How many conferences and workshops have you attended that bring together members of civil society to present their work and strategise ways to move different advocacies forward? Too many probably....... Voice Country Teams have also participated in quite a few, as have several grantees. After one particular event in the Philippines, a grantee approached the Voice Philippines team and expressed disappointment. They said, “You know, all of us are stuck. There are still islands of excellence, one-off projects. We need to really move away from this mode and donors need to support us.”
Hearing this made us glad that Linking and Learning IS the heart and soul of Voice.
What is Linking and Learning?
It is the process enabling the sharing of experiences and lessons from (innovative) initiatives. It allows successful projects and approaches to scale-out and scale up. It is learning from mistakes (and in some cases failure) and being open to solutions that takes us out of our comfort zone.
Within Voice, it is all of the activities, processes and trajectories towards boosting collaboration, exchange, learning, innovation and application of new knowledge. They aim to catalyse transformative change for the most marginalised and discriminated groups.
We believe facilitating learning can expand our horizons, especially when faced with different realities and innovative ideas. Linking with people outside our daily circle can teach us the many ways others choose to express themselves. New opportunities to work together emerge. Joining forces with other groups and organisations can amplify our voices and influences.
Leave No One Behind, nothing about us without us, and putting the furthest behind first! These are the three principles guiding Voice as well as Linking and Learning within Voice.
What does this mean?
Voice Linking and Learning is grantee centred. It isn’t about Voice but about the grantees and target groups. It is about how civil society can move on without us being there. We promote connections between grantees as well as linkages to local platforms that will go on after Voice has seized to exist. We bring the Voice target groups together where they can learn about each other’s situation and challenges. It builds solidarity and opportunities for different voices to mutually support each other. It leads to new ways of sustaining connections and collaboration beyond Voice.
Linking and Learning is thus about community. People cannot be forced to become a community. What we can do is to create enabling environments where we all are able to communicate and come together. We can start seeding and fostering relationships, so the community can grow and take shape by itself.
Local ownership of the learning agenda is high on our agenda. It’s the Voice target groups and grantees’ learning agenda that is key.
During the Linking and Learning kick-off meetings at national level, grantees are requested to share both organisational and project-related learning questions. They are supported to further elaborate and refine these questions as they advance in their projects. Conversations are facilitated between grantees at country and/or regional level to identify emerging learning questions or research agendas valid for all involved. These support the voices of those who are rarely heard and improve the environment or strategies for all grantees.
In many cases, Voice merely takes on a facilitating role allowing grantees to discover how they can help each other. We do not need to always bring in an external resource person to share their expertise. A lot of times the grantees can be teaching each other, mutually enriching and innovating their practice. In other words facilitators become participants, and participants may become facilitators.
Linking and learning does not need to go through Voice. It also happens outside Voice, now and in the future. We can merely support relationships to be created and knowledge to be shared, without the need to be involved in all the learning that is happening.
Dewi Tjakrawinata, one of the co-founders of the Down Syndrome Care Foundation (YAPESDI), initiator of Let's Speak Up empowerment project in Indonesia, was invited to write stories about women with disabilities for the 2018 One Billion Rising event in Jakarta. The event is part of a global movement to end rape and violence against women. As she herself is not a woman living with disabilities, she asked Siti Rhodiyah from Gerkatin Kepemudaan, an organisation of deaf young people, whom she met through Voice, to present the stories that she wrote.
Another grantee initiative is the Whatsapp group for Influencing grantees in Tanzania, initiated by Msichana Initiative. The Whatsapp group is used to exchange information on activities organised by each organisation (allowing for participation in each other’s events and actions); to pose questions which can be answered among the participating grantees or, if necessary, by the Voice Programme officer who is also a member, and to receive messages from Voice.
At the initiative of the Voice grantees in Mali, a monthly round table is organised to learn more about each other's projects, share challenges and find joint solutions. The round tables are more like rotating tables, moving from office to office "tasting" different environments and ambiances. Hosting the next Advisory Board Meeting, a small committee of different grantees has been set up to develop the programme.
Voice invites all organisations to include linking and learning activities in their own work and at the level of their own organisation.
Sustainability is emerging in the spin offs from the Voice-supported projects.
Facilitating Linking and Learning at country level
Alongside grant-making, Voice's main goal is to link programme stakeholders and learn across countries, organisations and thematic areas. To enable this, Voice opened a specific Call for Proposals, called Connecting Voice(s) available to CSOs, incubators and social enterprises interested in facilitating national level linking and learning activities. Each country team is responsible for selecting a Linking and Learning facilitation grantee (for which we used the Innovate and Learn grant) to support learning and the creation of learning loops. Among those organisations that responded to the Linking & Leaning calls for proposals were social enterprises, media groups, and others specialised in facilitating learning offline and online.
