Field building for democracy

The importance of connection, coordination and collaboration

By Michelle Man 21 April 2021 4 minute read

In this blog, Michelle Man reflects on her work outside of NPC on the UK Democracy Handbook—a new co-created and collectively owned resource for people working to build a better democracy. She shares ideas on how to increase connections within a chosen field, improve coordination and collaboration, and build communities of practice.

In 2019, I wrote about why democracy matters to all social purpose organisations. Right now, every cause and campaign is being undermined because large segments of the population aren’t being heard, their views aren’t influencing decision-making, and power is concentrated in the hands of a minority. Democracy affects every aspect of our lives and all charitable organisations have a vested interest in defending it.

The UK democracy sector—made up of individuals and organisations working to strengthen democracy—is failing to meet the task. It is small, under-funded, fragmented and characterised by duplication, reinventing of the wheel and persistent gaps. With only two weeks until potentially the largest and most complex set of UK elections ever, there is no large-scale coordinated activity in place to support electors to participate. The democracy sector urgently needs to work together more effectively.

Many people in the charity sector will recognise these challenges, largely because funding dynamics often work against coordination and collaboration. However, individual actors lack the insight and resources to tackle complex and systemic issues. Improved coordination and collaboration can increase efficiency and lead to better outcomes, due to better information and more creativity and innovation. Whether it’s building a thriving democracy or tackling homelessness, if we’re to achieve our charitable missions, we need to find ways to be more open and collaborative.

The UK Democracy Handbook

The UK Democracy Handbook is an experimental approach to improving coordination around an important issue. It is a new digital space where anyone can access and share information and connect with others in the sector. We run weekly meetups where people share updates on short calls, or asynchronously at a time that suits them. We also circulate news from the sector via our mailing list.

We believe that the UK needs a better democracy sector—one that is more efficient, effective and sustainable, as well as larger, more diverse, and more influential. We aim to achieve this by supporting the individuals and organisations working towards these goals.

Recognising that actors in this sector lack the time, resources and opportunities to collaborate and coordinate, we are building shared infrastructure and facilitating connection and information exchange. We believe that networking the sector in this way will enable communities of practice to develop, where people support and collaborate with each other and create meaningful change.

Connecting the democracy sector

Our approach builds on what already exists in the sector. Rather than duplicating or competing with initiatives, we aim to strengthen them by drawing new connections between them and bringing new actors into the network. We want to get to a place where information flows more easily, so that duplication is reduced, gaps are identified, and everyone’s work is more effective.

The diagram shows two networks. One (A) is disjointed, with few lines joining up the dots. The other (B) is joined up with lines between all the dots. The title reads 'getting the sector from A to B'.

Diagram adapted from Networking for Democracy.

For us, this is about providing three things to support greater connection:

  • Infrastructure: Creating shared spaces where people can easily connect, exchange information, work together, and build on previous ideas.
  • Facilitation: Bringing people into the network and connecting people with each other. We’re trying to establish a culture where people share what they’re doing, and check what others are working on.
  • Sustainability: Networking the sector in an open way, as opposed to creating ‘a network’. This increases the sustainability and resilience of the community by removing dependencies on one or two central actors.

Building shared understanding

The democracy sector is held back by a lack of understanding of who is doing what. Organisations don’t use the same definitions for key terms and their understanding of the sector is limited to their own experiences. Our aim is to deepen everyone’s understanding through three activities:

  • Facilitating information exchange. We provide opportunities for people to share information with each other. We also synthesise updates to share with the sector.
  • Providing a central and coherent place for information on people, organisations, campaigns, funding, events, jobs and more. We’re trying to establish common definitions, so that ideas are recognisable, coherent and transferable.
  • Sharing power within the sector, recognising that people don’t currently have access to the same opportunities. Our activities are open to anyone at any time and content is co-created. This enables us to collectively and democratically build our understanding over time, in real-time.

Our aims depend on the involvement of everyone in the democracy sector, not only those who are able and willing to participate. We try to make activities as easy as possible to engage with, recognising that people will come to this for different reasons. We have been proactive in our outreach, and while we are confident that many are aware of our work, it is important that we reach everyone in the sector. Those who are less likely to hear from us are also the ones who are less likely to be heard in other forums.

Supporting coordination and collaboration

There are many live debates about what is required for effective collaboration in the charity sector. From our perspective, at a minimum, it needs some level of shared understanding. Organisations may not necessarily need to agree on a shared vision but they do need to ‘speak the same language’ by agreeing and using common definitions for key terms.

Trust can support collaboration—when people trust each other, they are more likely to share, take risks, and act together. But trust is not necessarily a precondition and gravitating to people we already trust can reinforce unconscious biases. Our approach is more transactional. The UK Democracy Handbook helps people to understand who is doing what—essentially, creating marketplaces where people can identify needs and capacities across the sector. This makes it easier to match supply and demand, and forge relationships even where trust is initially absent or low.

It’s really positive to see this coming together. The sector has been so incoherent and diffuse for so long, it can be difficult to grasp what’s happening even when you’re working in it every day. I look forward to seeing it grow.

UK Democracy Handbook participant

Every part of the charity sector will recognise the challenges we’re experiencing in the field of democracy and, like us, people working on many different cause areas will be looking for ways to make their fields more effective, efficient and sustainable.

Providing the right infrastructure and support for coordination and collaboration are the key to building fields and unlocking impact. We know we’re not the only ones thinking about this. Cassie Robinson, Deputy Director of Funding Strategy at The National Lottery Community Fund, wrote a great blog on field building. Finance Innovation Lab has shared thinking on community building as a strategy for systems change. If you have ideas or want to help our efforts, get in touch. I’d love to chat.

The UK Democracy Handbook is a collaborative project led by Jonny Will Chambers, Michelle Man, Joe Mitchell, James Moulding and Edward Saperia. Visit the UK Democracy Handbook, join our weekly meetups, connect on Twitter, and subscribe to our mailing list for updates. 

The UK democracy sector faces challenges similar to those faced by charities. Many lack the time, resources and opportunities to collaborate and coordinate. Here's how to increase connections within your chosen field: Click To Tweet