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Critical friendships in leading change

The Centre for Youth Impact exists to stimulate and support change: in how youth sector organisations think about, generate, and use evidence to improve their work, and thereby outcomes, for young people.

We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how, and with whom, we can achieve a mission as complex – and powerful – as shifting cultures and ways of working.

We are clear that we cannot act alone, however strong our own drive and sense of purpose. So, we operate with collaboration at our core: with organisations leading networks that reach across the country, with experts from across the evidence sector and even with related initiatives in other countries.

We’ve been reflecting recently on the importance to us of the individuals that make those partnerships work: individuals who understand what we are trying to achieve, feel synergies with their own work, and are immediately prepared to invest resource and energy in joining forces, even when the ideas can feel hard to pin down.

When leading a movement for change, “it is important to start small and engage an enthusiastic team of co-conspirators in your work”, suggest Sacks and Grant, writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

This rang true for us. We are effectively working with such a team of co-conspirators with our network leads and closest partner organisations. Our co-conspirators may be at very different stages in their journeys with relation to impact measurement, but they are all committed, enthusiastic and willing to share, learn and be challenged in terms of their beliefs about the way forward for their organisations, their networks and the wider sector.  We have found it to be a natural fit to work with ‘co-conspirators’ in this way: they have validated our beliefs and approach, and together, we have been able to move forward efficiently, energetically and positively.

We know that we now need to maintain a dual focus as we build and support numerous and diverse communities of practice focused on impact measurement in work with young people across the country.  We want to stay close to our group of ‘co-conspirators’ as we develop our thinking and ideas, and evolve our work together.  However, we simultaneously need to be outward-facing and ensure that we understand and are responding the wide range of perspectives across the sector, and know that we should not be tempted too far into the comfort zone of working only with those whose values and ways of working so closely mirror our own.

We want to build transformative Communities of Practice – not just host network meetings.  We also need to stay true to our ambitions to be sector-led.  By definition this means we need to be led by the sentiments, needs, approaches and experiences emerging from the gatherings of practitioners that we are supporting – we cannot expect to determine them.

Before we even recognised that we’d created a network of co-conspirators, we were thinking hard about how our approach was evolving and what we could learn from what has gone before.  So we got in touch with Osca, seeking some insights, particularly from their work in the health sector.  Drawing on their research and our experience to date, we will be trying to implement the following as we set up and support our communities:

  • Development of our own skills as a team, with respect to asking the right questions, being challenging, and providing expert input where appropriate
  • Providing carefully tailored training for our network leads, in coaching, facilitation and organisational and systematic change, alongside more specifically methodological training, to support them in leading change by engaging hearts and minds, rather than just building capacity
  • Setting up strong Action Learning Sets, to which members are committed, as a resource for our network leads: their mechanism for learning from, and challenging, one another, and building a sense of trust that crosses organisational boundaries
  • Attending as many network meetings as possible to share knowledge and approaches between them and strengthen a sense of shared identity
  • Providing the resources (meeting space, online forums, training, contacts, funding to support administration) to put our network leads in the best possible position to develop and strengthen their local communities

We hope that this will allow us to build strong connections within and across communities, which create safe spaces for reflection and learning, and through this, build upon and expand our small team of co-conspirators – as opposed to remaining inward facing, at risk of appearing exclusive, and reliant on the ‘few’ working in separately to the ‘many’.

We need to balance nurturing a tight, mutually supportive immediate community, with reaching out to those furthest away from our mission.  All while ensuring that our work stays true to the many perspectives and needs of the diverse mix of organisations that make up the youth sector.

Watch this space for how we get on with that!