Finding meaning in organizational reflection
If true reflection is a process and a habit then we, human rights practitioners and funders, need to focus less on the output (a written report) and more on the process.
Photo courtesy of Provene
Monitoring and evaluation in the human rights field should be a means to an end: for advocates to have the time and space to reflect and learn about their work. Organizational reflection is a process through which individuals and organizations affirm the mission and meaning of their work, find synergies across their efforts, and learn holistically from successes and challenges. With this goal in mind and as an extension of our work with narratives, we share our journey co-creating a reflection approach for four legally focused NGOs in Australia, Hungary, Mexico, and Venezuela.
Our point of departure was rather traditional, focusing on helping our partners take an evidence-based approach to appraising their narratives work. After a year of prototyping and experimentation, we were ready to convene our partners in April to think through how we might evaluate their interventions. However, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this approach felt like an artifact from another time. We knew our partners would struggle to neatly construct their projects to develop performance indicators, take baselines, and measure outputs.
The pandemic invited us to reconsider our initial approach and made us focus more on reflection and learning. We found that by reflecting as a repeated, semi-structured process, our partners were able to take stock of their journeys and learn from both their successes and failures, and adapt their plans for their work in a context of great uncertainty. Rather than emphasizing the final report as the sole responsibility of our partners, we designed a process that provided the structure and documentation they needed. In effect, writing up a report was only the final exercise of a sequenced, two-month, shared reflective process.
Co-creating a semi-structured approach
This was an exercise in how JustLabs and the Fund for Global Human Rights could embody human rights narratives in their collaborations with its partners. Instead of a top-down accountability process to measure the effectiveness of each partners’ on-going prototypes—which varied from a human rights truck to reach underserved communities in Caracas to a values priming campaign in Australia— we wanted to facilitate an exchange that would give us insight into what developments our partners found exciting, what were the things they found most difficult, and what changes (if any!) had occurred in their organizations as a result of this work.
Throughout the process, we took several different approaches to reflective activities: we held larger group calls with our global network of collaborators; conducted one-on-one interviews between a narratives and evaluation expert, Rebecca Lichtenfeld, and the partners; facilitated small group sessions and one-on-one peer discussions with our four narratives partners; and finally, produced a write-up of their main takeaways from this whole process. All virtual.
Each step in this process gave the groups distinct ways and different people with whom to discuss and reflect on their projects. One activity involved creating a map that visually represented the journeys of their projects, which was shared among our narratives team. Had we solely focused on achievement and outputs, we would have likely missed this in a written report.
One of the project participants shares his organization's journey map.
We also put our partners into conversation with their previous selves. We dug up their early ideation materials at the very beginning of our work together to remind them of what they had planned for before they began planting the seeds of their projects. These time capsules helped to put into perspective how much they had grown in the process. It also encouraged them to think creatively about how they could adapt to the new context in the coming year.
As we cycled through these different stages, we checked in with each partner to make sure our activities were indeed helping them to reflect. Early on in the process, our partners expressed uneasiness with just how open-ended our instructions were about what we wanted their reports to contain. We had avoided giving more explicit instructions to ensure our partners had the space to tell the story of their own project in whatever way made sense for them. We knew that how they chose to tell that story would be as equally informative as what they ultimately reported. In response, we developed a guide to structure their thinking through a set of guiding questions, which then also fed into the conversations they had with Rebecca.
Insights from the process
Below are some of the most important insights we have distilled while facilitating mutual reflections with our partners:
1. Let the process inform the product
Through this semi-structured approach, we were able to make stock-taking and reflection more contemplative and less anxious. The initial free form approach lacked enough direction, but we feared a traditional reporting approach would have short-circuited reflection by specifying the product. The sequenced approach we settled on gave enough form to the process without prescribing its outcome or form. We saw this in the style of the reports, which offered insights into each partner’s team. Some included pictures and figures. Others interjected the project narrative with personal reflections. These organization-specific idiosyncrasies were informative in and of themselves.
2. Flexibility helps mitigate blindspots
The result of this process was a set of reports from our partners that conveyed their respective journeys with a great deal of curiosity and self-awareness. These reports highlighted not just what they had done---which we would have been able to garner from a more traditional approach---but also what had gone wrong, what had been particularly challenging, what they learned along the way, and how they had applied those lessons across the organization. One of our partners outlined how they used their audience research to enhance their fundraising initiatives. Yet another applied lessons learned in our work together.
3. Reflection is a habit
Most meaningful individual reflective practices—prayer, meditation, therapy, and astrology—draw on habit and repetition to facilitate introspection. By bringing multiple people to facilitate reflections in a staggered and cumulative approach, our partners were able to draw on this magic of repetition to focus holistically on how their projects developed, and dig deeper into their work. We are also integrating this reflective approach to our accompaniment and plan to continue to stagger reflective stages into our work together moving forward.
4. Positionality matters
What we learn through introspection needs to be married with a careful consideration of whose vantage point we are inhabiting. Early on in designing this process we agreed that we would need to engage in a similar reflective process with Rebecca’s help to get the full story of this initiative. Just as our partners shared their reflections with us, we want to share with them what resulted from this process for ourselves.
In short, true reflection is a process and a habit. We need to focus less on the output (a written report) and more on the process. We found that a semi-structured, interactive process gave our partners the right level of flexibility and space to tell their story with their own voice. Both the content and its form have proven incredibly useful in distilling our collective learning—and have even inspired JustLabs to rethink how we structure and prepare our own reports. Other funders might be well-served by shifting their thinking about reporting from a solely or even primarily accountability function to one of mutual learning and reflection. We hope this account helps with that impetus.
This article is a part of a collection by JustLabs and the Fund for Global Human Rights on bringing narrative initiatives to life in human rights work.
Sean is a Ph.D. candidate in the Politics Department at Princeton University. From March 2020 until January 2021, he also served as project manager for the Narratives Project at JustLabs.