July 2013

The story of the CONCORD system change pioneers (first act)

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.

In early 2012, the director of CONCORD (European NGO confederation for relief and development), Olivier Consolo, and CONCORD’s current president, Joanna Maycock, got involved in Smart CSOs. With the director and the president on board, it was indeed an ideal constellation to lead activities that could bring the idea of systemic change strategies closer to the CONCORD network and its member organisations. Joanna and Olivier then started a series of activities to build constituency inside CONCORD for a collaboration with Smart CSOs and to sound out the interest of others to embark towards deeper strategic reflections. This started with an evening discussion at a CONCORD board meeting in January 2012 and continued with a strategy meeting with a broader CONCORD leadership group in September 2012. The CONCORD board was immediately inspired as were many in the wider leadership group. This was sufficient positive feedback and prepared the ground to go a step further.

After a series of conversations around January and March 2013, CONCORD decided to go ahead with a small collaborative project together with the Smart CSOs Lab to be carried out between the recent months of April and June over a series of two workshops.

3HIq wSCyy3NcqTYZ6LjDGL OZvwDGClJs0FXvNhHxwWhat was the aim?

The project’s aim was to build capacity in a small group of pioneers and to inspire them to become agents of change within CONCORD and its member organisations and thereby to become multipliers for system change strategies.

CONORD was keen to link the collaboration with its main priority for 2013, which is “a participatory process amongst CONCORD members to build a new coherent political narrative for CONCORD and the sector” (see also http://www.concordeurope.org/call-for-participation-political-narrative). We decided that our collaboration was going to contribute to this process, but instead of interpreting it as a pure communication exercise we emphasised that a change in narrative always had to go along with a change in strategic direction and a focus on ‘living’ the new story or stories (meaning that the story had to be underpinned with a coherent strategic direction and the values communicated had to be authentic). Therefore, the project partners agreed to call the project ‘Rethinking the story CONCORD (lives and tells)’. Accordingly the capacity building had two core elements:

  • Learn about why we need new (systemic) strategies and what type of changes could these be (the Smart CSOs thinking).
  • Learn a storytelling approach that can be used to create stories in the development sector and learn how these stories can be authentic Great Transition stories.

How did we go about this and what did we learn?

Selection of participants: As a first step, we organised a small selection process (online survey) to ensure that participants in the project had the necessary motivation and initial level of awareness of the systemic challenges CSOs are facing in current times. CONCORD announced the call for candidates as widely as possible and we received 51 applications and selected 17 participants, all of them working in the development sector (CONCORD, CONCORD members and academia). This method proved to be quite successful as it showed during the process that the level of energy and motivation were extraordinary and most participants had a real grasp of the strategic conversation we were convening. Nevertheless there was an impression shared by facilitators and participants that such a process would benefit from more cross-sectoral representation from civil society.

Nzv5ozV3Tro1WKeON0D3HCSfQJO fCmn6CqphIyEocQIntroducing the Smart CSOs thinking: The first workshop was of two days duration and was dedicated to providing an inspiration from the Smart CSOs analysis (why do we need systemic change and how can we start changing our strategies?) and to get participants reflect on their own situations and identify possible leverage points for change in their work context. This was heavy stuff and could not be done without some frictions and disorientation in the group. At one point we were asked if we were imposing the vision of the Great Transition on the group and at another there was an anxiety among some participants about the difficulty to start changing strategies when everything was so deeply embedded in the system. Eventually the group agreed that the Great Transition was a good framework to use and started to take ownership of the Smart CSOs leverage points.

Using the Story Wars storytelling approach: The second workshop (one day) was dedicated to developing strategies for Great Transition stories. We used the proven methodology created by globally acclaimed storyteller Jonah Sachs that we had learned at an earlier Smart CSOs workshop facilitated by Jonah Sachs. Overall this method worked very well as it made participants discuss core strategic questions in a playful way and unleashed an amazing amount of creativity when at the end of the day two groups created each a plot for a Great Transition story for a video i.e. theatre play. The only caveat of this exercise was that we didn’t have enough time. For future storytelling workshops we envisage that we would need at least two days.

Providing space for action planning: The project had a more practical angle designed in a way that it was meant to create a clear connection with other ongoing CONCORD activities as well as to inspire participants to start applying what they learn in their organisations. Participants could choose from supporting/facilitating discussions on CONCORD’s online platform Extranet, providing an input to the CONCORD General Assembly or to start actions in their member organisations. Time and space was provided for these discussions. While the discussion were very rich and the ideas creative and realistic at the same time, it is always difficult to make time for these ‘extra’ activities on top of one’s day job. To advance with these actions will require further process and facilitation.

Conclusions and outlook

We brought together a group of people from the European development sector who developed a true sense of being or becoming pioneers for systemic change in their sector. To keep the momentum of this group will require facilitation and leadership from dedicated individuals either in CONCORD or its member organisations.

“The cooperation with Smart CSOs has brought together a group of inspired change makers who will continue shaping CONCORD's Political Narrative project. The project has built capacity on systems thinking and storytelling that will help CONCORD create better stories for our audiences and hopefully inspire citizens, politicians and others to become part of a movement for systemic change.”
― Olivier Consolo, director of CONCORD

For future projects we would envisage to create more diverse groups (from different civil society sectors) and incorporate more time for the storytelling workshop as well as for facilitation in between and after the workshop (action learning).

For many participants it proved difficult to get a real grasp of the new system (e.g. new economic models) from watching a power point presentation. For future project we need to think about incorporating learning journeys that bring them in touch with the actual alternatives.