010; Green, 2015) together with inputs from knowledgeable observers creates a reasonable landscape from which, for example, to view ways ahead in terms of improving effectiveness discussed in Section six.

Table 1.  ICSO – number of countries of on-the-ground presenceTable1

The ICSO community is characterised by a diversity of organisational arrangements that span centralisation to different degrees of relative autonomy within a ‘family’ tied to a common brand (Lindenberg and Bryant, 2001).  The profile of organisational arrangements of respondents is shown in Table 2.

Table 2.  Type of ICSO

Table 3.  ICSO Primary Mission Table3Although Recognizing that this topic needs substantial additional research we conclude, from a review of Tables 1, 2 and 3, that the Respondents represented a diverse selection of ICSOs in size, structure and and mission from which inferences could be drawn concerning the larger population.

Interviews and advisory group

After reviewing Survey responses, we probed issues in greater detail through interviews.  The three researchers conducted nine interviews of selected and qualified ICSO members.  The interviews were almost fully confirmatory of survey data, but allowed inquiry into greater detail by the researchers.  To investigate further, the researchers invited five experienced past and present ICSO staff and a conflict resolution practictioner familiar with the sector to advise us through an informal advisory group.  Through surveys and conference calls we worked to harvest the thoughts and ideas these experience ICSO members on the research topics.  Where we note in this paper comments of the advisory group do not suggest that we found, nor sought consensus.  Rather we wanted to find informed input from advisory group members both as a group and individually.


We recognize much more needs to be done on this issue, including additional research and the undertaking of pilot initiatives to reduce destructive conflict well finding the upside of conflict.. Our survey had only 100+ respondents and more than half were from the United States based organisations.  The assistance of umbrella organisations was very useful for the distribution of the  online survey.However, we had very little control over who would receive the survey. Our research was aware of, but did not probe, what may be significant differences between the views in headquarters versus national offices.  We are also aware that, although important, it is very difficult to accurately assign a cost to the presence of intraorganisational conflict. Yet we recognize that morale problems, reductions in efficiency and employee turnover are present.  We see this effort as a beginning not an end to the exploration of the nature an effect of intra organisational conflict on ICSOs and its role in their effectiveness.