Common Cause training in June

In June, we’re running a Common Cause training course in the beautiful hills of mid-Wales.

It will comprise an exciting three days of participatory learning, exploring creative, values-based tools for social or environmental change.

Find out more here.


Common Threads, March 2014

  • Economics and greed - a round-up of research illustrating how the study of economics can push people towards selfishness and distrust of others.
  • The Big Picture at Friends of the Earth - A campaign that takes over large screens at Waterloo station and invites people to submit images of ‘What makes the world special to them’. Nice!
  • ‘Cash for the Cure’ - a critical look at Kohl’s breast-cancer campaign: encouraging consumption, fear and all things pink.
  • How can advocacy NGOs become more innovative? It may be a tired buzzword, but this Oxfam blog has some pretty good advice. We particularly like the suggestions for shifting staff culture, e.g. ‘give people a day a month to visit ‘the outside world’ with no greater agenda than to look and learn.’
  • On rising inequality - it’s deep-seated psychological impacts, and why it damages the social fabric of our societies. From the authors of the Spirit Level.

The special theory of relationships – or why you accidently called your teacher ‘mum’

The desire to understand and classify different types of human relationships isn’t new; we’ve been pondering it for thousands of years. What rules govern our interactions? And how do relationships shape us into the people we become?

The answers aren’t immediately straight forward, because the way we interact with each other is influenced by many things: how well we know and trust people, who’s got more power, the agreed understanding of reciprocation or exchange, and whether we converge around a common interest or selfish need. These things can be very fluid, too. Think about how you’d interact with a friend, a colleague, your grandmother, in a range of different situations. While you might see these people as being in different ‘categories’ of relationship, you probably have a rich variety of ways you interact with every one of them. Moment to moment, mood to mood, you’ll be laughing, arguing, teaching, ignoring or sharing with each other, although perhaps not in equal measure.

As social creatures, our experience of relationships is a huge part of how we develop. Our values, personalities and tastes are strongly influenced by our interactions with our parents growing up, with our colleagues at work, with the natural world. And this influence goes both ways. Not only do our values inform the types of relationships we seek, but our values also change over time as a result of our relationships. By understanding this feedback loop a little better, we gain useful insights into social and environmental problems.

Relationship theory is a tool to guide better ways of talking to each other, organising our workplace, and supporting campaigns or causes. Read more

From single issues towards systemic change: Tearfund’s ‘Project Doughnut’

This blog was written by Lara Kirch and Micha Narberhaus at Smart CSOs.

As we have experienced in the Smart CSOs community over the last two years, changing an organisation to work on system change is far from an easy task. Most civil society organisations are deeply entrenched in the current system. We might irritate partners and constituencies if we don’t fulfil their expectations and we have a reputation and trust to lose. Most available funding schemes are far from supporting the type of uncertain work needed for long-term system change. But the most difficult part is to change the organisation’s culture, its structure and way of doing things. It requires a change in mindsets and developing the right capacities.

Maybe it is not a surprise that recently some church and faith-based organisations have been among the most progressive pioneers in starting to promote and communicate an alternative vision for a socially and environmentally sustainable global society that is based on sufficiency, solidarity and community. They are grounded on exactly these values.

The advocacy department of Tearfund, a UK Christian relief and development agency founded in 1968, has recently embarked on a change process aimed at aligning its strategic focus and internal structures with a vision of an economy that works for people and the planet. Sarah Anthony and Tom Baker from Tearfund’s advocacy team have told us how they have approached this challenge and what they have learned so far.

Questioning the Status Quo

In 2012 advocacy director Paul Cook came across Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut model’ for a safe and just space for humanity. The framework demonstrates that sustainable development must be based on both a social justice foundation and the respect of the planet’s environmental boundaries. It helped crystallise concerns which had been building in his mind for some time; that the traditional model of development was not ‘fit for purpose’ in a future of climate change, rising inequality and population growth. He found himself asking the question; how can people release themselves from poverty without relying on the consumption-driven growth of the world’s current economic structures?

He was also aware that the department’s traditional advocacy model of focusing on single-issue policy processes was not always achieving the scale of changes required to meet these challenges – with the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit in the UN Climate Change Conference negotiation process being a particularly strong example. He led the department to consider what would need to happen in order for humanity to meet the interconnected challenges of the ongoing environmental and social crises.

Project Doughnut

To work out how to go about this, the advocacy department started ‘Project Doughnut’, a six month inclusive, transparent process using consensus decision-making and participatory leadership methodologies. The rest of the organisation was included and informed at each stage of the process through organisational drop-ins, team visits, a google site and organisational updates. By the end of the process, the department had concluded that they should be aiming to change the current unsustainable economic system by altering the social norms and worldviews on which it is based. They realised that a mass movement of people would be needed to achieve social change of this magnitude, and committed to helping build this movement rather than focussing on single issue campaigns and policy led processes. This new strategic direction required two major shifts: Aligning Tearfund’s advocacy work with a system change approach and transforming the department’s internal structures to be coherent with the new vision.

The department decided to move from delivering specific policy change outcomes towards following a broader understanding of advocacy that is based on movement building, communication and engagement at the grassroots level. Rather than trying to influence political processes at national and global levels, they see themselves as catalysts, supporters and part of a global movement for a safe and just space for humanity. This includes working with and connecting organisations on this strategic direction globally, and mobilizing and resourcing people to set up their own initiatives for systemic change.

Moreover, the department came to realise that for a change in social norms and life styles they needed to live the change they wanted to see at a personal and organisational level. Drawing inspiration from social movements, they had conversations about how they could move towards a less hierarchical structure and work more inclusively as a team. Living out the values of a new economy would also mean reviewing how far Tearfund’s activities and policies were themselves embracing environmental standards and the well-being of staff. While change is relatively easy and quick to implement in the way one conducts meetings, reaches decisions, and engages in conversations as a department, transforming institutional structures and practices is a much longer process.

The initiators of the project also struggled to find the most effective and legitimate way to encourage personal transformation. A change in worldviews and personal life styles is at the heart of an effective transformation to a sustainable society. But how far can an organisation mandate a change in private life? And where is the line between motivating and inspiring people to live more sustainably or compelling and forcing them to do so?

The Way Forward

Throughout their organisational change process Tearfund’s advocacy team has entered unknown waters at many different levels and made some interesting discoveries along the way. Embarking on this transformative journey through a process of co-creation generated more ownership of the process amongst staff, but it also proved time-consuming and exhausting and created uncertainty that needed to be managed. While some members of staff were very committed to the cause from the beginning, others were unsure and needed more time to engage with the issues. Continuously questioning the status quo and engaging in system thinking is a complex and uncomfortable challenge that bears the temptation to fall back into old patterns of thinking and working. At the same time the right balance must be found between trying something different and considering what is achievable and feasible in the scope of the organisation.

In the Smart CSOs context Tearfund’s project is a valuable example and experience for how organisational change can be initiated and creatively organized and implemented by a group of committed individuals. It also shows that it is a difficult and long-term process. Engaging people in systems thinking and encouraging them to reflect and question their mental paradigms is a slowly evolving process that cannot be enforced from the top down. Trying new and unknown practices and approaches involves lots of uncertainty and constitutes a huge challenge for traditional NGOs with many risk factors to consider. Following a strategy aimed at transformative social change will therefore ultimately require organisations to review the way in which they assess processes and their outcomes and how they define success.

The next few months will show how Tearfund’s advocacy department advances with putting the fruits of the first stage of this change process into concrete actions. It will particularly be interesting to see how the advocacy department will engage and include the rest of the organisation in the process and how they can manage to align their overall structures and practices with their new strategic vision.

Contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]

Common Threads, February 2014

  • NGO sitcom! - Kenya’s first mockumentary takes on the NGO world. Worth a watch: “In Episode 2, their task is to come up with an acronym before figuring out what the grant’s about”.
  • Climate change and equity: whose language is it anyway? - In his winning entry for the Gavin Mooney Memorial Essay Competition, Sydney GP Tim Senior argues that language, and different ways of knowing, have been getting in the way of action on climate change.
  • Facebook’s ‘dark side’: study finds link to socially aggressive narcissism - Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a “socially disruptive” narcissist. The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.
  • Foundations should become the change they want to see in the world - A great piece by Jo Confino: “By not sticking with programmes over the long-term, they fail to give the opportunity for projects to mature. Development, as we have all discovered can take at least a generation to embed. Foundations have the potential to be powerful change agents in our society. But they will only be able to take on that mantle if they recognise that the approach they have taken over the past 40 years has not led to the changes they were hoping for.”
  • The Evolution of Empathy - Jeremy Rifkin’s animated talk about empathy’s impact on our our society.
  • The Nature Moral - We love Project Wild Thing, but it has to be about more than access rights and the provision of green space…

Common Threads – January 2014

Interesting things we’ve been reading, watching or listening to this month:

  • Empathy vs. sympathy - connection vs. disconnection. Empathy is “I know what it’s like down here and you’re not alone.” Sympathy is “Ooh. It’s bad, uh huh. Do you want a sandwich?”
  • The status quo is not values-free - ‘realism’ is a value-laden position. ‘We have lost faith in any of the large available understandings of how structural change takes place in history, and as a result, we fall back on a bastardised conception of political realism, namely that a proposal is realistic to the extent that it approaches what already exists. This false view then aggravates [our] paralysis. What hits you like a hammer is that word “realistic” – it’s the thing people say when they actively don’t want change. It’s the avoidant atrophy of the miniscule reform, the circularity of entitlement – “Who decides what’s realistic?” “Me, because I’m in charge.” “Why are you in charge?” “Because I’m so realistic.”’
  • Paul Piff: Does money make you mean? - A great TED talk on the psychological impacts of getting rich, even with monopoly money. How does temporary wealth make people behave? (Hint: badly). Includes gem research headlines like “people who feel wealthy are more likely to steal sweets from children.”
  • Climate change & stealth denial - A new report from the RSA: ‘The point is not so much to change values, as to strengthen those already latent values that are most useful with respect to dealing with climate change’.
  • Materialism in children’s books - Has risen over the past 15 years…
  • New Progressive Development Forum Charter - “The organisations and institutions that we work for, with and through in the UK and worldwide must take on a more critical analysis of power and engage in political processes to tackle the inequalities of power, wealth and resources that create and maintain injustice and poverty.”

