Mapping innovation thinking, culture, and practice in civil society

By Forus Internacional

As part of its 2021-2025 strategy development process, Forus conducted in 2020 a study to map innovation thinking, culture, and practices among its members. Today, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other civil society organisations (CSOs) worldwide find themselves having to navigate increasingly uncertain realities, in a context of global environmental, social, political, and economic instability. Managing uncertainty is key to innovating successfully in the social sector, and amidst ongoing transformations and the Covid-19 pandemic, innovation has been increasingly hailed by practitioners, policymakers, and donors as an answer to international development challenges.

Forus collaborated with Ana Luísa Silva, researcher at the Lisbon School of Economics and Management, University of Lisbon, to understand innovation practices and opportunities better. Two webinars in April explored innovation among Fours members and allies in the areas of advocacy and peer learning. Between May and September, an online survey and remote interviews gathered the views of twenty Forus members from around the globe.

So, what did we find out?

Definitions first

Many have argued that innovation is a fuzzy concept, used so often and in so many different contexts that it is now hard to know what we mean when we say innovation. As it often happens in international development, innovation risks becoming a buzzword.  Plus, innovation can easily be connected to well-known managerial trends that put efficiency first, making us forget to ask important questions related to the politics of innovation, such as: ‘Why are we innovating?’, ‘Who is innovating?’, ‘How are we innovating?’, ‘And for whom?’.

 During our study, Forus members submitted broad but rich definitions of innovation in the context of their work. These definitions reflected, on the one hand, the varied nature of the work carried out by CSO platforms, and on the other hand, a certain lack of clarity of what innovation means in practice.

These rich and varied views on innovation indicate two main directions for innovation in the work of CSO platforms, similar to what has been observed in other studies of innovation in international development: inwards innovation (directed at the work done internally for the benefit of their members) and outwards innovation (in the form of external advocacy for wider social change).

For NGO/CSO platforms that took part in our study, to innovate is to use evidence-based and collaborative approaches to improve the support to members, to help them address current challenges and be more accountable to the most vulnerable populations, and to find creative solutions to achieve wider goals of social transformation and systemic change, in light of local and global challenges, working in collaboration with other development actors and stakeholders.

Learning as a key dimension of innovation

Most survey participants consider themselves innovative: all but two stated that they were involved in innovative initiatives during the past three years. For 85% of the respondent organisations, innovation is either a high or a very high priority, while learning is either a high or a very high priority for 90% of the respondents. However, between innovation and learning, the latter ranks higher in the priorities of survey respondents: learning is a very high priority for 50% of the respondents, while the former is a very high priority for only 30% of the respondents.

Changing processes and changing paradigms

Forus members’ innovative initiatives range from formal to informal projects/activities, externally and/or internally resourced, developed alone or in collaboration with other actors/organisations. Although there are NGO/CSO platforms developing new products and services for their members, such as the Cambodian platform CCC’s Civil Society Fund and the Philippine platform CODE-NGO’s Center for Humanitarian Learning and Innovation, process innovations (i.e. initiatives that change the way platform products and services are provided to platform members) are the most common among the initiatives identified.

Platforms are first and foremost concerned about providing better services for their members. This does not necessarily mean new services, but better services, that can respond to the current and changing needs of their members. Many are therefore reinventing the way they engage with other development actors (e.g. the Bolivian platform UNITAS, Foro Político Multiactor), finding new ways to help their members engage with the 2030 Agenda (e.g. the Canadian platform CCIC, Greening CSOs) and using ICTs to deliver training to their members (e.g. the Portuguese platform PPONGD, Covid-19 Webinar Series).

Platforms are also working to change the paradigm of civil society and development in which they normally operate. The Brazilian and Spanish platforms ABONG and Coordinadora ONGD, through collaborative and multi-partner initiatives like Pacto pela Democracia and Quorum Global, are using their structure and existing services to fulfil a wider enabling role for other civil society actors, notably citizen activists and social movements. At the same time, they assert a more politically active role for themselves and their members, against threats to national-level democratic participation and to our collective existence.

What next?

Forus is committed to supporting members to adapt to the profound international and national transformations that are changing the operating context of development NGOs and threatening civic space in many places around the world. The Learning Agenda included in Forus’ 2021-2025 Strategy includes a strong emphasis on learning about civil society’s role and to explore innovative approaches.

The active promotion of peer learning exchanges among platforms will be key to support members on learning and innovation. The research highlights the following three areas where Forus will provide support to members to promote innovation:

  1.   Provide training, capacity development and resources
  2.   Facilitate access to funding
  3.   Promote peer learning, dissemination, knowledge exchange among platforms

As Forus and our members engage in a new strategic phase, we are looking forward to using innovation and learning to promote civil society organisations’ role and influence towards more inclusive and sustainable societies.

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