As a result, we are extending our Linking and Learning team with amazing partners (available in the next tab) covering specialities like participatory video making, behavioural science, youth engagement, co-creating, fail fairs and co-working and a lot of storytelling capacity. This extended community of linkers, learners and shapers promote connections and collaboration within and across the Voice focus groups, grantees, and other stakeholders. Ways of co-creating, exploring, testing, reflecting and bringing it all together back to the programme cycle have been wonderfully summarised in our recently published blog that unpacks the “Building blocks of Linking and Learning”
Global learning events
At the global level, Voice facilitates a repository of all events and learning happening in and across countries. Through the Voice website and sharing access to selected Box folders with relevant stakeholders, information and documentation reaches those directly involved as well as many others who have a shared interest in a subject or process.
Furthermore, the global Voice team facilitates a yearly learning Indaba organised around themes of importance to the whole Voice community. The first learning Indaba in January 2018 focused on inclusion and innovation. These meetings are a great opportunity to highlight the Voice linking and learning methodologies and processes and to build bridges across countries and Voice focus groups.
Being inclusive in all we do
Voice provides opportunities for learning at various levels. This asks from ourselves and all who journey with us, to be reflective and open, and to seize each opportunity to share, to explore and to reflect more deeply. To give real attention to linking and learning throughout and beyond the time each grantee is related to Voice, the programme needs resources to bring people together, to work on the individual and joint learning agendas, to promote linking and learning activities within the grantee projects, to document all we question and learn, and to encourage Voice grantees to tell their stories. The Linking and Learning facilitators play a key role to make this happen. They are the hands and feet of the Voice country teams, directly working with the grantees to capture stories and strengthen capacities.
Besides, to work with the different Voice focus groups and across influencing, empowerment and innovate and learn grantees, Voice adopts different strategies and innovating along the way we work with partners.
In some countries civil society is well aligned and collaborating across themes and common challenges. In other countries civil society solidarity is challenged by the political situation, the competition for funding and the different views on ‘local culture’.
To be inclusive and yet sensitive to seemingly incompatible points of view, the Voice team and Linking and Learning facilitators will build capacity to facilitate inclusive processes. They support safe spaces as well as grow understanding across Voice focus groups. Regional capacity strengthening, and various learning events are key opportunities to develop the necessary skills and attitudes, to:
Furthermore, Voice makes inclusion tangible in its communication and interaction with Voice grantees, members of the Voice focus groups as well as other stakeholders.
Interlinkages between the Linking and Learning and Monitoring and Evaluation processes
Linking and Learning has a natural overlap with Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability, and Learning (MEAL). Within Voice, MEAL and L&L activities are complementary and integrated. Grantee reports are not only assessed on their implementation but also on what lessons learned can be highlighted and important for everyone to know. Successful practices are identified and grantees encouraged to document their processes. Challenges in implementation are seen as opportunities to link grantees together, to strengthen their capacities and learn from others’ expertise.
The MEAL process asks grantees to produce stories of change, to document their projects’ impacts on the Voice target groups. These stories however, are not exclusive to MEAL alone. They can be used, reframed or repurposed for L&L and other communication needs. Where MEAL may focus on how the stories meet the grantees’ proposed outcomes, L&L frames them through how can others learn from that project. Where MEAL has a more internal audience, L&L has a more external one.
Learning though the Voice web platform
In addition to the learning in face2face meetings at country and global level, Voice also encourages grantees and stakeholders to jointly explore, test and scale innovative approaches and new knowledge through the use of local platforms. Grantees and Voice team members can tell and share stories via blog posts on the Voice website. Blog posts revolve around experiences and lessons learnt from outreach, project management, grant-making, influencing, capacity strengthening, linking and learning. Voice engages the wider community through social media, specifically Twitter and Facebook. A monthly newsletter is sent out highlighting significant news and amazing stories within Voice and the grantees. The Voice website plays a central role in bringing together the experiences and learning from the ten countries where Voice is implemented and beyond.
The Heart and Soul
We always say Linking and Learning is the heart and soul of Voice. This is because Linking and Learning is integrated in everything we do. We ask everyone, even ourselves, to reflect on our own practices, needs, and communities. We ask everyone to explore what others are doing, see what has happened before and learn from what others have done. Lastly, we ask everyone to test. Try new ideas, new methodologies, and new ways of working. If it does not work then reflect on why and start the process all over again. If it does work, reflect on how can it be better. Linking and Learning is a continuing process because
When people connect, learning starts.
When people listen, learning enhances.
When people do and act, learning deepens.