The Smart CSOs Lab is an international network of civil society leaders, researchers, and funders aiming to develop and put into practice strategies that embrace the cultural and systemic root causes lying behind the social and environmental crises of our times.

We believe civil society organisations (CSOs) have a crucial role to play in catalysing transformative social and economic change, yet new ideas and strategies are needed to address the challenges we face. The current focus on single issues and short-term goals means that while we may win many battles, we are losing the war.


Civil society organisations are a key actor with great potential for catalysing systemic change away from the current order. However, most activism is not yet promoting such deeper systemic shifts, nor is it embracing the complexity of systemic change in its strategies. Most campaigns work to alleviate symptoms of the problem, concentrating resources on technical fixes for single issues, rather than tackling root causes.

But the ecological crisis cannot be resolved by technological solutions alone. Development cooperation aimed at economic development often reproduces production and consumption patterns of the global North that are incompatible with the existence of planetary boundaries. Resolving inequality and tackling the ecological crisis under the current rules of globalisation and the growth-fixated economic system seems to be an impossible task.

The purpose of the Smart CSOs Lab is to catalyse new civil society strategies aimed at the Great Transition to a new political-economic system. This is based on the assumption that issues like climate change, mass extinction of species, inequality (including gender inequality) and mass migration are strongly rooted in the failing economic system and its governance.

Consequently, the Smart CSOs Lab is guided by the normative (albeit flexible) framework of the Great TransitionWe interpret our work always as a search process to a new political-economic system at the root of many of today's crises. We believe that it is important to put our focus on this task. It requires all our energy and has the potential to create enormous leverage.

Mission & Objectives

The mission of the Smart CSOs Lab is to foster a growing learning network of activists/CSO leaders, funders and researchers aiming to build effective civil society strategies for the Great Transition.

The Smart CSOs Lab pursues its mission through the following objectives:

  • To challenge current practice and thinking in civil society and activism.
  • To build leadership and create strategically important knowledge on how activism can more effectively influence social and political systems towards the Great Transition.
  • To connect a growing number of CSO leaders and activists internationally and help them to learn effectively about system change strategies for the Great Transition.
  • To support CSO leaders and activists to develop more effective strategies for the Great Transition.
  • To develop capacity in activists and organisations in systems thinking, effective framing and other tools to enable them to overcome current issue silos and symptoms focus, as well help them to embrace the complexity of systemic change in their strategies.



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You are involved in social change efforts and looking for a new direction? You have read the Re.imagining Activism guide and are inspired by the content? You are wondering how to apply the knowledge and ideas to your work?


Maybe you think that it is important to inspire colleagues and you want to get them involved in the movement? Or you would like to try out some new methods for applying these ideas to your campaigns and strategies? Or you think the time is ripe to start a change process for your organisation to become better equipped for systemic change?


This toolkit provides tools and advice for trainers and multipliers to introduce Smart CSOs content to new audiences and to run workshops and retreats aimed at integrating systemic change strategies in our organisational practice.

The toolkit consists of two parts – available free and online here!

Introductory Modules: an introductory 2 – 2.5h training session for audiences new to or slightly familiar with ideas from the Great Transition and Re.imagining Activism

Workshop modules:  focused sessions to explore the material in more depth and adapt it to specific work contexts

Plus an introductory section which explains how to use the toolkit.


How to use this toolkit Introductory Modules Workshop Modules




Main author: Sonia Fèvre / Design: Ina Lohner                              

FDF Siege Quadri

 The development of this toolkit was kindly funded by



The Toolkit consists of:


The Introductory Modules – a 1.5 – 2h training session for audiences we would like to introduce to and engage with the Smart CSOs thinking and the content of Re.imagining Activism.

Workshop Modules – in-depth, focuses sessions which allow opportunities to explore the material in more depth and adapt it to specific work contexts.

The toolkit builds closely on the Re.imagining Activism guide to allow coherence and continuity between the formats, and to allow trainers to draw on content of the Guide to support their training. 


