03 video volunteers’ pilot for resilient roots

Organisation

Video Volunteers

Location

India

Innovation Category

Strategy

Renewing trust from the roots up through a new concept of accountability.

Summary

This case shows how a civil society organisation can adapt digital tools and tactics to bring its primary constituents into organisational decision-making and governance, build a listening, learning and training community and grow its accountability and resilience.


main features of the populist context

India is one of the most well-known populist contexts in the world, and clearly exhibits the two core elements of anti-elitism and anti-pluralism. First, the populist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi, has continually presented itself as an anti-establishment alternative to the “corrupt” elites; in this case, the longstanding Congress Party and Nehru-Gandhi dynasties, which dominated the political landscape for decades after independence. Second, Modi’s anti-pluralism prioritises Hindu nationalist policies that demand strict religious adherence, and equates this concept of Hindutva with Indian national identity. This has marginalised millions of religious minorities in the country, caused significant social polarisation, and fuelled further cultural populist rhetoric perpetuating divisions between “the people” and “the others”. Some additional features of populism are also present:

resistant to countervailing facts: The use of lies in India has been weaponised by the government and other actors. WhatsApp, the largest messaging platform in India, has also become the platform of choice for spreading false information by the government, the opposition party and even ordinary people. In this increasingly nationalist environment, stoked by the BJP, WhatsApp has become an ideological battleground.

rejects intermediaries: These politics of deliberate division are simultaneously accompanied by efforts to reduce space for civil society and media organisations to engage in democratic dissent and dialogue. Indeed, civil society organisations (CSOs) are frequently cast as unnecessary or even dangerous intermediaries to Modi and the BJP’s supposedly direct relationship with “the people”. For example, see Modi’s hologram speech that reached multiple rallies at once: a not-so-subtle attempt to cultivate a “direct” relationship with the electorate. Many CSOs and activists focused on rights-based advocacy have been targeted by government authorities. Advocates for operational and resourcing restrictions have been labelled “anti-development” for working against environmentally extractive projects that the government champions as initiatives to lift Indians out of poverty. The CIVICUS Monitor currently classifies India as having obstructed civic space. Modi has been described as a “high-tech” populist; his highly sophisticated social media campaign strategy was crucial to his initial electoral victory in 2014, effectively bypassing traditional news and media channels to engage directly with millions of people (and first-time voters) with anti-elite messages that he also adapted to low-tech imaging devices, such as the holograms.

crisis, breakdown or threat: In line with his Hindutva vision of India, Modi casts the Muslim minority as a threat to the country, inciting gruesome public lynchings and further polarisation between Hindus and Muslims, while diverting attention away from real and very pressing economic crises.


Role of Technology

Access to digital media has enabled Video Volunteers to innovate a low-cost, scalable model of citizen journalism and grassroots activism and advocacy, empowering large numbers of marginalised citizens — “Community Correspondents” — to create and share “impact videos” that both report stories of bottom-up change and initiate local campaigns. Every year, hundreds of videos provide information, mobilise community-level discussion and collective action, enable networking with other activists and increase the awareness of local public administrations. This includes opportunities to generate and disseminate news stories from remote, rural parts of the country that do not receive attention in the mainstream media.

Digital media also helps overcome some of the challenges that accompany working with geographically dispersed communities of primary constituents: Video Volunteers works with more than 200 Community Correspondents and video activists across 160 districts in India, including from some of the poorest and most conflict-affected areas. As these Correspondents often work alone in their communities, without access to regular face-to-face contact with their peers or Video Volunteers staff, it has been difficult for the organisation to manage, train and maintain morale throughout this far-flung activist network.

The spread of mobile phones — and particularly the platform WhatsApp — began to help solve this dilemma. While Video Volunteers started using WhatsApp in 2015 as an activist/community management tool, it was only a year later that the use of plat – form took off because of the provision of free 4G SIM cards to hundreds of millions of people in the rural population by the private sector. For many Community Correspondents, this was their first online experience.


Main Features of the Innovation

Video Volunteers is co-creating the organisation’s future with its grassroots Community Correspondents. The project helps find new ways to listen, identifies recurring issues and uses feedback to devise joint solutions. More broadly, Video Volunteers seeks to develop and expand the vision for a community media movement in India, while experimenting with participatory leadership and decentralised styles of organisational decisionmaking. The main features of the innovation include:

Video Volunteers actively listens to its primary constituents instead of assuming or interpreting. For example, Video Volunteers regularly surveys the Correspondents on issues of concern, facilitating a regular feedback process that improves the relevance of communications and allows for flexibility.

Regular two-way communication allows Video Volunteers to both acknowledge and remedy potential problems before they escalate. This has ranged from explaining regional office closures to clarifying processes and solutions to various practical and operational issues. These can be as simple as explaining how to find produced videos on the Video Volunteers website or clarifying payment procedures for Correspondents.

