Flora Kwong

8 August, 2017

Why civil society sector change can only happen by building a shared toolbox

In private sector industries, companies are set up as opaque entities, guarding their competitive advantages to ensure maximised market share and profits. In the civil society sector—despite our common values and not-for-profit goals—our setups are not so different. Our organisations are structured as completely separate entities with few avenues for knowledge sharing and collaboration. In order to change and progress we need to build a shared toolbox to tackle upcoming challenges.

One of the goals of the International Civil Society Centre is to bridge this gap, creating those avenues and platforms to build capacity and to increase efficiency. The necessity for this bridge became much clearer to me after piloting the Centre’s “Learning Abroad” scheme. Under this scheme, Miriam Niehaus and I were selected to spend a few weeks with one or numerous other organisations, taking a deep dive into a topic or theme relevant to the Centre and civil society sector.

During my time abroad, I learnt a great deal about my chosen topic of blockchain, and innovative technologies for the sector. As the Centre is a horizon-scanning organisation for disruption and innovation, this opportunity gave me a chance to research a completely new and relevant topic, for which the Centre and our partners would otherwise have no time to do in our everyday jobs.

My biggest discovery was just how much the sector collectively doesn’t know. It was clear that learning and innovation was indeed happening in the civil society sector—just that it was often happening in silos. Each organisation is learning and innovating within their own four walls. Yet the Centre and many CSOs all face similar, if not the same, issues. Whether we strive to be more accountable and transparent in our processes, we face increasingly complex donor requirements, or we struggle to simply cut costs, the challenges are shared sector-wide. Many organisations are therefore likely tackling the same challenges from different angles. In the end, we have multiple organisations learning the same lessons the hard way and other organisations missing out on opportunities to build capacity because of a lack of awareness.

After my “Learning Abroad” trip, I wanted to share my learnings as much as possible. The Centre’s own habits and culture provides for many opportunities to share learnings. Apart from the blog I penned [see ‘Blockchain’ link above], I presented my key findings at our monthly team breakfast – an opportunity for colleagues to disseminate knowledge and information on specialist topics. Likewise, the Centre has a tradition of staff-organised lunch talks, in which we can cover any topic with any external guests the team may find interesting. In this way, we are regularly learning about new or current issues from each other and leveraging our own team as sounding boards.

The bigger challenge is how the Centre can promote this culture of learning and sharing within the rest of the civil society sector. Indeed, we have a line-up of established conferences and workshops, each developed for various groups and levels in the sector. From our annual Global Perspectives conference bringing together leaders from across all sectors, to our Vision Works meeting that convenes global Chairs and CEOs of the world’s leading ICSOs,  to our new Innovators Forum for civil society innovators to learn from each other and overcome sector-wide issues—each forum allows peer groups the necessary opportunity to come together and exchange valuable ideas. As a finance professional within the sector myself, I highly value our ongoing meeting series among Heads of Administration to discuss the issues that make our organisations tick. Our convening activities have definitely contributed to the betterment of the civil society sector over the past ten years.

However, as we look to the next ten years, we have to recognise that our world is changing increasingly quickly in the digital age. While the Centre works hard at creating the mechanisms and platforms for knowledge sharing and collective learning, our meetings and workshops are relatively few and far between with necessarily limited agendas. Before the next meeting, the sector’s landscape may have changed many times over and organisations may have amassed countless new lessons-learned.

Our toolbox in its current state is imperfect and incomplete. If the Centre wants to adequately continue serving as the civil society sector’s platform for learning and cooperation, we will have to keep up with our world’s pace of change. For more effective collective learning across the sector, we will need to continue updating and sharing the tools in our toolbox in the years to come.


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