From single issues towards systemic change: Tearfund’s ‘Project Doughnut’

Guest blog by Lara Kirch and Micha Narberhaus at Smart CSOs.

As we have experienced in the Smart CSOs community over the last two years, changing an organisation to work on system change is far from an easy task. Most civil society organisations are deeply entrenched in the current system. We might irritate partners and constituencies if we don’t fulfil their expectations and we have a reputation and trust to lose. Most available funding schemes are far from supporting the type of uncertain work needed for long-term system change. But the most difficult part is to change the organisation’s culture, its structure and way of doing things. It requires a change in mindsets and developing the right capacities.

Maybe it is not a surprise that recently some church and faith-based organisations have been among the most progressive pioneers in starting to promote and communicate an alternative vision for a socially and environmentally sustainable global society that is based on sufficiency, solidarity and community. They are grounded on exactly these values.

The advocacy department of Tearfund, a UK Christian relief and development agency founded in 1968, has recently embarked on a change process aimed at aligning its strategic focus and internal structures with a vision of an economy that works for people and the planet. Sarah Anthony and Tom Baker from Tearfund’s advocacy team have told us how they have approached this challenge and what they have learned so far.

Questioning the Status Quo

In 2012 advocacy director Paul Cook came across Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut model’ for a safe and just space for humanity. The framework demonstrates that sustainable development must be based on both a social justice foundation and the respect of the planet’s environmental boundaries. It helped crystallise concerns which had been building in his mind for some time; that the traditional model of development was not ‘fit for purpose’ in a future of climate change, rising inequality and population growth. He found himself asking the question; how can people release themselves from poverty without relying on the consumption-driven growth of the world’s current economic structures?

He was also aware that the department’s traditional advocacy model of focusing on single-issue policy processes was not always achieving the scale of changes required to meet these challenges – with the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit in the UN Climate Change Conference negotiation process being a particularly strong example. He led the department to consider what would need to happen in order for humanity to meet the interconnected challenges of the ongoing environmental and social crises.

Project Doughnut

To work out how to go about this, the advocacy department started ‘Project Doughnut’, a six month inclusive, transparent process using consensus decision-making and participatory leadership methodologies. The rest of the organisation was included and informed at each stage of the process through organisational drop-ins, team visits, a google site and organisational updates. By the end of the process, the department had concluded that they should be aiming to change the current unsustainable economic system by altering the social norms and worldviews on which it is based. They realised that a mass movement of people would be needed to achieve social change of this magnitude, and committed to helping build this movement rather than focussing on single issue campaigns and policy led processes. This new strategic direction required two major shifts: Aligning Tearfund’s advocacy work with a system change approach and transforming the department’s internal structures to be coherent with the new vision.

The department decided to move from delivering specific policy change outcomes towards following a broader understanding of advocacy that is based on movement building, communication and engagement at the grassroots level. Rather than trying to influence political processes at national and global levels, they see themselves as catalysts, supporters and part of a global movement for a safe and just space for humanity. This includes working with and connecting organisations on this strategic direction globally, and mobilizing and resourcing people to set up their own initiatives for systemic change.

Moreover, the department came to realise that for a change in social norms and life styles they needed to live the change they wanted to see at a personal and organisational level. Drawing inspiration from social movements, they had conversations about how they could move towards a less hierarchical structure and work more inclusively as a team. Living out the values of a new economy would also mean reviewing how far Tearfund’s activities and policies were themselves embracing environmental standards and the well-being of staff. While change is relatively easy and quick to implement in the way one conducts meetings, reaches decisions, and engages in conversations as a department, transforming institutional structures and practices is a much longer process.

The initiators of the project also struggled to find the most effective and legitimate way to encourage personal transformation. A change in worldviews and personal life styles is at the heart of an effective transformation to a sustainable society. But how far can an organisation mandate a change in private life? And where is the line between motivating and inspiring people to live more sustainably or compelling and forcing them to do so?

The Way Forward

Throughout their organisational change process Tearfund’s advocacy team has entered unknown waters at many different levels and made some interesting discoveries along the way. Embarking on this transformative journey through a process of co-creation generated more ownership of the process amongst staff, but it also proved time-consuming and exhausting and created uncertainty that needed to be managed. While some members of staff were very committed to the cause from the beginning, others were unsure and needed more time to engage with the issues. Continuously questioning the status quo and engaging in system thinking is a complex and uncomfortable challenge that bears the temptation to fall back into old patterns of thinking and working. At the same time the right balance must be found between trying something different and considering what is achievable and feasible in the scope of the organisation.

In the Smart CSOs context Tearfund’s project is a valuable example and experience for how organisational change can be initiated and creatively organized and implemented by a group of committed individuals. It also shows that it is a difficult and long-term process. Engaging people in systems thinking and encouraging them to reflect and question their mental paradigms is a slowly evolving process that cannot be enforced from the top down. Trying new and unknown practices and approaches involves lots of uncertainty and constitutes a huge challenge for traditional NGOs with many risk factors to consider. Following a strategy aimed at transformative social change will therefore ultimately require organisations to review the way in which they assess processes and their outcomes and how they define success.

The next few months will show how Tearfund’s advocacy department advances with putting the fruits of the first stage of this change process into concrete actions. It will particularly be interesting to see how the advocacy department will engage and include the rest of the organisation in the process and how they can manage to align their overall structures and practices with their new strategic vision.

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