Introductory Modules

Following demand from the Smart CSOs network, the Introductory Modules are intended as a guide for civil society thinkers, activists, and change agents who are introducing ideas around the Great Transition and system change strategies to fairly new, albeit “warm”, audiences. 

The modules therefore sets out a series of topics, presentation materials and points for discussion to interest, inspire and inform new audiences. It provides content for a 2 – 2.5 hour session which can be delivered using presentation-based and participatory formats. Some of the elements of the session may be more time-consuming than others, and are therefore suggested as optional.

The purpose of these introductory modules are to provide a clear flow and logic to trainers so that they feel confident to communicate the information in the Guide, whilst also encouraging audiences to reflect and question their own beliefs and approaches.

The first half is more exploratory and participatory. The purpose is to invite participants to reflect, challenge themselves and explore their own vision of transformative social change. The second half is more presentation-based as it is presenting the research and suggestions developed by the Network on specific strategies and ways of thinking differently. Further workshop sessions are available to build on this initial introductory session.


Workshop modules

Workshop modules are specific sessions allowing trainers to run either one intensive workshop or multiple, separate session on specific topics of the Guide. They are best adapted for audiences already familiar with ideas from the Guide, either because they have already attended a Primer session, or because they have read the Guide and been involved in discussions about it.

Modules may be added over time to respond to the evolving needs of the Smart CSOs community.


General format of toolkit

The Introductory modules and the Workshop modules follow the following formatting conventions:


 content  aim 2  messages  time


shows the sequence of sections and approximate times


overall aims of the training session


summary of main points from each section


expected time required to deliver the session

 outline 2 sections   concept 2  resources


step-by-step guidelines for delivering training on this topic


sub-topics within the overall theme of this session 


summary of the key bullet points from the Re.imagining Activism guide.

without referring to all the information in the guide, this summary should be sufficient for

you to deliver a basic training on these topics.


additional references


Italics are used when examples of wording are provided which facilitators can use to explain the topic.

Note, however, that at all times we encourage trainers to personalise and adopt the material so that it can be delivered in an authentic and meaningful way.  



This toolkit gives only limited guidance on how to effectively facilitate groups, as we wanted to focus on the content, and instead share other existing resources with you that may help you reflect on your facilitation style and experiment with different approaches: // A short Facilitating Workshop // Resources about Facilitation



Here are a few pointers related to communication styles, and for more information, we direct you to the resources above!

As a trainer, it is valuable to be aware of your own strengths and preferences as a communicator. This will allow you to shine and to feel confident in the way you communicate and interact with audiences.

Our strengths as communicators are closely linked to our own learning styles. There are various models of learning styles, one of our favourites is the VARK model of the following styles, describing four styles of learning that different people tend to lean towards:

  • Visual learning

  • Auditory learning

  • Reading/writing learning

  • Kinesthetic learning

You can do a quick assessment to find out your learning styles here.

It is also important to think about the preferences and learning styles of your audience. Generally, an audience will include people with different learning styles. Our training materials have tried to provide for different learning styles, but you may want to adapt them to best suit your own communication preferences and those of your audience.

individual story 3Part of being an authentic and persuasive leader and speaker, is understanding yourself and why you are engaged in social change. Why are you engaged in these efforts? What drives you? What type of success is meaningful to you? To help you build your own understanding of these questions and to communicate them to your audience, you may want to work through the workshop toolkit from and work on your own Story of Self – see ↘ Story of Self tool



In your training, aim to be dynamic, open and flexible in order to adapt to the group’s needs. Aim to create a safe space where different opinions, experiences and feelings can be shared and listened to.

When planning a training session, workshop, or simple presentation, consider logistical and social aspects like:

  • What kind of power dynamics exist within group?

  • Where is the audience in their learning journey? How do they see themselves having an impact, what are their current tools and mental models and how can you relate to that?

  • Whom to invite and how to make them feel welcome?

  • How the layout of the room will influence the ability of the group to see each other and communicate together?

  • How diverse is your group and how will this impact on the types of opinions, approaches and needs of the participants?

  • What materials are needed? (eg. flipchart, projector, markers, board, speakers, etc.)

