Building Better Way organisations

Overview of discussions in four London cells, September and October 2017

The overarching thought coming through all our discussions is that we need to fundamentally rethink what it means to be an organisation when we are looking to deliver social change.

Funders are highly influential in what organisations do and how they behave and many of our members called for a different kind of dialogue and relationship with them driven by shared objectives.  But we also identified many organisations and their leaders as part of the problem, if not the problem, bolstering a ‘them and us’ status quo, reinforcing deficit thinking, protecting their own privileges, and colluding with funders and policy makers to protect themselves as institutions rather than putting the interests of the people they work with first.

But it need not be like this. Some organisations are adopting more positive behaviours: 

  • Deliberately reducing ‘them and us’ practices, expecting everyone to play a direct role in delivery, including staff at all levels as well as volunteers and service users, to create a broad community united by a shared endeavour. 
  • Pushing against the boundaries of traditional organisational forms, creating flatter structures, focusing more on relationships, networks and collaborations, rather than ‘professional’ functions. 
  • Intentionally sharing knowledge and skills, adopting an ‘open source’ approach, and discovering that more can be achieved in that way.

And some funders do work with those they fund in a collaborative and open-ended way.

Ultimately we are seeking to create ‘buildings without walls’, whereby competitive instincts and self-interest can be channelled towards collaborative and generous behaviours which are mutually advantageous.  Of course it is difficult to change organisational culture and behaviour, and resistance can come from many quarters, but we can be tactically astute, with a willingness to be tough and determined but also pragmatic, recognising that we are operating within an ever-changing and imperfect world.

Some of us are practising ‘radical listening’ where our focus of attention is directed towards communities rather than governments and funders.  We believe that a willingness to attract and engage with diversity, building bridges within and across communities and identities, is not a nice-to-have, but a necessary condition for success, and to ignore this constrains the potential for social change.  And we are rethinking the role of leaders in organisations as social activists, who put change first, not organisations.

We seek excellence, and realise this is best achieved through reflective practice based on a culture of openness and clarity of purpose and peer challenge, rather than imposed quality assurance frameworks.

Organisational models are still dominated by competitive market based thinking, but we can produce a different narrative, emphasising the added benefits of collaboration.  The language we use to describe our organisations, our roles within them, and our purpose, can be instrumental in driving change, for good or for bad.

We can also tell a more truthful story about what we can achieve, avoiding spurious claims about outcomes and impacts.  We want to move away from the language of projects, and acknowledge that we are sowing seeds which may or may not flourish, and that our most productive and effective work is when we walk with people and with communities, helping them take the direction they want and take action to clear the paths of obstacles they encounter. 

While we share a sense of urgency we understand that this way of working depends on the building of trust, and requires a sustained effort. Financial and competitive pressure can reinforce the tendencies to drift backwards into self-serving organisational behaviours, and to seek the quick fix, in order to give the appearance of success. But we try to resist this and encourage others to as well. We are looking for a more honest set of relationships within  our own organisations, and with partner agencies and funders, and a new kind of conversation about how best to achieve common goals that transcends narrow organisational interests.

To read the full notes of the four discussions please click on the links below: