Confidence, community, consolidation…..and cop-outs

It’s been a busy week. The last 8 days have seen me working with Hannah co-facilitating a days training for Greenpeace volunteer Greenspeakers – building their skills and confidence in their role as public speakers. A few days later I spent an afternoon with Warwick University students helping them prepare for nonviolent direct action on the arms trade. The following evening Maria and I facilitated a meeting and skills building session with Community Harvest Whetstone, a community supported agriculture scheme that’s party of the Transition Leicester movement. And then this weekend Perry and I worked with Hackney Cohousing Project on their consensus decision-making skills (and mindsets, naturally).

Not every week is like this. I couldn’t sustain it. As I type, my concern is that my co-facilitators and I won’t find the time to fully reflect on the work we’ve done. That reflection is essential. We always try to ensure the participants in our workshops are given enough time to reflect and consolidate their learning, but sometimes we fail to do the same ourselves. I know I sometimes cop-out and tell myself that there’s reflection and learning going on at a subconscious level, and I’m sure there is. But there’s a power in making it conscious. One way that I personally reflect is on this blog. So you’ll soon know how conscious that reflection is if you see posts on all of the work I’ve just mentioned in the next few days and weeks! If not you’re well within you’re rights to assume I’ve copped out.


How many trainers does it take to change a lightbulb?

Actually the question I’m pondering should be “how many minutes do we need to switch on the lightbulb in the minds of those we train?”. Jo wrestled with this question recently as she wrestled with delivering a short workshop. I spent Saturday afternoon delivering another very short workshop for Greenpeace Network Co-ordinators. The topic was dealing with “difficult behaviour” and increasing engagement in meetings though Jo’s 60 minutes makes my 75 minutes seem positively luxurious.

Some (wiser?) facilitators might have politely declined the request. Others might have taken the time to explain the folly of such time limits. A younger me would have set off at breakneck speed to cover as much ground as possible. Nowadays, for me and my Rhizome colleagues, it’s about catalytic interventions. Cumbersome phrase, but one that came up at our first meeting of the expanded Rhizome coop and has reasserted itself many times since. Can we catalyse meaningful change through our work? Big ask in 75 minutes. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Saturday’s workshop will lead to sustained change in knowledge, skills and, of course, the attitude of those attending. But it was possible to get the lightbulbs at least flickering if not shining by keeping it simple and going for a little depth over covering breadth. And of course by keeping it as experiential as possible. You can learn a lot from a little doing.

At Greenpeace’s request we spent the last few minutes gleaning top tips from the group to give their peers who were attending other workshops something to work with. The tips also help give me a useful insight into what had been learnt. They reassure me that it was a useful 75 minutes. Of course there’s more to be done, including dialoguing with the client on how to reinforce this work, but its a start:


click on the image for a clearer view


click on the image for a clearer view

I was also roped in as a scribe for a workshop on “catching and keeping” people in local action groups. One thing that came across strongly in both sessions was that people don’t evaluate their meetings. Newcomers have no opportunity to say how the meeting worked (or didn’t!) for them. Neither do others who struggled with the meeting for whatever reason and may well have been labelled as a “difficult” person because of their struggle.

Ironically the 75 minute time restraint meant I opted not to formally evaluate my session. Perhaps a bad call (and bad example?). I’m relying on the evaluation of the day as a whole, plus my intuition and observation, and these top tips to guide me in future sessions. Is that enough?


Rainbow lobbyers: training the trainers

Greenpeace UK have a vision of having a trained lobbyist in every constituency in the UK. Their reputation is in taking direct action, but lobbying MPs (and I include MSPs, AMs and MLAs in that), MEPs, councilors and corporate representatives is also an essential part of the work they do. To that end, this weekend, I was training trainers in delivering Greenpeace’s political lobbying training.

The 12 participants all had existing experience as trainers, teachers or lecturers which added to the challenge of creating a workshop that felt useful to them. From the feedback it looks like the agenda met that challenge. Overall the workshop was a success. There were, of course, one or two niggles about specific exercises which didn’t work as well as they might for everyone. This reflects my experience of this kind of course over the years. Because it’s full of opportunities for people to practice and receive peer feedback it’s always well received.

I’ll be emailing out the evaluation form so that people can add further reflections, and because one or two participants had to leave before the final evaluation session. In usual Rhizome fashion, I’ll share anything new

What worked best for me was stepping away from traditional learning theory and focusing on the skills and attitudes that make ensure trainers are also competent facilitators. Because an awareness of things such as learning styles and the need for experiential learning had been applied in the development of the political lobbying training I could afford to change to focus. So we spent much of Saturday working on enhancing existing skills in listening, reporting on the state and sense of the group, and formulating questions that helped to draw learning out of the group. We also dedicated some specific time to looking at roleplay as a tool.

What worked less well from my own perspective was my own reporting on the state of the group. In part this was because I stepped away from this role, having explicitly invited and encouraged the participants to take it on. But they were not always forthcoming, and there were dynamics in play that were worthy of naming in order to both ameliorate them and share some collective learning around them.

Of course I didn’t ignore these dynamics, employing a number of techniques to deal with them. But nor did I shine a light on them in the way that naming them might have.

The Greenpeace staff seemed genuinely happy with the quality of the work they’d received from Rhizome at the weekend and in the run up to it. This was a new departure for Greenpeace. They have other trainers – nonviolent direct action trainers and street campaign trainers who haven’t received this kind of support – sink or swim has been the name of the game to date. I hope that will change and that Rhizome may be asked to be part of that change.

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…

Rainbow lobbyers

Since June, I’ve been working in a small way to support Greenpeace UK in developing a training package on political lobbying skills. The package will in turn play its part in the formation of a new network of lobbyists.

Up until recently my role was simply suggesting potential improvements to the developing agenda. On Saturday I joined Greenpeace trainers and a dozen enthusiastic trainees in Birmingham to see the agenda working in action. It’s rare that I get the chance just to observe. My copious notes will now be fed into a meeting next month. The good news is that the agenda is 95% there.

Greenpeace staff have paid real attention to engaging all learners. They’ve created some innovative activities. For example, I’m a big fan of using the format of the card game ‘Pit’ to introduce the stages of the lobbying process and wake people up after lunch.

And the agenda is supported superbly by the presence of an ex-MP throughout the session.

Then in mid-November Rhizome will be facilitating a training for trainers for lobbyists interested in sharing their skills and experience through training others.

Of course the planned progression of the project (develop training then train trainers prior to sending them out to train) isn’t working out quite as envisaged. This is the world of campaigning, after all, and there are always events to respond to. Stop Climate Chaos’s Big Climate Connection mass lobby now takes place before our training for trainers so some brave souls will be asked to jump into the deep end and deliver trainings for lobbyists before being trained as trainers.

But I can’t complain. The first formal training I ever delivered was Greenpeace nonviolent direct action training. My preparation? Taking part in the workshop once and then being handed a hard copy of the agenda. I didn’t attend a training for trainers until almost a decade later.