THE BLOG

What FIFA Can Teach NGOs -- And Vice Versa

06/11/2015 03:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016
VALERIANO DI DOMENICO via Getty Images

There's one aspect of all the controversy surrounding FIFA that's keeping me awake at night. It's the fact that FIFA is an NGO. I know that sounds a little sad but I do work for the world's largest alliance of civil society, trying to promote all that's good about NGOs. And then along comes FIFA, and ever-growing allegations about corruption and wrongdoing. But FIFA's NGO status means that its current implosion is throwing up several salient lessons for the rest of us in civil society.

Amidst all the sponsorship deals and the vast sums of money, it's easy to forget that FIFA is actually one of the oldest and biggest NGOs in the world. Back in 1904, when it was founded, world bodies like this were rare and FIFA embodied many of the characteristics of a good civil society organisation. It was a voluntary membership-based body, created to celebrate and unite the sport of football, generating common (voluntary) standards and coordinating a global network in the furtherance of the beautiful game.

But it has morphed into something ugly. And it is the corruption that is alleged to be at the heart of FIFA that should unsettle those of us working in civil society organisations. There are numerous lessons to be salvaged from the wreckage of Captain Blatter's ship. I will touch upon just three here.

First, while civil society has much to gain by teaming up with the private sector and vice versa, beware the dangers of becoming too closely tied to business and profit. When NGOs become too heavily reliant on the income yielded by these partnerships, they can lose sight of their original purpose. When people lament that World Cups aren't really about the football any more but about sponsorship deals, that is also saying that FIFA (an NGO) has become beholden to private sector cash. When this happens, civil society organisations risk losing the fundamental characteristics that set them apart from for-profit companies.

Second, regular changes of leadership are crucial to the civil society sector. Even if we ignore the tidal wave of corruption allegations now engulfing FIFA, the fact that Sepp Blatter had already been at the helm for 17 years when he was re-elected last month was a bad sign. This is something civil society organisations should be good at. After all, we're usually the first to speak up when a political leader clings to power. But it's something that some NGOs struggles with because there are no real pressures for those at the top of these organisations to move on. Transparent transitions of leadership inject a healthy dose of vibrancy, renewed focus and, most importantly, accountability into the heart of an organisation.

Which leads me nicely to my third and final point. When a civil society organisation is no longer fully accountable to its stakeholders -- but to whoever can transfer the most amount of money into someone's bank account -- its mission is undermined. In public institutions, we have fairly clear accountability standards. In business, we worry that accountability mechanisms are too weak to tackle tax avoidance, poor treatment of workers, damage to the environment and so on. But in the civil society sector, the landscape is more confused. At one end of the scale, the unrelenting accountability requirements of donors become almost a tyranny, whilst in other areas, including around leadership transitions, our standards of accountability are often weak.

Given that civil society organisations are regularly accused of being foreign-funded agents and fronts for corruption, transparency and accountability are not a nice-to-have; they are fundamental to our success. At CIVICUS we believe that civil society organisations need to take responsibility for driving the accountability standards of the sector, rather than waiting for donors or governments to step in. That's why we are member of the INGO Accountability Charter, a self-regulation initiative setting out appropriate governance and resource mechanisms that has secured commitments from all the big NGO names.

Well, not quite all. Mr Blatter didn't seem that keen to sign up. But I do hope the new President of FIFA will. It would signal a fresh start for the organisation, a break from its inglorious past, all of that. It would mean that FIFA could benefit from the best practices of the civil society sector. And, of course, it would be a good day for football.

Dr Dhananjayan (Danny) Sriskandarajah is the Secretary-General of CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance. He tweets at @civicusSG.