01 Invest in citizen conversations
Invest in citizen conversations and capacities. Invest in communications and marketing capacities and in-house skills to test and develop new narratives — rather than simply promoting your own organisation’s brand — and engage new creative talent from within and beyond the sector.
Use modern methods to keep closer contact with your primary constituents, especially young and networked “global villagers”. Digital techniques can do more than you might think, and can transform ways of working when incorporated into the core of what civil society organisations do.
Build citizen literacy and information skills creatively. You can achieve a lot very quickly with the right tools, tactics, networks or partners.
Take the time to listen and understand social attitudes and narratives before designing your advocacy strategy. One-off public campaigns or surveys alone are not enough.
Embrace every tool that helps you listen better. Listening helps us do our main job best: better serve our citizens.
02 Reimagine partnerships
Reimagine partnerships and alliances. Reaching new audiences often requires forming new alliances or partnerships, including “non-traditional” relationships with informal groups and creative agencies. Engaging more deeply with more traditional partners can also mobilise them to take new kinds of action.
Do what is needed to enable these partners do what they are best at. Evolve the kinds of support, connections and resources you can provide. Don’t risk your best assets burning out on the job. Access to psychosocial support may be essential for grassroots partners or groups at the front lines of gathering evidence or data or leading advocacy or monitoring efforts in challenging political contexts. Providing mentoring and resourcing connections to creative partners can also reveal new ideas and opportunities.
Increase the influence of your allies: Elevate and celebrate those who share your values, vision and big picture goals. If we are on the same side, their success is your success, and their stories are your stories.
Champion the invisible: International civil society partners and staff should speak up about and promote the innovations of their national partners and staff — so long as it does not risk their safety or strategies — so others can get inspired and learn.
03 Rewrite the rules
Rewrite the rules, and find fresh formats — for everything. This is a common feature of all our transformational case studies. It ranges from (digital) campaigns and communications to engaging youth audiences and recruiting supporters to delivering training at scale to diversifying organisational governance.
Trial and error, experimentation and iteration — both within an organisation and with key partners — have been critical to many of these successful innovations.
International civil society organisations need to “think and move” more like start-ups, incorporating elements and models from this different kind of organisational culture. For example, organisations could encourage staff to take risks without imposing rules, instead of rewarding the “safe” path. However, new “high reward” tools and tactics, including data and digital use and management approaches, may bring new risks which need to be properly understood and accepted by your organisation.
04 Encourage enterprise
Encourage the enterprise that exists elsewhere — in citizen democracy and issues-based campaigns, and use the insights from these initiatives for data-driven advocacy. This starts with building an infrastructure — a highway for ideas — while broadening the base for where new experiments and expertise can come from, and providing the boost for good ideas to travel. Young people are powerful agents of change, and often the most impactful work with them is led by them, from ideation to implementation. Putting them in charge of campaigns and initiatives could result in a loss of control for a civil society organisation, but the results are often more sustainable, more empowering for the communities we serve, and the long-term impact is more transformational.
Embrace the informal. International civil society organisations in particular will need to accommodate nimble, adaptive and informal ways of working with their traditionally bureaucratic structures and processes. Organisations may need to fundamentally “rethink their voice and practices” to fully benefit from this fruitful source of innovation and entrepreneurialism.
Deploy innovative experiential learning, campaign tools and technology development approaches that are relevant to daily life. Provide participants new skills (the “how”) without dictating the content (the “what”). Giving them agency to make decisions for themselves can empower them, and their ability to decide this for themselves encourages them in turn to engage other new audiences.
Creating spaces for experimentation and sharing ideas among civil society groups and organisations can allow “cross-border” replication, which can be scaled digitally.
05 Build your army of love
Unlike populists, who invoke solidarity defined by exclusion, civil society organisations build solidarity grounded in inclusion. Invest time and resources in proactively building and contributing to solidarity actions. Engage with primary constituents, partner organisations and horizontal networks or hubs, both to build capacity in our sector, but also as a future risk mitigation and resilience-building strategy for your organisation.
If or when opponents target you, make sure you know who to call. If you come under political attack in any country, having an army of supporters who know exactly who you are and what you do will allow them to advocate for you and mobilise their networks to do the same.
Adopt extreme transparency as a default mode of communication so you can easily and quickly rebuff any unfounded accusations of partisanship.
Community builds values, and making people feel like they belong builds community. When people feel cared for and listened to, they will defend your cause more passionately.
06 Experiment with new narratives
Experiment together with new narratives for and about civil society. Create common spaces for experimenting with unusual content around universal values. Use play, emotions and cognitive insights to test new narratives for both civil society and human rights.
Either have a very specific target, or be courageous in targeting all sections of the population. What activities will engage your target audience? Which audiences will carry out the activity you want to happen?
Civil society groups should work together to brainstorm new tactics, share results and crucially, work together to cross-promote content, operating less as separate brands and more as a cohesive multi-faceted movement.
Collectively, we need to find a new common metaphor for human rights, and develop powerful hope-based communications that support our sector as a whole. Remember that making people feel good is a political action, and authenticity will drive attention and engagement.
XX Final thoughts
Remember that a laser focus on increasing your overall legitimacy and impact, from which most of these innovative “response” strategies originated, is also highly likely to strengthen the relevance and resilience of your organisation in populist contexts. Trying out new ideas, especially bold and daring ones, can be scary for staff, partners and stakeholders, so take people along on the journey, and proceed
as a team.
In conclusion, we need to be utopian as futurists, rather than retrotopian like populists. We must move beyond reactive mindsets, and not engage with populist framings that aim to reimagine the past or alter the present reality. Responding to populist messages repeats and reinforces them. We should see opportunities and possibilities in world events, not just risks and threats. This report is a call for us to look forward to the future we want to see and shape, articulating our holistic vision of solutions clearly to our audiences. We will need to stay ahead of new political, informational and technological developments, which will inform the evolution of our strategic responses. Our strategies should be informed by what possible futures lie ahead, so we will be ready to maximise our impact no matter what.
Ideas that appear radical or unthinkable can become mainstream, but only if we have the courage to proclaim them boldly, bring them to life through our actions and continue to share them with others. As this dialogue evolves, so will this report. We will revise it with new civil society responses and updates to the case studies as they continue to evolve, so please keep coming back. And if you’re doing something that also belongs here, please tell us about it so we can include it in the future.