November 2014

A sign for optimism: How the Great Transition is slowly prospering within and transforming Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands)

Since the early days when we discussed setting up the Smart CSOs Lab, the million-dollar question has been: Is there any realistic chance that established professional NGOs adopt the key Smart CSOs insights and become effective change agents for the Great Transition? Or are these organisations too much stuck in the system and are our efforts to change them doomed to fail?

Well, we knew that changing large NGOs would always be very difficult and the attempts over the last three years by members of the Smart CSOs Lab to make steps forward have often been daunting tasks. On the other hand the little successes and meaningful steps forward have often stayed invisible and have only later shown to actually add up to become bigger steps. We have definitely learned that change takes time and most importantly if (Great Transition) change agents in organisations are steady and patient, there is a good chance that they can build internal networks for system change. Job van den Assem has been such a change agent for the last few years at Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands).

We asked Job to tell us about his experiences with the ongoing change process at Milieudefensie, where he works as a community builder for the food and agriculture campaign team. Milieudefensie is a Dutch environmental organisation founded in 1971 with 65 local groups and about 85,000 members and supporters. The organisation is part of the European and international environmental network, Friends of the Earth. So what does it take to get a large NGO such as Milieudefensie on a journey towards the Great Transition?

In Job’s perspective the starting point for the change process at Milieudefensie was a common feeling within the organisation of “winning many battles, but losing the planet”, which then led to a common inquiry about how to do things differently. A growing network of change agents have since contributed to embedding system change approaches and a Great Transition vision in the organisation.

“We have moved from seeing people as resources to seeing them as people with resources.”

Job’s personal story for change started when he and some of his campaigner colleagues felt that there were some strategy deficits in their work: Their campaigns were very much structured around silos, which produced many good little projects, but were not put into a bigger, long-term picture. In addition, their campaign strategies didn’t really match the ambition of being an environmental organisation of the people at the grassroots.

Looking for ways to address this dilemma, in 2012 Job and his colleagues took an online program on community organising at the Harvard Kennedy School. The course teaches an approach that mixes top-down strategies, such as building narratives, creating leadership and connecting people, with the bottom-up approach of movement-building. After the course they tested this approach with their Clean Air Campaign reframing the message from clean to healthy air. At the same time Job got involved in Smart CSOs, which additionally provided him with valuable insights on new civil society strategies, which he shared and discussed with his colleagues at Friends of the Earth.

The result of this first strategic experimentation in the organisation were campaigns embedded in the quest for a bigger change in society: Their purpose was to bring people along in the story of how small campaign topics were related to a bigger picture, and to provide stepping stones for them to get involved. Job says, “Before this process, we saw people more as volunteers than as people who can together with us build the power to organise change. We have moved from seeing people as resources to seeing them as people with resources, who can help the movement become bigger.”

Prior to these practical experimentations Milieudefensie had started a vision development process initiated by its director and welcomed by a group of interested change agents in the organisation. The project group that worked on the new vision provided members and employees with lots of moments for feedback. In developing a new organisational vision Milieudefensie could build on the work that Friends of the Earth International had already done around transformation.

Job explains: “Our vision is about where we want to go in the world, our ‘ideal society’, but also an analysis of what is going wrong in society at the moment, about the stepping stones and the things that are in the way to get there — for civil society as a whole, and for Milieudefensie in particular.” The Smart CSOs model of change with its elements of culture, niches and movement building, and the feedback loops between them, proved helpful for this analysis: “Using storytelling and values and frames analysis, our campaign strategies are becoming more of ‘bigger picture strategies’ telling the story of what we want to change and where we want to go, and building the movement for these changes.” For instance, their campaign topics have moved from a narrow single-issue approach of environmental protection to the root causes of environmental destruction by speaking about the consumption and use of fossil fuels and the power of big oil companies.

“Maybe we should learn a little bit more about new strategies, maybe things have changed in the outside world.”

While Job feels that the vision process relatively quickly gained support within the organisation, the more difficult part was to get it boiled down into strategies. This is where he experienced particular resistance: “If you do what you do and you think it is right and then somebody comes along and says maybe it isn’t completely right, people immediately get into a kind of defensive mode.” Hence, Job believes that it is important to appreciate what are useful existing theories of change and well executed campaigns, while adjusting them and putting them into a bigger picture of system change. At the same time, he says, if something is the status quo you have to put something radical against it, you can’t just tweak: “We needed to polarise the discussion a little bit more to get to change, and in the end people were quite open to it.”

What has proven essential in this regard was to get staff more into a learning mode. “The idea of lifelong learning hadn’t really been existent in our organisation,” says Job. “We had strategies and they were good. There wasn’t an idea of maybe we should learn a little bit more about new strategies, maybe things have changed in the outside world.” Testing and experimenting with new approaches and these showing quite good results, helped people to see that there was a need for new strategies and that they actually worked.

One of the success factors of the change process was probably the steady development of an internal network of change agents for the Great Transition. Job was one of the people in the organisation who was frequently watching out for colleagues who might be interested in learning about strategies for systemic change. In time a critical mass of Great Transition friends has been shaping. Some of them have actively participated in Smart CSOs activities. Initially, informal networks of change agents are often a powerful step towards institutionalising change.

“There are short-term wins that people are very happy with — understandably, because that also empowers us to carry on.”

In 2015 Milieudefensie will start developing a strategic plan based on their new vision. With this, Job hopes, lots of what has recently been researched, learned and put into action in some of their campaigns (storytelling, values and frames, community organising) will get more central to the organisation. The Smart CSOs storytelling project may help with this by providing a good communication tool to tell the organisation’s new narrative.

At the same time, Job is very much aware of the risk of falling back into old patterns and the challenge of keeping the radical level up continuously: “Winning battles gives you a good feeling. There are short-term wins that people are very happy with — understandably, because that also empowers us to carry on. If you don’t win battles, your army gets demotivated. It’s all about keeping the view of winning smaller battles, but making sure they all contribute to our overall vision.”

Becoming and staying radical involves a constant self-reflection — an open organisation continuously learning and challenging itself is crucial for this. Some conditions that may have given Milieudefensie an easier starting point to embark on a journey for radical change is that their organisational culture is already very much in line with a Great Transition vision. They have a relatively flat salary structure, a 3-to-4-day working week and a founding history as a grassroots-based movement. With a very flat organisational structure it is equally easy for everyone to initiate something new and bring in different ways of thinking.

In some ways, as Job sees it, the challenge for Milieudefensie is therefore not so much to radically change, but just not to radically change to something else. This implies elaborating within the organisation that keeping or returning to their roots as an environmental movement is much more desirable than giving in to existing pressures of further “professionalisation”.

Overall, the example of Milieudefensie shows that promoting and living radical change in an institutionalised NGO is both possible and effective: Friends of the Earth Netherlands attracts highly qualified and passionate employees in spite of the flat salary structure. Bluntly questioning the status quo and embracing a culture of learning and experimentation have convinced internal sceptics that a system change approach is useful and working. And finally, an openness to learn and look at things differently has been fruitful to the organisation internally and to their work as an environmental movement.