Innovation insights from civil society leaders

This an excerpt from the first issue of a publication called Improvise by the Fellowship for Organisational Innovation. During each immersion, we invited inspiring people to come and talk about different topics relevant to that immersion. Nomvula Dlamini, Director and Practitioner at the Community Development Resource Association (CDRA) shares her thoughts on the theme of ‘The Innovator’s Mindset’ during Immersion 1.


Nomvula Dlamini struck a powerful chord when she reminded the Fellows of the important role civil society played in achieving freedom and democracy in South Africa. These organisations were at the forefront of leading societal change.

“Every initiative was connected to the struggle for liberation and it gave purpose and direction,” she said, adding that, come the 1990s, civil society organisations played a role in the democratic transition because they were the ones collecting information and hard evidence, which was needed to support critical engagements, arguments and policy. Democracy led to a time of reflection for civil society, on how to reposition itself in this new context, and with limited resources. “Many NGOs closed their doors and today funding is much harder to come by – and it comes with stringent reporting requirements. Donors are interested in your financial management, and you have to demonstrate impact,” she noted.

In this ever-changing and uncertain context, Dlamini feels it is important to always bear the following points in mind: “Firstly, remember that your organisations are social progress organisations and need to be a wellspring of innovation. We cannot employ the same approaches and methodologies to keep doing things in the same way.” Secondly, “we have to be the site of cultural creativity in terms of ideas, knowledge, processes, approaches and practices. We are connected directly to the people, and we have the most free space in terms of developing some of the responses that are required.”

She urged the Fellows to ask themselves: is my organisation producing new ideas or just doing the same things over and over again? “As emerging leaders, you have to ask yourselves: Am I contributing to the production of new ideas and knowledge creation in my organisation?” She added: “Also if you are in civil society, you have to contribute towards the development of human potential. Civil society is the site of transformative processes. Ask yourselves if the work you do allows you to experience personal transformation and if it contributes to the transformation of others in the organisation, in the community and in society.”

Finally, Dlamini urged the Fellows to dispel the myth that people who work in the social sector are not professionals. She left them with these questions to inspire them on their journeys: “How can we learn to see, understand and act in an interconnected, interdependent world? As civil society we can no longer just act on our own – we’ve got to recognise the interconnection with other sectors – but how do we retain our autonomy? How do we learn to confront and to cooperate at the same time?”


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

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