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The Future for Northern Development Organisations: become a Starfish organisation?

This is a translated version of an article written for a Dutch development magazine.

The future for Northern Development Organizations: become a Starfish Organization?
Northern Development Organizations are challenged to find their place in the sector. An innovative business model, the Starfish organization, which is used by Skype, Alcoholics Anonymous, Al Qaeda, and Constellation is an inspiration for the future. It's time to let go of control and close head quarters!

"What I appreciate in you is your integrity. You will not sell the soul of your team for donor funds”, shares Gaston with Judith. The whole team came together in Kinshasa to assess two months of collaboration by "watering the flowers. This exercise consists of identifying the qualities we see in every team member. "And what I appreciate in you is that we can work on an equal basis in everything we do," says Judith.

Gaston Schmitz works for Constellation, a Belgian NGO active in over 20 countries with the objective of
mobilizing communities to respond to HIV, malaria and to develop resilience to other challenges. He
works closely with RDCCompétence, a member organization of the Constellation in DR Congo with Judith Dialundua as chair. The Constellation and RDCCompétence recently signed a contract with the National Multi-sectoral AIDS Program (PNMLS) in Congo to mobilize communities to take action against HIV in all 11 provinces of the country with 70 million inhabitants.

The Constellation and RDCCompétence and share the same values and approach. They have seen how the facilitation of local action against HIV / AIDS constitutes an alternative to externally imposed solutions. However, the problem is that communities often underestimate their own abilities and become dependent. Coaches of the Constellation and RDCCompétence bring the –often dormant- capacity of communities to the surface. Coaches pose appreciating questions, listen and learn. Through a structured process, local communities start taking responsibility for addressing the issue. And then the HIV response gets a new face: strong communities who take charge, seek solutions themselves and are proud to share their progress with the world.

How does this work in practice? The Constellation has already trained teams in this approach in 26 countries, including in DR Congo. In 2006, a group of young people in DR Congo started to facilitate the approach
across the country, with support from the Belgian Technical Cooperation. After the project, RDCCompetence continued activities through donations from members. "We believe in this approach because we see its results in our communities," said Judith. Today RDCCompetence is registered as a national NGO working with Cordaid, local NGOs, the national army and various UN organizations.

Not only the approach is innovative, but also the delivery model. Gaston and Judith work together on a completely equal basis: responsibilities and power are shared. This is thanks to an innovative business model: Starfish organization, inspired by a best-seller in the business world.

"Starfish have a miraculous quality to them. Cut off the leg of a spider, and you have a seven-legged creature on your hands; cut off its head and you have a dead spider. But cut off the arm of a starfish and it will grow a new one. Not only that, but the severed arm can grow an entirely new body. Starfish can achieve this feat because, unlike spiders, they are decentralized; every major organ is replicated across each arm." The Starfish and the Spider', Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom (2008).

Skype, Apache Indians, Al Qaeda and Alcoholics Anonymous are all fully decentralized Starfish organizations and therefore their ideas can spread much wider and faster than traditional Spider organizations. In a Starfish organization, structure follows function. There is neither a clear leader giving commands, nor hierarchy, nor headquarters. Everyone is entitled to make his or her own decisions. Table 1 shows the different characteristics
of a Starfish and Spider Organization.

How would this apply to today's development sector and decentralization strategies of NGOs such as ICCO and Cordaid? Well, Northern Development NGOs would no longer have a headquarters. As described in Cordaid's new vision of "Communities of Change 'power and responsibility are shared. There would be no vertical accountability. Rather they could nourish the spread of ideas and values bringing together a movement of equal entities or partners. These NGO’s would be one arm of the starfish, equal to the others,but with a global scope, while their partners are focusing on local or regional activities. Each entity would be responsible to secure its own funding.

Since its foundation in 2004, the Constellation is growing as a Starfish. Teams around the world create and evolve independently, but they perform the same functions, share the same values and use the same approach. The various arms of the Constellation Starfish grow at an impressive pace in Belgium, Cambodia, DR Congo, Indonesia, India, Kenya, Mali, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone and Thailand. Each country has its own team, makes own decisions and ensures its own financial security. The global and local arms have no donor-recipient relationship. The global arm may die without much harming the entire Starfish.

How does this relate to upcoming budget cuts in the development sector? Well, a starfish model requires a dramatic reduction in the budget of the global arm. To illustrate, the approach of the Constellation and its member organizations every year spreads, though administrative costs of the global arm - the Constellation Support Team – remains on the same level of around 6%. The goal is not to grow the global arm, but to encourage the spread of the approach through its local arms.

What is the purpose of the entity that focuses on the global processes? In the Constellation’s experience
there are certain functions that need to be fulfilled at global level, whether one or a group of local organizations fulfills them. First, organizations that are part of a same starfish use the same processes to operate. Therefore, one function is to ensure that common processes are synthesized and shared. Secondly, it is essential that someone ensures that there are no deviations from the essential values and beliefs that are central to each cell of the starfish. Thirdly,one player can stimulate learning and sharing between cells of the starfish. Finally,
the entity that focuses on the global scope can stimulate the growth of the Starfish in new countries or regions.

Finally, the Internet provides tremendous opportunities for Starfish organizations. At the active online platform ;more than 800 members from 52 countries share how the approach changed their professional and personal lives. Moderation is done by several of the arms. Its members share not just to their achievements, but also their challenges.

The biggest challenge for a Starfish organization? To let go of control!. One must trust in the capacity of both communities and the various arms of the Starfish. They especially need support in the form of facilitation, both to realize their own potential and to learn from others.

More information on the Constellation and her work is available at

To find out if your NGO has Starfish features? See this checklist from the book "The Starfish and the Spider".

SPIDER: There is someone in charge, There are headquarters, If you thump it on the head, it dies, There is a clear division of roles, Departments are fixed and strict, If you take out a unit, the organization is harmed, Knowledge and power are concentrated, The organization is rigid and depends on structure, Units are funded by the organization, You can count the participants, Working groups communicate through intermediaries.

STARFISH There is no one in charge. People give suggestions, not orders There are no headquarters. If you thump it on the head, it survives There’s an amorphous division of roles. Anybody can do anything. If you take out a unit, the organization is unharmed Knowledge and power are distributed The organization is
flexible Units are self-funded. There is no central well of money. You cannot count the participants Working groups communicate with each other directly. No roads lead to Rome, because there isn’t a Rome.

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Comment by Gaston on October 4, 2010 at 1:47am
Thank you Anthony. We recognise as the Constellation that we are also learning on the way and don't have all the answers. But so far, the Starfish principles apply remarkably well to our global growth strategy. We use this way of thinking in many of the strategic choices we need to make.

We are also in regular contact with the authors of the book The Starfish and the Spider Rod Beckstrom even featured us in his newsletter. We'll post more on our concrete experiences later.
Comment by YERUVA ANTHONY REDDY on September 28, 2010 at 6:25am
Wow this is very interesting, inspiring and enlighteing. Yes often we create power structures only to statisfy the egos of people. I liked this concept of STARFISH and I wish the organisations in the development sector learn to become a STARFISH. This approach definetely gives room for every one to be independent and provides every one to be on the same platform.

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