  • Do the participants need to do any preparation prior to the training? (eg. read materials, watch a video, etc.)

  • How can the group continue their learning after the session and how they can be connected?


Some learnings from our pilot Training of Trainer workshops:

In May 2016, we organised a pilot Training of Trainer workshop in Brussels to test this toolkit. Here are some of our lessons learned:

 image 6 image 4  image 5  image 2 

Images, visual presentations and interactive exercises help engage the audience and improve their learning.

Different audiences have different “languages” – jargon, expressions, and ways of thinking – aim to speak their language to bridge understanding.

Having a plan is important, even crucial, but it is equally important to “read” the mood of the group and sometimes, just to go with the flow, eg. if an important discussion arises, let it take its course.

In group learning context, people often need a combination of personal reflection as well as small group exchange and shared group learning.

info 2 Setting the Scene The Challenge The Vision The Model The Strategies


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  • Allow participants to explore their own intuitive responses to campaigning.
  • Explore why activism needs re.imagination and what a vision of new activism could look like.

  • Illustrate simply yet persuasively how mainstream activism avoids tackling the deeper, more systemic issues which need to be addressed by activists and civil society.

  • Provide an understanding of the underlying system logic, which lies behind today's global crises and what alternative vision for systemic change could tackle these.

  • Illustrate how framing shapes our thoughts and the way we structure ideas, and invite audiences to imagine alternative, more effective framing for social change challenges through a case study example.

  • Illustrate how important leverage points are for achieving system-level change.

  • Explain how civil society actors can adopt different complimentary roles of systemic activism to strategically contribute to the Great Transition.




  • The challenges our society faces are global and systemic, and our current change strategies are not tackling these deeper, systemic issues.

  • To successfully deal with today's systemic crises we need a collective societal search process to develop and put into practice alternatives to the current cultural and economic paradigm of growth and marketisation.

  • For a successful Great Transition we need to make change efforts at all three levels of the system (culture, regimes, niches) that reinforce one another to create positive feedback loops. Our strategic question should always be: What effect could my actions have on all of the levels and what feedback loops could it catalyse? (p37)

  • The way we use language and structure thoughts influences the way we think: we have the power to re-frame current debates to be more systemic and meaningful.

  • In order to exert influence it is important that we focus on effective leverage points within the system.

  • The Great Transition requires diverse but complementary strategies and roles – they focus on supporting the seeds of the new system, movement building, fighting the power of the old system and helping shift entrenched narratives.




The material in these introductory modules can be delivered within 2 – 2.5 hours.
Should you wish to go into more depth in each section, it could take up to 3 hours.


info 1 Setting the Scene The Challenge The Vision The Model The Strategies



time15 - 20 mins




Welcome your guests and share your intentions and motivations for bringing them here today.

individual storyIntroduce yourself: briefly share your own story about why you are and why these ideas resonate with you (see worksheets on how to build your Story of Self).

Introduce the Smart CSOs Lab and the Guide and explain that the ideas presented here are part of a body of thinking being developed by a network of activists and change agents across Europe (and beyond), who are looking to embed a more systemic and transformative vision into their efforts for social change.



Depending on the size and nature of the group and the time available:

invite participants to introduce themselves to their neighbour,

or invite them to introduce themselves to the whole group,

and/or ask them to share why they were interested in attending this session, or what they would like to reflect on or improve in their approaches to change.



Outline the aims of the introductory modules ( see here)

As a reason for why it is important to question our current strategies for social change, you might want to refer to this explanation from the Guide:

Most indicators measuring the health of the planet show a negative trend: Climate change, biodiversity loss, acidification of the oceans and shrinking freshwater resources are all serious threats to life on earth. Global inequality has been on the rise for decades. Civil society has won many victories but we are losing the planet. A serious strategic reflection is required. (p4)


resourceIf you wish to support your session with PowerPoint slides, you can refer to these slides here.

You can also discuss how these sessions can fit into a wider reflection and action process on how to re-design our working practices and make our efforts at social change more meaningful and effective.

You may want to invite questions before starting to ensure that everybody feels comfortable with the agenda.