Every now and then, hidden within the routine emails that define our day-to-day projects, we find a message from someone working many time zones away on exactly the same issues with which we are grappling here. These emails provide a much-needed sense of solidarity and cross-regional or cultural perspective. They also allow us to put action to a core principle of small NGOs: that scaling up means reaching out and building networks that allow us to learn.
Indeed, one of the first questions I was asked when I first started working with an NGO was how the organization was going to scale up. “Scale up” meant open offices in other cities; increase the span of programs operating under a larger umbrella; or franchising programs across communities and cultures. Sustainability is achieved through going to scale because it reaches more people with increasingly less investment.
Small NGOs, however, implement the concept of going to scale differently. They scale up by sharing their approach across networks of other community-based organizations, networks that foster collective learning on ways to apply these approaches within specific cultures or communities.
Our nascent Seattle-based “Social Change Collaboratory Network” moved closer to going to scale this past year when Tirrania Suhood, Executive Officer of Bridges in Blacktown (Western Sydney) Australia, wrote to introduce herself. Bridges is a small community organization addressing drug and alcohol abuse through a holistic approach that engages families and communities in achieving sustainable results. Suhood’s work articulating Bridges approach and building key networks serves as a model for our network and for small organizations anywhere looking to amplify their impact at a time of limited resources.
Articulating the Bridges Network Approach
In November 2010, Bridges released the Bridges Network Approach (BNA), authored by Suhood, to share with other organizations the approach that they take to connect families, communities, and organizations. As Suhood wrote in the forward: “While operating in Blacktown in Western Sydney, my interest has been in the interrelatedness between the local and the big picture and in demonstrating particular ways in which the local can influence the big picture, including the global.”
The Bridges Network Approach builds community capacity through networks, where scale is based on connectedness and “ripple effect‟ impact. As Suhood continues:
“The Bridges Network Approach (BNA) is a way to address social issues through connecting people and organisations, focusing on strengths and underlying causes, and maximising the use of resources. It is a social change philosophy and working paradigm to help bring about more supportive environments at community and organisational levels. The BNA is an inclusive approach that supports engagement of marginalised people and groups.”
BNA recognizes that while services cannot be replicated, our approach to these services can be.
Voice for SONG: Building networks that foster learning
Prior to publishing the Bridges Network Approach, Suhood was already active building networks that expanded her organization’s reach. She was the founding driver and convenor of Voice for SONG (for Small Organisations Non Government), a network, now convened by the Western Sydney Community Forum that promotes the recognition of the value of small community organizations. Like the Social Change Collaboratory Network, Voice for SONG recognizes that small NGOs are unique and should have a voice in decision making processes which affect the sector.
From Sydney to Seattle
Where networks of small organizations have an advantage over a few large organizations is in their ability to create horizontal learning across sectors that remains close to the people being served. Three specific lessons Suhood’s work:
1. We can best make our case by telling stories that demonstrate accomplishment rather than discussing research on the effectiveness of small NGOs. Suhood argues that research discussing the value of small NGOs has little impact on bringing additional support. Demonstration and promotion of specific examples of our work and the efficiency and effectiveness of small NGOs (especially through collaboration) is what will create change.
2. We need to work to be included in discussions, conferences, and other gatherings that discuss services and social change. “Small organizations need to be more equitably included in forums like this,” Suhood told a 2006 social services conference, referring to the fact that she was the only representative from a small organization at the conference. She is delighted to again to be speaking at upcoming forums that are being convened by the 3 Pillars Network in several capital cities in Australia
3. We are stronger together. Whenever an individual or group of individuals ventures down a road untrodden within their community, they must create the way. This is as true for the small organizations founded by visionary activists in poor places around the world as it is for coalitions of U.S.-based development organizations trying to build partnerships based on equality and local control. Finding ways to connect across neighborhoods or continents brings us new ideas and greater solidarity in this shared journey.
Real society change often happens at the margins of an organization’s formal service delivery where people make connections that make a difference. Finding ways to scale up the people power of small community organizations through approaches shared across networks will lead to greater social change.
A special thank you to Tirrania Suhood for her partnership in writing this article.