A sign for optimism: How the Great Transition is slowly prospering within and transforming Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands)

Since the early days when we discussed setting up the Smart CSOs Lab, the million-dollar-question has been: Is there any realistic chance that established professional NGOs adopt the key Smart CSOs insights and become effective change agents for the Great Transition? Or are these organisations too much stuck in the system and are our efforts to change them doomed to fail?

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Forget about controlling or shaping transformative change! – An interview with Johannes Krause

CSOs are very good at managing projects: planning, managing, evaluating. But are these competences useful when it comes to the need to support systemic change? Can transformation be defined, planned and controlled just like most projects NGOs usually deal with?

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A personal note: Why I'm not obsessed about banning ads

This little personal note of mine might create some controversy amongst our readers. And if it does, I would welcome a discussion as it might help sharpen our minds on some important questions.

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Project Doughnut: How Tearfund’s advocacy department has started a journey from single issue lobbying towards systemic change

As we have experienced in the Smart CSOs community over the last two years, changing an organisation to work on system change is far from an easy task. Most civil society organisations are deeply entrenched in the current system.

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System change, systemic change, paradigm shift, Great Transition, Great Transformation, the big shift… Are we talking about the same thing?

Recently, Forum for the Future launched its report, Creating the big shift – system innovation for sustainability. The report explains in a nicely didactic way the six-steps approach that Forum for the Future developed and uses in its system innovation work, and it reminds us of the useful insights we can draw from the systems thinking work from Peter Senge, Donnella Meadows and others. We should use their tools and methods to get more systemic in our work. For the Smart CSOs Lab’s ambition to improve our theories of change, this report is a good resource to look at.

However, the report also made me quite nervous, as it reminded me that we often mean very different things when we talk about system change and the report talks a lot about system change.

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When we set up the Smart CSOs Lab two years ago, the aim was always to inspire as many change agents as possible in civil society to start experimenting with strategies aimed at system change and the Great Transition. Immediately we realised that capacity building had to be part of the portfolio of our work if we wanted to transform organisations and their strategies. It was great that since the beginning we had very enthusiastic and committed change agents in the Smart CSOs community and many of them at executive level. But organisational change has to be supported and driven by people working in the organisation at all levels, even more so in CSOs that have a history of participative decision making and are reluctant to accept heavy top-down decision making. The leadership at director’s level can be a crucial factor but it has to be supported much more widely.

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DEEEP4 – Advancing towards system change in the development sector

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.

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