The new regular feedback process has also sup – ported learning on impact. For example, the organisation shares with Community Correspondents training tips and processes to get government officials to watch their videos in spite of distance or perceived disengagement with the content. Continuous feedback and iteration has also inspired Video Volunteers to rewrite and revise its impact manual.

Video Volunteers embraces infographics, short training tips and micro-learning modules shared over WhatsApp, in response to the feedback from the Correspondents. Modeled on best practices used by corporations to train remote employees, these bitesize communications help remind the Correspondents of important tips and techniques in addition to teaching them new information.

Only so much training can be delivered over a plat – form like WhatsApp. Video Volunteers uses data gathering and surveying to make its wider training and support processes more robust. Eight staff members act as “field mentors”, each managing sub-groups of about 40 Community Correspondents. The mentors hold detailed 1-2 hour phone calls with individual Correspondents once a month, ensuring each receives ongoing and consistent training and support.

Video Volunteers has also created a new advisory council made up of high-performing Correspondents who have earned the respect of the wider network. At an initial three-day workshop, 37 Community Correspondents and 7 staff members discussed the past nine months of feedback and accountability work to inform future strategies.

Using digital communication tools, working groups will take forward this advisory council’s identified priorities. A “core council” was elected and created fair separate working groups (for its 37 members), designed to address impact and Correspondent engagement, safety and security and welfare, respectively. Staff members facilitate bi-weekly 30 minute calls with their working group over WhatsApp, and then communicate key points to the larger Community Correspondent network.

In this way, Video Volunteers builds new levels of leadership among the Correspondents while identifying new strategic directions to help inform future models and possibilities for the community media movement in India.

While it is still too soon to tell, access to passionate peer support (rather than “top-down” staff efforts) may be more effective in energising “lapsed” or dormant Community Correspondents, as they draw on so much shared experience. Following the working group steer on this priority issue, there was a real desire from empowered Correspondents to directly motivate their less active peers. This means it is also Video Volunteer’s primary constituents who are actively spreading its mission and values.

Video Volunteers now plans to convene the council twice in the next year to discuss strategies to evolve both the organisation and community media as a whole into a fully-fledged movement in India. It will also discuss ways to provide Correspondents with greater leadership opportunities within the management of the organisation.


Key Takeaways

  1. WhatsApp groups can be powerful tools for bringing geographically dispersed communities of activists and supporters into one community, provided that listening and learning activities are prioritised. Video Volunteers has invested significantly in researching methods and models to support WhatsApp-based learning communities. These have ranged from techniques of asking questions to facilitating dialogue to sharing lessons. Video Volunteers has also learned to manage some of the inherent practical challenges that come with using WhatsApp, such as unseen messages, shutoff phones and communicating with Constituents who change their phone numbers.

  2. This regular feedback and survey model does not necessarily always bring up brand new insights for Video Volunteers. However, it is habit-forming and creates a systematic regular reporting schedule. Indeed, in the same way that a CSO would put in place regular procedures for communicating with its institutional donors, Video Volunteers has created a programme for changing mindsets and discipline around accountability and communication with its primary constituents. These efforts may seem time-consuming at first, but in the long run, you can develop a regular routine of sending short, simple messages to stay in touch with primary constituents on social media.

  3. More time is needed to see whether these efforts are making the organisation more resilient over time, but Video Volunteers has indicated some of the potentially destabilising short-term risks of moving to new governance, power and accountability models. These range from potential perceptions of favouritism (i.e. when certain individuals obtain more influential roles) to higher internal activism (thanks to staff empowered by the organisation’s commitment to accountability and transparency).


Innovation Categorisation

We have categorised this as an established, core innovation with an exciting new experimental framing which explicitly links accountability to organisational resilience. It demonstrates incremental use of existing tools and tactics for research and measurement, monitoring, learning and capacity support, with existing partners.

In some ways, this case study avoids straightforward categorisation within our innovation framework. It reaches its core audience in greater depth, and at the same time is also transformational in its use of tools and tactics to do this. This is an emerging innovation, running for less than one year.

This is an established innovation as of 2020, as the pilot has now been implemented and evidence is available to assess the impact it has achieved for the organisation (see infographic).


Innovating Organisation

Video Volunteers is a community media organisation in India that empowers marginalised citizens to tell their stories so they can right the wrongs they witness, join the global digital content revolution and shape the direction of their country. Access to digital media has enabled Video Volunteers to innovate a low-cost, scalable citizen journalism model, empowering large numbers of marginalised citizens to create and share “impact videos”, which both report stories of bottom-up change and initiate local campaigns. Every year, hundreds of videos provide information, mobilise community-level discussion and collective action, enable networking with other activists, and increase the awareness of local public administrations.


Innovation Report     2019

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