At a recent workshop with young leaders from civil society, one of the speakers, Community Development Resource Association director Nomvula Dlamini, was clear in her assertion, “Civil society is the well-spring of innovation.”
This is the kind of statement that has long been overdue, and that we need to hear more often – not only because societal organisations have an impressive track record of innovating, but also because the very nature of our work demands innovation.
During apartheid, a rich and diverse network of NGOs flourished – some small and supported by individual giving, others large and politicised with income streams coming from international charities and solidarity networks. These local organisations not only demanded but drove change in our country, mostly under very difficult circumstances. But, post-1994 and the country’s first democratic elections, revenue streams dried up as international funding was channelled to government, and many society leaders moved into positions within government structures. As funds and people moved from civil society into government, an unhealthy relationship began to develop between these two sets of institutions working for the public good. A number of civil society organisations lost their spark; some even lost their way.
Unfortunately, we are at a point where civil society’s work is often being driven primarily by government contracts to deliver services. This is very different from the way societal organisations are viewed in Latin America, where, for example, the state sees those organisations as the custodians of critical thinking, empathy, imagination and love – and recognises these things as critical components of society. The state draws in NGOs, and funds and supports them, while giving them the latitude to do what they do best – not just expecting and getting them to pick up where the state is failing.
NGOs in South Africa can’t wait for government to see it in this way. More than ever, they need to be beacons of hope in their communities; they have to reflect and reinforce the dream of an innovative and inclusive society, even as they are dealing with everyday challenges. This is why NGOs should assert their role as innovators, which would allow a more nuanced position (of interdependence) rather than simply “for” or “against”. As the speaker at our workshop so clearly articulated, the central work of civil society is to drive transformation – in particular to help people connect to their own power, and, where necessary, shift the power elsewhere. This often requires new tools, technologies and methodologies to drive processes of collaboration and co-creation in which new players are brought together, or old players interact in new ways. If civil society organisations don’t try this out, who will?
For many of them, this means altering both their interior and exterior viewpoints. One way of doing this is getting NGOs to see themselves less as individual operators and more as part of a network of organisations in a community that can have a bigger collective effect by joining forces. This approach is also attractive to funders who are interested in leverage and reach – they want to know that their investment has the potential to have a far greater impact. Factor in that civil society is also the second biggest employer in South Africa, and you wonder why we don’t have as much clout as the corporate sector.
Says David Harrison, CEO of the DG Murray Trust (DGMT): “It’s important as an NGO to understand you are just one cog in the wheel. But a cog can be incredibly powerful ... It can ratchet up effects if it is connected up to another cog, and another cog and another...”
In fact, inclusion is a fundamental way we can drive innovation. How much of South Africa’s time is spent on managing the symptoms of inequality?
This is a massive transactional cost, which diverts us from being an increasingly innovative society. Inclusion is the moral imperative of having a complete society. And a dynamic, inclusive civil society goes hand in glove with innovation, because it yields fresh ideas, transformation and a brighter future.
But, change can be daunting – especially for organisations that have been doing the same thing in the same way for a very long time. And change is driven not just by financial imperatives, but by people too.
There is no doubt we have a wealth of talent in the civil society sector, with a number of organisations sitting on the cusp of greater impact. But, the large gap in middle management – within both young as well as more established NGOs – continues to stand in our way.
Passionate, imaginative, critical thinkers are one of society’s greatest assets. It is time we nurture and upskill these thinkers and doers to allow them to become the strategic influencers who generate innovative solutions and inspire South Africa to aspire to something better, something more.
We’ve done it before; in fact it is the definition of our job!
*Foulis is director of innovative and inclusive society at the DGMT, a foundation and public innovator committed to developing SA’s potential through strategic investment