Biofuelwatch and Friends of the Earth event – London

Biofuelwatch and Friends of the Earth are pleased to invite you to a FREE half day event:

Forests are Not Fuel: The Limits of Bioenergy in Climate Mitigation
Tuesday 9th October, 9.00am – 1pm
Quakers at Westminster, Friends Meeting House, London
A morning workshop with keynote speakers and group discussions to learn about and explore the environmental and social impacts of burning large-scale biomass and biofuels for power generation. Find out more here.
To find out more and register your attendance please send an email marked for the attention of Emilia at before 1st October.

Local groups: successes and challenges

The NGO Forum met on Thursday at WDM’s offices in London. The session focused on learning from each other about supporting local group networks. The topic was obviously a hot one as about a dozen new organisations responded to the publicity and joined the session. Many of them are at the early stages of founding networks, or wanting to grow existing small networks.

I was there, co-facilitating the session with Katharine from WDM.

After introductions and a bit of a warm up, we heard presentations on models of local organising from staff and volunteers involved in the networks of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Climate Camp. These 3 models had been chosen to span the spectrum from top-down organising with limited autonomy, through to the decentralised model of ‘disorganisations’ such as Climate Camp.

The questions that followed highlighted the issues for this group of capacity builders:

  • how to reach out and grow the size of a network
  • if and how NGOs utilise networks as fundraisers
  • how to deal with the ageing demographic of local campaign groups
  • the benefits of groups rather than active individuals
  • when NGOs throw volunteers in at the deep end (to deliver training to their peers, for example) how many sink, and how many swim?

The rest of the session was given over to the group, borrowing from Open Space, to set the agenda and have the conversations that were important to them.

Interestingly there wasn’t a huge demand for space on the agenda… there seemed to be some reluctance to embrace the open space which was reflected in the evaluations. Quite possibly this is because open space is still relatively new in campaigning NGO circles – it could well have been the first time many of those present had encountered it. And, because it was a relatively short session they didn’t have long to acclimatise.

As an aside, from those NGOs that have experienced open space I’ve seen a rapid rise in interest and find myself asked to use open space regularly nowadays…

Katharine took away the evaluations, so I’ll feedback on those in more detail when she sends them round.

This was a precursor to a full day skillshare on November 30th. If your organisation would benefit from being there, contact us or subscribe to the Forum email list Capacity_Building_NGO_Forum-subscribe(AT) – replacing (AT) with the @ symbol.

This is a topic we’ll come back to – we’ve experienced many different models of network and many different approaches to capacity building and support. Common themes emerge which are worth blogging about, so as always, watch this space…

Mapping new ground

Last week I wasFriends of the Earth staff hard at work back working with Friends of the Earth, helping them take forward the vast quantities of ideas that came out of their recent staff away days. 10 staff members spent 4 hours painstakingly sifting through a mound of flipchart paper and video footage to distill the collective wisdom of the staff into a form that can be presented back to the organisation sometime next month.

It was a tough challenge for the staff, and 4 hours wasn’t quite enough to both sift through the material and create a clear and accessible presentation for their colleagues. That was no surprise as it took me nearly 2 days to get really familiar with the material myself – part of my role in the process was to reflect back any ideas that were missed or potentially misrepresented. Working groups went away to mindmap their findings using

Friends of the Earth staff It’s not a tool I’d come across before, but it seems easy to use and the results look better than other similar tools I’ve used. The only downside is that it’s not open source software, so I searched online for some open source equivalents that you might like to play with. I haven’t used these myself. Feel free to report back!

This particular process also used video and digital photos. Short video clips were taken so that the staff who weren’t present could get a sense of the process that their colleagues undertook as well as to make the process transparent and accountable. Each and every flipchart was photographed, working on the principle that if anyone ever had a query about what was originally said they were very unlikely to locate and then trawl their way through a pile of 50-60 sheets of flipchart paper gathering dust in a corner. They might be able to locate and view a clearly named photo file.

Full group or full participation?

Facilitating for full participation can be tricky. Usually we’re using techniques that break large groups down to allow quieter voices and less confident people be heard. It’s a generally accepted rule of thumb that to achieve full participation in large groups we avoid full group sessions. Smaller group sizes lend themselves to creating safer spaces for people to be heard. The more emotional or difficult the conversation, the smaller the small group size.

In other words, there’s an assumption that the more vocal people can fend for themselves in whatever format of meeting we design and we should focus our energy as facilitators on those who might struggle to get heard.

Not everyone is happy with this assumption, so it came as no surprise to be challenged, last week whilst facilitating  2 away days for about 150 Friends of the Earth staff. My co-facilitator, Juliette from Mango CIC, and I heard quite strongly from a number of participants wanting more plenary sessions. The feeling seemed to be that there were important issues to be aired, and that everyone needed to hear them and hear just how strong the concerns were.

This was the clearest I’ve ever heard the argument against small groups articulated. Small groups were an obstacle to these folk participating. Their levels of frustration at not feeling heard in a meeting dominated by small group sessions were rendering the whole process ineffective for them.

There is also a school of thought out there that says the less confident speaker has a duty to address their lack if confidence, especially in the workplace where they’re paid to speak up.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard this argument recently. It’s an interesting one. Do we facilitators approach it from the wrong angle – creating spaces in which people can feel able to speak rather than supporting them to speak in any space? I’d welcome your views. And yes, there may well be facilitators out there doing just that, in which case get in touch so we can share your experience through the blog.

So what’s going on here? There is the argument that resistance to small groups is an inevitable response from a group of people used to dominating an agenda and slowly having that ability to dominate removed by small group facilitation techniques. Undoubtedly, for some people, that’s going to be true. No-one likes change.

There’s also the issue of trust. How does a participant know that every issue will be heard in the right depth and taken seriously enough if they’re not there to ensure it happens?

For me the joy of small groups is the way ideas seem to travel as if by diffusion. Somehow, with the help of a few well crafted feedback sessions, everything does seem to get heard and, in general, ideas and people converge and common ground emerges. It’s a process I trust. Experience shows it works.

For a short while we were caught in the crossfire. We were getting an equal amount of feedback thanking us for creating a small group based agenda. After a productive chat with the Friends of the Earth staff forum project group, who were overseeing the away days process, we defaulted to Open Space. We didn’t give our ‘challengers’ the plenary discussion session they wanted, but we did give them an opportunity to set the agenda, invite all those interested in doing so to join them in conversation, and a chance to feedback from their session to the full group. It worked a treat – the group engaged in productive conversation and then took part in an incredibly self-disciplined feedback session.

Open Space agenda wallButterfly and Bee