Civil society plays a critical role in driving action to address the climate emergency. Yet the sector is facing complex challenges, including increased scrutiny and shifting regulatory goal-posts. We find ourselves squeezed for time, resources and the space we need to have systemic impact. This risks our resilience as individuals, organisations and as a sector, and therefore jeopardises our ability to play our role in climate mitigation, adaptation, justice and resilience.

In this thought provoker, we explore what is challenging the resilience of climate action civil society, particularly in India, and what might strengthen it, building on the excellent work already being done.

Authors: Vincy Abraham, Purpose; Anna Biswas, Forum for the Future; Abhayraj Naik, Initiative for Climate Action; Divya Sharma, Climate Group; Suchismita Mukhopadhyay, Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure and (formerly) WWF-India

The shrinking of the civil society space is being felt acutely in India, despite the country being on the frontline of climate change and facing many other challenges. The pandemic has hit the sector hard, and yet also reaffirmed the essential role that we can play. Civil society organisations (CSOs) are often the connect between actors that ensures that policy is meaningful. We are an engine of learning and ambition, attempting to guide and hold market forces to account, and often we are the drivers and enablers of action on the ground. Without the roles we play, it is hard to imagine achieving our climate goals at a national or regional level. Yet very few climate-related civil society organisations have the time or structured support required to think through current and future operations and impacts, and even fewer have time to do this as a collective for the sector.

In 2021, 25 CSOs1 focusing on climate action in India came together to understand what is needed to boost our resilience as a sector at this moment and in the face of what is to come. We recognised the excellent work and inherent strengths within the sector that enable us to navigate policy shifts and organisational challenges already, from informal WhatsApp groups to networks to formal incubators for instance, and considered what is needed beyond these. It’s important to recognise that we’re certainly not starting from zero when it comes to characteristics and practices that enable resilience in our sector. Indeed, we have withstood a great many storms already. What we considered builds on these strong foundations, recognising that our context will likely shift and we need to be even more prepared.  

What came together was a vision of a resilient climate civil society that had built on efforts thus far by focusing on seven critical shifts - or changes in behaviour or practices. These directly respond to seven evolving dynamics - compounding or interacting behaviours and practices that challenge our resilience in the opinion of the group. These are not exhaustive, but were felt to be such significant threats to our organisations, sector and our impact, that they require urgent action.

Shift One: We diversify leadership within organisations and the sector - Leadership and influence currently tends to be concentrated in the hands of only a few, within both organisations and the sector, for various cultural and historical reasons. This affects the resilience of the sector by depleting diversity and polyvocality, potentially diverting funding and resources from unchampioned agendas, and potentially risking the fall of important agendas when one person goes out of favour or retires from the space.  


“My greatest concern and hope are from the same trend, that resilience and impact is heavily dependent on passion and drive of individuals; no matter how passionate we are, we cannot tackle systemic challenges individually”

Shift Two: We ensure we are programming for even greater systemic impact - The projectification of climate action is currently driving CSOs into survival mode. The lack of long term dependable sources of funding takes attention away from delivering systems level impact to fundraising for survival. A general trend in consolidating funds into large programmes, and the restrictions on sub and re-granting mean the smaller organisations are being hit the hardest. It is tempting to shape projects that tick funder boxes, even when it is clear they will be less impactful. The group has found that COVID has exacerbated this further.


“Smaller, more niche organisations find it difficult to raise money for core support; most climate philanthropies are trying to consolidate funds with an aim to support large, complex programmes – large organisations have the systems and the capacity to run such programmes but small organisations find it difficult to prove their worth”

Shift Three: We truly value and nurture human capacity - A number of factors, including but not limited to funding models, lead to an underinvestment in and the depletion of human capacity. This refers both to skills and knowledge, and wellbeing and personal resilience. The pandemic has put extra strain on individuals already constantly barraged by worsening predictions from climate science and the complexity of creating impact.

“Some government officials and decision makers think that people who work at nonprofits are in it for the greater good, and are happy to sacrifice their income; hence there is a perception that CSOs do not need a lot of money, which results in very little money allotted to CSOs for their time”

 Shift Four: We proactively increase collaborative impact - Many of the CSOs told stories of where collaboration has been undervalued or not incentivised, and this led to unhealthy competition for resource and funds between organisations and initiatives. We are hearing a growing appreciation that collaboration is worth funding and doing, but the general trend is yet to turn. 

 “All funders believe that collaborations work, yet very few of them fund truly collaborative platforms; there is a (wrongly placed) belief that CSOs have enough resources to fund their own time in running and participating in such collaborations”

Shift Five: We shape and support impactful narratives collectively - We often hold a reactionary stance and tend to respond to, rather than shape climate action narratives. The debate around net zero targets for India was a good example of where we could have been more impactful with a shared narrative.

 “The climate action civil society needs more independent, blue sky thought leadership in addition to being hyper-responsive to big ticket announcements such as Net Zero and INDCs”

Shift Six: We earn and demonstrate trust and legitimacy -  Many of us have experienced an eroding of societal trust in CSOs which, especially when combined with hampered trust between us, challenges the legitimacy of our sector and therefore our resilience and impact.

 “We speak in our own echo chambers, often disconnected from what is happening on ground, failing to represent the ones that need most voice”

Shift Seven: We enable information and knowledge to flow - Currently the way that knowledge is held and information flows within and from the sector is not facilitating opportunities to drive collective impact as well as it could. Failures for instance are rarely shared, and useful learning even less so, which means we find ourselves repeating the mistakes others have made before us rather than building upon each other’s work. 

“There are many opportunities for us to share success stories and best practices, but we are very hesitant to share our failures and what we learnt from them. In my opinion, one learns a lot more from them.”

As the group of climate CSOs discussed these dynamics, diving into what drives them, how they may shift in the future and how they may be addressed, the dialogue reinforced the importance of and motivation for making these shifts. We experienced the will to collaborate, and worked to tackle the forces that hinder collaboration on a micro scale. Such value is held in the different perspectives we hold as diverse organisations coming together, and the powerful narratives and learning these discussions can create. We believe that by collectively working to make these shifts, we would build our sectoral, organisational and personal resilience, making us dramatically more impactful. 

"Courageous and transformative climate action is needed now in India to counter extreme climate vulnerability and to move us towards a decarbonised future. A resilient sector of climate civil society organisations is key to holding the government and big business accountable, to creating meaningful visions and inclusive processes of just transitions, and to supporting the most vulnerable communities and threatened more-than-human lifeworlds."  Abhayraj Naik, Initiative for Climate Action

These seven shifts are a call to action towards a powerful vision of resilience and climate impact. The group is evolving into a community experimenting towards these shifts through sharing views, collaborating at key moments, and facilitating information flows. It is a fledgling community, organic in nature, and we welcome others to join us. We will be looking out for opportunities to come together, to contribute to collective voice and action.

If these shifts resonate with you or your organisation, or you have additions or challenges, please reach out to Hansika Singh at [email protected] for details on how to get involved.


Authors: Vincy Abraham, Purpose; Anna Biswas (nee Warrington), Forum for the Future; Abhayraj Naik, Initiative for Climate Action; Divya Sharma, Climate Group


Cohort participants include practitioners from the following organisations - Ashoka Trust For Research In Ecology And The Environment (ATREE); CDP- India; Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA); Centre for Responsible Business (CRB); Climate Group; Climate Policy Initiative (CPI); Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW); Centre for Policy Research (CPR); Development Alternatives (DA); EcoFriends Community & Ashoka; Foundation for Ecological Security (FES); Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis  (IEEFA); Initiative for Climate Action (ICA); Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC); International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD); LEAD at Krea University; Purpose; The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI); The Nature Conservancy (TNC); Vasudha Foundation; World Resources Institute (WRI); World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)