Creating space for innovation to emerge

To seize the opportunities for South Africa to fulfil its potential, we need to reignite a vital and innovative civil society that is able to drive change. DGMT’s Fellowship for Organisational Innovation sets out to do just this. Carol-Ann Foulis, Innovation Director: Innovative and Inclusive Society at DGMT, explains the thinking behind this programme.

The Fellowship for Organisational Innovation brings together diverse young talent from South African civil society organisations to drive innovation. The Fellowship has 3 objectives: to unlock the talent and leadership potential of young people within civil society organisations; to unlock organisational potential and increase the impact of these organisations; and to build a network of individuals and organisations that are driving public innovation and, in doing so, spark a network effect where our efforts are greatly amplified.

In March 2018, 17 Fellows from 10 civil society organisations working in and around South Africa embarked upon the DGMT’s Fellowship for Organisational Innovation.

The Fellowship is a new initiative part of DGMT’s strategy to nurture an innovative and inclusive society. It is a strategy that is bold, surprising, and in many respects, generous. Bold in its vision for a better society – rather than for a few individuals; surprising in its marriage of innovation and inclusivity; and generous in its recognition of the need for nurturing. It also aims to strongly assert civil society’s position as an equal partner alongside business and government.

While economic growth in South Africa is floundering, the growth in inequality and exclusion is experiencing a boom. Whole sections of our population are drifting further and further away from what a well-functioning society should be – one where people have, at the very least, access to food, quality education, safety and employment.

In South Africa, nearly half of all young people don’t obtain a matric qualification, and 50% of children aged 3 to 4 do not have access to early learning programmes. In 2017/2018, there were over 40 000 reported cases of rape in the country, although these figures are likely to be under-reported. Our society is a hostile place for many people.

Either our expectations need to shift, or the dogma that drives the exploitation, bullying and greed that is often at the heart of inequality, needs to be challenged. It is, to paraphrase Henry Mintzberg, time to “rebalance” society.

The notion of rebalancing society is a powerful one. What if instead of only looking to government or big business for the answers, we turned our attention elsewhere: to the thousands of small, medium-sized and large organisations that are working in society, in civil society? These organisations are not driven by profit – their legal status precludes this. And, much like governments, they are interested in supporting the public good. To frame it in economic terms, this is work that could be seen as carrying significant positive externalities. It is work that disproportionately benefits society rather than the individual NGO itself.

It is these organisations that the DGMT Fellowship sought to support and enhance. Organisations such as the Rape Crisis Trust, which is seeking to strengthen the criminal justice system in support of rape survivors; SmartStart, which is tackling the issue of how to increase access to quality early learning programmes; and the Catholic Institute of Education, which aims to provide quality education to young South Africans.

Without such organisations that are actively addressing violence against women and children, access to early childhood development (ECD), and quality of education – alongside dozens of other such challenges – we would be losing out as a society. Research shows, for example, that an investment in ECD has compounding returns for society; improving the quality of school education will help to close the skills gap in a globalised knowledge economy; and healing the violence of our society will allow all of us – women and men – to bring more of ourselves into the light.

Yet, civil society is undervalued. It is often misrepresented as doing ‘good work’, but work that can be easily dismissed as trivial or marginal, or referred to in sentimental terms – rather than work that is powerful and essential to the success of our country. Civil society is often engaged in work that is substantial in its goals and substantial in its people. It is work that is driven by community activists, fieldworkers, doctors, economists, lawyers, anthropologists and accountants. And it is work that could appeal to more talented young professionals if it is positioned more favourably.

It is also a sector in need of some revitalisation if it is to keep pace with – or even outpace – the world around it. Our goal at DGMT is to introduce innovation to the sector to enable it to achieve this. This has been met with some resistance – sometimes from those around us; sometimes from ourselves. Yet, as Nomvula Dlamini, Director of the Community Development Resource Association (CDRA), has so eloquently asserted: “Civil society is the wellspring of innovation”. And this – as we see it – requires those working in the sector to possess a certain nimbleness of mind, an expansiveness in thinking, and a willingness to pursue questions rather than, sometimes outdated, answers.

These are some of the qualities that we aimed to nurture over the 12 months of the Fellowship. The stories that follow, by the Fellows themselves and the organisations they come from, will reveal more of what we did and how it was received.

Above all, we seemed to create a safe space, a community of people listening to one another while strategising, planning and taking action. And interestingly, it was from this safe space, and this community, that courage, risk and – dare we say it – innovation emerged.


This an excerpt from the first issue of a publication called Improvise by the Fellowship for Organisational Innovation. 

You can read and download a digital copy of Improvise below. 

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