The Smart CSOs Lab proposes a radical reconsideration of NGO practices in order to stimulate a system shift towards a more just and sustainable world. This is quite a challenge for NGOs, busy with daily policy business, trapped in topical silos and steered by the aspiration of short term wins, when the inclusion of our momentary buzz words in an official policy paper becomes the success story of the year.
Getting out of the business as usual and starting to pull the “key leverage points” such as systems thinking, cultural transformation and building a global movement is a major strategic shift for most CSOs. At CONCORD, the European Development NGO Confederation, the DEEEP4 Project was recently set up as an action experiment to try out some of the Smart CSOs thinking in practice, and hopefully to scale up its experience in the wider confederation.
DEEEP is an EC-funded, project-based support mechanism created by the confederation’s development education working group (the DARE Forum) 10 years ago. When DEEEP entered its fourth project phase, running from 2013 to 2015, many elements of Smart CSOs thinking where already considered during the drafting process, and more concretely implemented in the first months of the project, when the team and strategic orientation was set up. With our team of six and a range of stakeholders from CONCORD, we introduced Smart CSOs thinking in a two-days “DEEEP retreat”, the project’s official kick-off.
As result, the project’s stakeholders resolutely positioned DEEEP as a tool for social transformation: DEEEP’s vision is “systemic change through engaged global citizens”, and its mission “a renewed civil society based on values and citizen participation” - an ambition which goes far beyond previous project phases and the objectives of most development NGOs. The participatory vision process led to broad ownership of this radical repositioning of DEEEP, from a support mechanism for one CONCORD working group to a confederation-wide recognized tool to bring upon meaningful transformation within civil society and ultimately in the economic and political system. All work areas of DEEEP have integrated this transformative ambition in their respective strategies (for example to develop a “new advocacy”, to explore system change approaches through the research portfolio or to implement a resolutely emancipatory practice in the capacity development field).
The implementation of this vision results in activities which go far beyond a traditional charity approach to development education (reinforcing public support for development aid), and privileges actions with a more system oriented, cross-sectoral and long term citizen engagement with social change. For example, DEEEP facilitated the participation of CONCORD in the first ever European Citizens Summit, which united 230 participants from all sectors of civil society to explore a new vision and narrative for Europe, based on shared values such as solidarity and justice – a quite unusual business for a confederation whose main scope remains institutional policy work. A global conference in Johannesburg in November will explore ways to “Building a global citizens movement”.
Beyond the level of concrete activities, the positioning of DEEEP as a “transformational action experiment” results in a strong value base, which is shared by the team and the management, and which is the base line for all activities and decisions, also beyond the core business of development education. For example, ambitious internal “green policies” are being developed, and the HR policies follow a logic of empowerment rather then traditional line management. Instead of solely contracting a final project evaluation, a “critical friend” will accompany the project permanently to facilitate an emancipatory learning process. Regular team meetings and retreats allow staff to co-shape the projects development, and by applying a systems thinking approach, we try to critically assess all organizational practices and implement innovative and sustainable solutions regarding procurement, climate impact, staff policies, fundraising etc. The project tries to continuously cultivate seeds of new CSO practice through streamlined reflection and learning loops, which are rooted in the values and vision of truly emancipatory change.
Maybe the most positive experience of setting up DEEEP as transformatory action experiment is that interest and feedback from internal and external stakeholders is overwhelmingly positive: It seems that people are eager to see that things can be done differently by thinking bold on the vision and learning humbly at the same time. We would be happy to share our learning and learn from you, so please get in touch!