The better Governance Blog #1
A year in review.
"Learning to Scream it From the Rooftops"
Otto Williams, Co-Founder and Director
A little over one year ago in March last year I left a job I loved to turn an idea that I shared with colleagues into something real, something concrete. Looking back, I wonder if we were extremely brave or extremely stupid – when we started, we had no name, no projects, no big institutional backer, no office, and the pandemic was in full swing.
International development (especially the unlucrative, non-profit kind) isn’t the type of industry where – the night before you quit to ‘start your own thing’ – you phone clients deep into the night à la Mad Men, trying to persuade them to join your new outfit. Instead, the night before we started, I lay in bed unable to sleep, and on that first Monday turned up to meet my colleagues in a hotel lobby that we’d heard you could work in for free (they were all empty because of the pandemic). Helping myself to the much-needed free coffee (Clarion Hotel Stockholm, we’re forever grateful), we instead began sketching out how we could turn our idea into an organisation.
This week we published our first Annual Report. When I first started writing it, the report felt more like an ‘energy-taker’ than an ‘energy-giver’. I knew I was writing something that few people would read, it wasn’t necessarily moving the organisation forward – and of course there were always going to be some things that hadn’t gone to plan.
But by the time I’d got halfway through that sentiment had changed. I’d realised how far we’d come, and that our idea was now an organisation. An organisation I was suddenly very proud of, doing impactful, meaningful work. I’m instinctively not someone for self-promotion (this probably makes me a bad ‘Co-Founder’ type), but I nevertheless want to shout out about some of the great things we – The Better Governance Project – achieved in our first year of existence, and thank those who helped us in the first year of this incredible journey.
March – June. Legal establishment, first projects, and organisational foundations
By the time I left my job, my co-founder Jamie had been working since late January to put a lot of the legal framework for the organisation in place – which was great for me, because I’ve learnt I’m not as much of a details-person as I thought I was. We were registered as an ’ideell förening’ and in doing so, we became the first non-profit in the Nordics focused exclusively on strengthening public sector organisations in low-income countries.
We also began a bunch of new assignments, working with the French Development Agency in Ethiopia, the Swedish Embassy in Addis Ababa, and supporting Sida’s Unit for Afghanistan to look back and learn from their support to public institutions and civil society over the last few years.
On the operational side, we set up IT infrastructure, designed a logo and developed our website, established a financial management system, and began working in a co-working space in central Stockholm. Here my colleague, Camila, was fantastic: as well as being an organisational wizz and on top of absolutely everything, she learnt how to develop websites and built ours from scratch. She also studied bookkeeping in parallel to doing all of this (she’s great, right?), and though she is (technically) the Head of Operations, she’s also our CFO, IT person, website-guru, getaway-wine-connoisseur and much more.
At the beginning of June our first Annual Meeting was held, and an independent Governing Board was elected. We were extremely lucky to have a very experienced board with diverse professional backgrounds join us, and throughout this first year they have provided us with invaluable advice, counsel, and encouragement; whilst also keeping us on our toes.
We’re Swedish, so we were all on holiday. (Yes, again, we are not the ideal ‘Co-Founder’ types).
August – September. The Civil Society Innovation Fund, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Governing Board, Somaliland
Okay; so truthfully in summer we worked a bit – on the Civil Society Innovation Fund, together with the French Development Agency (AFD). Between May and December, we worked particularly closely with Camille Pellerin, a researcher at Uppsala University, to assist the AFD to facilitate the design and launch of the Fund – with a lot of the work falling between July and September.
The Fund’s aim is to help diversify Ethiopian civil society by providing support to newer organisations that are working to hold the government accountable for its human rights and media freedom commitments. In addition to hosting consultative workshops with dozens of organisations throughout Ethiopia, we worked with an inspiring staff at the French Embassy in Addis Ababa and Camille to design and launch the call for proposals, as well as designing technical assistance projects that will support the selected organisations during implementation.
We ended up having the fortune of working very closely with the organisations themselves to help them refine and develop their project ideas, and starting from this year the fund will begin supporting a number of exciting projects that kicked-off in January (read more here: csinnovationfund.org).
We also took on additional assignments – with Jamie working with the Embassy of Sweden in Sarajevo to evaluate Swedish support to the two Local Government Associations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here I really have to underscore Jamie’s work ethic. Since starting the organisation, as well as being on top of all things organisational and juggling multiple advisory assignments, he’s also on top of all things HR: pushing us forward, encouraging us, and checking in to see how we all feel. And he balances this all, somehow, with a lot of time spent being a great father to three young daughters – he’s a role model.
October – December. Mission-Driven Public Leaders; First Setbacks
A big part of our philosophy – and a lot of what inspired us to leave quite comfortable jobs – is the idea that one of the most important (if not the most important) factors for whether a project succeeds or not is quite simply leadership: leadership of the project of course, though perhaps more crucially leadership within a counterpart organisation.
For us, that means the departure point for developing projects isn’t as much the topic that we’re working on – but rather the mission-driven public leaders that we’re working with. Our goal is to help these public leaders, the most precious resource a country can have, facilitate change in their organisations by working iteratively on the problems facing them. In this sense our approach is a much more people-focused way of doing development than is usually the case.
In autumn we travelled to Somaliland, a country that we’d worked in for several years and had great friends and colleagues in, to meet with the public leaders from some fifteen ministries, agencies, and commissions. The quality of public leadership in Somaliland is outstanding, and the country is a true success story in an otherwise volatile region, a small island of democracy on Africa’s eastern tip. Having met with numerous inspiring civil servants, based on what funding possibilities were available in Sweden, we co-developed project proposals with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, the National HIV/AIDS Commission and the Ministry of Youth and Sports.
Alongside doing this ‘fundraising’ work, we also began to expend a lot of resources developing internal policies and procedures, with Camila working closely with the Board to develop and implement systems that are industry best practice – and that allow us to apply for funding from international donors.
But despite the best of intentions, some things are often not meant to be. In December we received (in what felt like quick and continuous succession) the unfortunate news that our project proposals, developed closely with each public agency, would not receive funding – putting a spoke in the wheels of what we felt was, somehow, a sure thing.
These series of setbacks were probably our lowest point since starting the organisation. We started questioning whether this – the organisation – could work in the long-term; and whether our ideas would ever be as appreciated by others as they were by us. Worst of all was that these projects would have worked with inspiring leaders to tackle problems that we felt were both acute and critical; and that we knew wouldn’t receive funding elsewhere. Projects aimed at creating better HIV and AIDS data; at reducing and treating solid waste; at kick-starting municipal-level plastic recycling; and improving outreach to youth at risk of violence.
January until now. New colleagues, new assignments, a new ‘voice’
At the turn of the year we were joined by two remarkable colleagues, Lennart and Amelie, for the Spring-Summer academic term. Very quickly, thanks to their infectious enthusiasm, it soon felt like we had our mojo back. Everyone has heard a thousand platitudes about new staff bringing ‘new ideas’ and ‘new energy’ to an organisation – it seems like such a cliché that we mostly read over it when we see it written by recruiters or companies. But when an organisation of three grows to an organisation of five, you really see this truism in practice. We had all previously worked for the same development consulting company, and to have new colleagues come on board and challenge some of the ways that we worked and thought about things was truly refreshing.
Maybe most importantly, they both helped us to realise that how we spoke about ourselves externally – using detailed, uninspiring, and technical language – didn’t at all reflect the motivations we had for starting the organisation, the ways that we worked, or spoke about ourselves internally. In a series of workshops where we spoke about identity, purpose, tone, and language, we played around with different taglines or slogans that defined who we were, or what we were working towards. Someone landed on “The Future of Aid is no Aid” and we all smiled in silence, looking smugly at each other. ‘Yep’, we all thought, this is it.
We actually never ended up using the slogan when we redesigned the website and rewrote all our copy. But nevertheless, it helped us arrive at a way of communicating about why we did what we did: because stronger public institutions are the only long-term solution to aid dependency. We stopped writing ‘public servants’ and began labelling them what they are: changemakers. And we stopped talking about ‘improving’ governance assistance; it’s our mission to re-imagine it.
This new gusto is starting to pay dividends, and already in 2022 we’re off to a flying start.
Since January we’ve began five new assignments, working with four different embassies, in countries as diverse as Kosovo, Sudan and Georgia. We have some exciting projects in our pipeline. And people have finally started to get our idea. While there remains considerable work to be done to ensure the long-term future of our organisation – and a transformation in how public sector strengthening is done – looking back at the last 12 months, I want to climb onto a rooftop and scream about the things we’ve already achieved.
Throughout the year we benefitted immensely from the help, advise and support of several friends, colleagues and confidants, for which we are all extremely grateful. In no particular order, we thank you,
Ismail Ibrahim * Camille Pellerin * Visar Berisha * Yayhe Khalif * Elin Törnblom Duthu * Shane Quinn * David Wiking * Henrik Alffram * Johan Mast * Johanna Lindström * Feysal Osman * Henry Karanja * Mats Hårsmar * Niklas Swanström * Ylva Lindh * Andrew Smith * Sahra Daar * Mona Mainhed * Karin Ericsson * Tariq Demmou * Nathan Teitgen * Dan Honig * Klas Markensten * Per Nordlund * Paul Boateng * Magnus Allgulin * Gunnar Fors * Annika Törnqvist * Tommy Carlsson * Mats Alentun * Lena Smith * Karin Metell Cueva * Mathias Krüger * Mathias Lindkvist * Janet Vähämäki * Klas Palm * Åza Swedin * Michael Taylor * Clarion Hotel Stockholm