Communication is Conservation

I was told an inspiring story by a colleague from a conservation organisation involved in the Common Cause for Nature project recently and thought that was worth sharing.

He said to me that for as long as he had been in the press team he had often regretted not doing a more practical degree so that he could have done proper “on the ground” conservation. However, since his involvement in the Common Cause for Nature project, his increased understanding of psychology meant he could see that his work was conservation – he now understood that communication is conservation.


The Common Cause for Nature report shows that both experiences and communications are important in influencing people’s motivation and therefore key to achieving a future better for wildlife. In other words, communication is an important component in delivering wider public support for conservation.

In the report we recommend the following with regard to communications:



  • Talk more about how amazing nature is and use inspiring pictures to reinforce this
  • Talk about caring for other people
  • Give members and supporters active roles  - encourage them do their own thing and be creative
  • Be clear about both what the problems are and what solutions are needed
  • Make solutions proportionate to the problem, if the ask is something small show how it relates to the bigger change needed.


  • Overemphasize threat – threat is important in raising awareness but over using it can make people feel helpless
  • Ignore the problems or the solutions – both are needed to make it clear why action is important
  • Appeal to the desire for power and money
  • Don’t appeal to conflicting values at the same time – avoid using intrinsic and extrinsic values together
  • Portray your organisation as a lone superhero – we cannot succeed on our own, messages should emphasize how members and supporters are part of the solution.

Although incredibly important, communication is only one thread. We need to bring an understanding of values into all areas of conservation work. The report outlines recommendations for other work areas as well as ways in which organisations themselves can adopt working practices to strengthen their own values.

Read the full report here to find out more.

Common Threads – November 2013

  • Rusty (and Golden) Radiator Awards - Best and worst practice in development campaigning – from ‘too poor for words’ (unbelievable) through to the empowering and creative.
  • The adverts we deserve? - A great piece on the all-consuming power of marketing. “Satire has long been acknowledged as a paradoxical crutch for a society’s existing power structures: we laugh at political jibes, and that same laughter displaces the desire for change. As such as Chipotle’s — which express our concerns about the failings of globalisation in a safe space before packing them away — are surely an equivalent safety valve for any subversive rumblings. We all like to think that we’re above the dark art of advertising; that we are immune to its persuasive powers. But the reality is that, though we might have been immunised, it is not against ads: it is against dissent.”
  • Rewind and Reframe - A platform for young women to speak out about sexism and racism in music videos.
  • Changing behaviour – how deep do you want to go? - Nice piece challenging ‘behavioural insights’ approaches and the myth of apathy. “Those asking which forms of behavioural insight are best suited to create a more sustainable world should ask themselves the following difficult question: what kinds of practices, values and feelings are embedded in the work we do, and is behaviour, as such, ever really the issue?”
  • The Pope - On inequality and out-of-control capitalism. Would be much stronger if he was also willing to talk about gender equality (and he’s also still sitting on a gold chair).
  • Change:How - Transactional politics, why public apathy really is a myth, and how change can happen in a broken system… Whether or not you’re going, Compass’s pre-conference reading is long but excellent.

Understanding the state we are in

Examining The State of Nature report from a values perspective.

The State of Nature Report certainly hit the headlines and managed get a large amount of coverage.

However, the extent of coverage is only one way to measure the impact of this report. A more important question to answer is what impact the report and its associated coverage have are likely to have on the motivation on the people who saw the coverage. In the following case study we attempt to assess these likely impacts.

To get the most out of the following analysis we suggest that you read the CCFN practitioners guide first or read this first.

For ease of understanding we have split up the report and associated coverage into the following sections:

  1. The Launch Video
  2. The Main Report
  3. The Executive Summary
  4. The letter to Cameron
  5. Social media coverage
  6. General press coverage
  7. Iolo Williams talk at the launch Read more

Smart CSOs – Searching for new cultural stories in civil society

In October the Smart CSOs Lab hosted a conference in Germany attended by over 80 activists and researchers from 14 different countries. This video was produced at the conference and shows voices of activists from different parts of the world and different sectors of civil society talking about their frustrations, motivations and inspirations to join the growing movement for systemic change.

Smart CSOs is an initiative inspiring people to start searching for new civil society stories to overcome the frustrations many of us are feeling by working in our issue silos and by fighting the symptoms while knowing that we need to tackle the root causes of the multiple crises of our times.

Go check them out: Smart CSOs

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