Guest blog: Convening NGO leaders to boost their effectiveness

In this guest blog, Florence Miller, Director of the Environmental Funders Network, discusses a recent retreat organised for leaders of civil society organisations.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Funders Network (EFN) and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation convened 40 leaders from across the environment sector for a two-day retreat at West Lexham in Norfolk. The gathering was unusual for EFN – normally our events are for funders, not practitioners – but the retreat proved so compelling that we are encouraging funders across sectors to consider undertaking similar efforts. As one EFN member put it, convening leaders for a couple of days is a ‘relatively low-cost way to inject stem cells into a sector’.

The idea for the retreat came from Jenny Dadd, environment lead at the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, which supported it through a grant. Jenny had appreciated the value of funders being able to gather away from their desks for two days at the annual EFN Retreat, and was conscious – as one of the larger environmental funders in the UK – of the foundation’s responsibilities to the sector beyond grants. She wondered what would happen if we provided the space for their environment grantees, plus others, to come together with the time and space to think big picture about their work. At the same time, some of the respondents to EFN’s 2017 survey of environment sector chief executives (see ‘What the Green Groups Said’) specifically called for funders to use their convening power and resources to bring people together from across the sector to foster collaboration and more joined-up thinking. Given EFN’s mission is to help funders to be more effective in their giving – thus resulting in a stronger environment movement overall – we seized the opportunity.

The retreat proved to be an astonishingly positive experience that could surely be replicated by funders in a range of sectors – and perhaps by funders interested in convening grantees from across sectors.

In the words of the participants:

There was ‘an enormous amount of knowledge exchange,’ and it was ‘an extraordinary experience that has put the bounce back in my step.’

It had an unusually profound effect on me and my approach to my work.

I think it inconceivable that I won’t collaborate with at least some organisations as a direct result.’

The retreat felt like a “gift”. We could use the time to contribute/grow both personally and professionally, with no clear delineation.’

It had an immediate effect at work, enabling me to step back from activities and really consider purpose and impact.

There was unity at the retreat that could be harnessed to develop real unity across the sector.’

(And our favourite: ‘There wasn’t an idiot in the group.’)

It came as no great surprise that the people who came to the retreat were by-and-large exhausted and not a little depressed about the magnitude of the challenges they face. NGO leaders, as any funder will know, work incredibly hard, often for relatively meagre (or no) pay, and have a tendency to fixate on the setbacks they meet but keep moving as soon as something is ‘won’. The effect that such a state of mind, writ large, might have on the sector’s effectiveness as a whole is a little alarming. Many participants seemed shocked to realize how normal being ‘overworked, stressed and fearful for the future’ is in the sector. ‘It was a huge help to everyone to realize they were not alone, to replenish their mental reserves and start planning for the future,’ said one.

So while we hesitated a little when planning the retreat (with excellent facilitators) to focus too much on the personal side of things, the blend of the personal and the professional proved to be the magic ingredient. The retreat website, developed by the facilitators, gives a sense of the beautiful spot it was in, the kinds of things people discussed, and why people wrote to us to say things like 'I’m still talking about how wonderful the "West Lexham Experience" wife was rather baffled to find the front room full of tealights and the word DEATH in 3ft high letters on the sofa when she returned home, though.'

Already a few collaborations have emerged between organisations that might not otherwise have connected, but it will be a while before we know if the retreat resulted in any long-term impacts. It may be that its greatest value was in the immediate aftermath, when leaders returned to their organisations restored, enjoying a stronger sense of connection to others, and feeling that they had been given a gift. But imagine if that experience was offered and received regularly, by leaders across civil society. What would that injection of stem cells do to boost their effectiveness?

Florence Miller
Environmental Funders Network (EFN)

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