October 24, 2018

By Jack Cornforth 

*All views and statements represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Accountable Now.

This blog was originally published by CIVICUS.

The Resilient Roots initiative recently launched two open calls to find pilot projects around the world which will test the hypothesis that organisations that are more accountable and responsive to their roots – namely, their primary constituencies – are more resilient against external threats.

A unique aspect of this initiative is that organisations have so much free reign to lay out what they want to do, over an extended length of time. As a result, this is an exciting opportunity for some really meaningful engagement, but also comes with much responsibility to get things right.

Having personally spent several days reading through all 238 applications from the first call, this has been a truly eye-opening experience. My first impression was, “what have we created!?” The use of unexplained buzzwords, such as “empower”, “innovative”, and, of course, “accountability” itself, was really startling. Is our initiative, with its regular use of this terminology, only adding to this problem?

The organisations that applied are striving to address hugely important issues. However, a significant number did not provide a clear mission statement, so outlining the specific steps they would take to try and increase their primary constituent accountability was even more challenging. This could have been due to an absent theory of change, or challenges with written communication, especially if English isn’t their first language – something which it is of course our responsibility to address.

The tendency to use rhetoric rather than provide detail may well have come from misconceptions about what we (as the grant-givers) want to hear about reach and impact, presumably based upon previous experiences with donors. Applicants were often worrying too much about things like the number of primary constituents reached, rather than focusing on the quality of the engagement and how they will act upon the feedback received.

Many organisations also didn’t understand that this initiative is specifically about improving accountability to primary constituents, rather than the more common pursuit of holding governments to account. Even some of the larger, more experienced organisations, which CIVICUS has a long history of working with, fell into this trap.

A number of others didn’t even discuss accountability at all, rather seeking only to continue or expand their existing programmes. This was concerning to see, as it suggested many organisations didn’t read or understand the application guidelines properly. So we must double-down on our efforts to make them both clearer and more accessible.

Perhaps this can once again be attributed to a language barrier. Either way, concise proposal writing skills also seemed to be lacking for many applicants. But these shortcomings also represent a great opportunity for CIVICUS – the identification of a problem is the first step to addressing it.

Another finding was the lack of innovation in most of the pilot project ideas being proposed, given that organisations were encouraged to think creatively. While surveys and community meetings are of course the bedrock of many primary constituent engagement processes, we want more organisations to seize this fairly unusual opportunity to experiment with more unconventional approaches. But on the other hand, it’s important to remember that most smaller organisations don’t have the luxury of dedicated innovation departments or personnel.

Other applicants proposed the creation of new monitoring and accountability (M&E) programmes, which led us to ponder the difference between M&E and primary constituent-based accountability. Good M&E must involve regular engagement of primary constituents, but in general it is more about how effective an organisation has been at meeting specific objectives than about continuous and cross-cutting commitment to creating a dynamic, deeper relationship between an organisation and the community it serves. Thus, the creation of a culture of ongoing learning and improving together, to quote a colleague, leads to, “real mutual accountability that simply does not exist in the world of M&E.”

So what can we do, therefore, to help organisations such as these address capacity gaps and avoid being left further behind? This initial phase of Resilient Roots is predicated upon working with higher capacity organisations, in order to develop an evidence-based, tested methodology for building accountability and resilience that will enable us make a more direct, concerted effort to work with lower-capacity, harder-to-reach organisations. Developing an approach which includes organisations with lower capacities is therefore critical if we are not to reinforce the divide between these more ‘usual suspects’ and those which may be in greater need of our support.

Engaging these organisations will likely involve working in a much more decentralised way, handing over the reigns to suitable national umbrella organisations, who have the requisite reach and understanding of local context. In the nearer term, we have provided some basic feedback to all unsuccessful applicants. Even though this was time consuming, it was the responsible thing to do – these are our own primary constituents after all!

What’s more, for the second round of applications we have teamed up with regional partners to enable organisations to also apply in Spanish and French, to address language-related challenges many applicants experienced in the first round. We’ve also tried to be more explicit about the need for greater levels of detail about what engagement of primary constituents will look like during the pilot projects, along with how organisations will then use the feedback they collect from them.

More broadly speaking, we are working with various teams across CIVICUS to respond to everything we’re learning through this process, with a particular emphasis on capacity development. For example, we are exploring creating a ‘how to successfully apply for grants’ community on the Innovation for Change platform, as well as rolling out things like Tech Safari (launching mid-2018), an online training course which will help organisations address some of the skill gaps that were illuminated by this process. Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, these applications also represent a treasure trove of ideas and potential new partners which other CIVICUS teams are following up on.

Most importantly we have now selected a very exciting first cohort of pilot project organisations to work with. Look out for another blog post introducing these organisations and their project ideas very shortly!

Jack Cornforth is the Data for Accountability Programmes Coordinator and Resilient Roots lead at CIVICUS, World Alliance for Citizen Participation. Twitter: @JackCornforth, Email: