by Barry Camson
In the twenty first century, there are increasing instances of people and organizations operating as networks. This is certainly supported by the interactive capabilities of the Internet. Beyond this, there is the recognition that often the highest leverage for advancing the goals of individual organizations consists in affiliating as a network. This is especially true in the nonprofit sector where individual organizations do not have the advantages that private sector organizations do in generating revenue and using scale to reduce costs.
The CVO (Council of Volunteer Organizations) network is a significant illustration of the value of the network approach in the NGO sector. The CVO network is a voluntary affiliation of individual NGO’s in the area of Haifa, Israel. Though the individual organizations retain their own legal and organizational entity, they collaborate with other organizations in the network in specific activities.
This article will describe the details of how CVO operates as a network, its useful practices and the value that it provides. It will do by considering the important elements of a network.
Purpose of CVO
The purpose of CVO is to coordinate between organizations working in similar or parallel fields and in developing thinking and activities among these organizations. CVO focuses on community organizing, developing collaborations and arranging forums. It is especially interested in professional training. Overall, CVO seeks to promote community and civil society.
Value Provided by CVO
The CVO Network is an innovative approach to leveraging the limited resources that exist in the NGO sector. CVO succeeds in providing services to NGO’s that are often not in a financial or resource-rich position to provide these services for themselves. CVO, by aggregating individual NGO’s within its umbrella of organizations is able to actively support the growth and development of individual NGO’s and their members. By doing so, CVO provides benefits to the individual NGO’s as well as to the municipality of Haifa and funders that support these individual NGO’s. CVO lessens the financial burden on funders who need to support the individual NGO’s as well as on the NGO’s themselves.
There are many ways that CVO provides value to its member organizations. CVO identifies common issues that most organizations are interested in and may not be able to deal with well on their own. Lobbying is one example of this. CVO has been successful in increasing the voice of organizations.
CVO collects and provides data for the benefit of its member organizations. CVO provides workshops and training in specific skills that benefit member organizations and individual members of these organizations.
CVO helps individuals develop competencies in areas of value to their own organizations. Smaller organizations do not usually have the time or money to obtain training. CVO provides training in specific skill areas such as project development, public relations, communications, facilitation and how to be a team leader. CVO tries to instill a willingness in its members to share with others and to take responsibility to take action.
Interacting with others, making connections and building relationships is important to the members of CVO. CVO meets the need of people to feel more connected. Members develop social connections and become friends. This increases the job satisfaction of members of the individual NGO’s. They continue to grow and learn.
Inclusion and Participation
CVO recruits members to become part of CVO. There is a core of members that continue from year to year. Other organizations belong depending on their particular organizational needs or what their finances allow. CVO started with 32 organizations. In 2010, there were 100 out of 300 organizations in Haifa that were members.
CVO recruits members by locating all the organizations that may be interested in a given subject and following up with them. CVO recruits actively by advertising in newspapers, using mailing lists, their own Internet site or by meeting with administrators of these organizations. In the recruiting process, CVO will go to organizations to see what they do. This can lead to an invitation to the organization to participate in CVO.
Organizations may want to participate in CVO in different ways. They might want to come to the General Assembly which is one of the major discussion and decision making forums of CVO. They might want to come to training or attend a course. They might want to be a board member.
What CVO expects from organization members according to CVO Director Yael Abada is “to pay member fees, to come to gatherings, to take part in a week of volunteerism, to come to courses, to use us if they want to send a message to other organizations, to use our data base.”
Governance and Funding
CVO is an official entity according to Israeli law. CVO has a board that meets once a month and a chair of the board. The board has 14 members most of whom are representatives of other organizations.
CVO has a director plus several staff. There is a General Assembly which meets once a year, chooses the board and approves official documents. The General Assembly provides for general awareness of the members. CVO is funded mainly by the Haifa-Boston Connection, plus the Joint Distribution Committee. It is also funded by municipalities and provided with in-kind contributions by the University of Haifa. Members pay 200 sheckles a year. CVO also writes proposals to American foundations with representatives in Israel.
Members are convened via the General Assembly. Email lists and a Facebook page also serve as convening vehicles or at least communication vehicles. Courses offered by CVO also serve as forums in which members convene.
The main convening vehicle of CVO is the clusters (eshkolot). Clusters are groups of member organizations that are convened in order to do the work of CVO. Clusters are composed of representatives of member organizations who are interested in a particular area. For example, one such area is Employment. Clusters learn together, discuss issues and share knowledge. Sub-teams within a given cluster are often set up to work on specific action areas. People choose the team in which they want to work.
Members in the clusters choose how they want to be organized. In each cluster, CVO gives them time to define what they want to do and how they want to do it. Clusters meet once a month at least for several hours. Sometimes they meet in between. Clusters have an email group. Members of clusters invite each other to their activities in their organizations. There is a core group in the clusters that provides for continuity.
CVO has been successful with the use of clusters. The Special Needs cluster and the Young Adults clusters are examples of successful CVO clusters. The Special Needs cluster is made up of 33 organizations. The Young Leadership cluster is made up of 15 organizations. According to Yael Abada, signs of success for a cluster are: if other organizations want to joint the cluster; if they produce new connections or new projects; if they have collaborations among themselves; if they promote issues or if they have products.
The leaders of CVO are actively pursuing knowledge and resources outside of the network. They do this in other forums such as degree programs, conferences and meetings with CEO’s. They bring this knowledge into staff meetings and engage in peer learning where, for example, dilemmas faced can be discussed. This knowledge is made available to members of CVO.
CVO facilitates the sharing of knowledge among NGO’s. Small individual organizations have limited ability to learn about what approaches work across the NGO sector and in their particular area of activity. As a result they end up operating without the benefit of this knowledge. They can often “reinvent the wheel” which increases the costs to the individual organization and their funders. CVO provides opportunities for representatives of member organizations to meet with representatives of other organizations operating in similar or different fields and to find out what others are doing. There is a lot to learn from each other because many of the challenges are the same. According to Director, Yael Abada, CVO enables organization members to “get out of their bubble” and interact with those across a wider spectrum. “We give them the opportunity to meet other organizations, come to a course, meet the mayor.”
Providing training is another means of sharing knowledge. CVO is proud of the courses that it runs. Yael Abada stated, “organizations outside of Haifa come to us and say that they want to be in the course, in the network. Courses are very professional. People get a lot of knowledge, tools, connections.”
Facilitation and Norms
The clusters are facilitated by CVO staff. Facilitation is provided especially in the first phase of cluster existence. After this, CVO tries to work through sub-teams in the clusters. Each cluster develops norms to support their interactions. For example, in the Special Needs cluster, one whole day was dedicated to this. They looked at objectives, decided how they will work and set out their expectations and responsibilities.
The goal of CVO facilitation of the clusters and sub-teams is to support these groups doing the work though not to do the work for them. Yael said, “we are trying to work through the sub-teams in the clusters, trying to make these sub-teams work more independently.”
Leadership’s Theory of Change
There are some governing, working theories held by CVO leadership that influence actions in the network.
One theory is that in order to make changes, seeds need to be planted in many people and organizations. Operating in a network is different from operating as a single organization which often can have a hierarchical command and control structure which makes directing the organization simpler.
One important understanding put into action by CVO is that focusing on the mission is a good way to re-motivate and rejuvenate people. CVO might dedicate an entire day to revisiting the mission. Change has occurred in the past by inviting all organizations in Haifa to participate in meetings to address mission and goals.
It is hoped that other sectors of NGO’s defined by geography, professional orientation or served population can profit by the example of CVO. If your organization is part of a network and you would like to share your best practices with others, I would like to hear from you.
Barry Camson is an organization development consultant and trainer in Boston, MA. He has consulted to NGO’s in Israel, worked in economic development in Africa for USAID and consulted to a variety of organizations in the US. His current focus is on the effective use of networks and approaches for sharing knowledge across organizations and cultures. He can be reached at BCamson@aol.com. He blogs at barrycamson.com.