Making Hope and History Rhyme: A Model for the Nonprofit Role in Active Democracy

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Editors’ Note: Aideen McGinley was the keynote speaker at the 2003 annual conference of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, where she received a standing ovation for her talk, providing an inspiring alternative vision for nonprofit influence in society.


Nongovernmental organizations (the equivalent of nonprofits in the United States) have made a remarkable contribution to the development and building of Northern Ireland’s government—in active partnership with its population. Northern Ireland is admittedly small next to the U.S. But I believe our experience may contain lessons and ideas for your American nonprofit sector in how you become more central to the design of the future of your country and its governance.

I have been a civil servant in Northern Ireland during its most turbulent years. I started almost 30 years ago as a community services officer in local government and am now permanent secretary for Culture, Arts and Leisure in the new, shared government that resulted from the Good Friday Agreement of 1999. Although that agreement is currently suspended, we trust it will be restored in the not-too-distant future.

This, in itself, illustrates the fragile nature of real politics in Northern Ireland. Prior to the agreement, which established peace (albeit an uneasy, continuously evolving one), there had been 30 years of internal strife and violence known as the “troubles.” During this time, conflict between the minority Catholic population, which was at that time economically and socially marginalized, and the majority Protestant population took many different forms which would be very similar to those which preceded the American civil rights movement.

These troubles were possibly both the result of and eventually the reason for a lack of self-rule as the United Kingdom began to devolve government to the local level—in particular, to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

The combination of a divided population and lack of self-rule created a serious democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. Here I describe how we have moved from that position, with the faith and energy of our NGO sector as our backbone—and the key to identifying and negotiating the interactions necessary to create newly discovered common ground.

Responsible governance at every level requires us to be the voice of those we represent. This is not a charge that should be taken lightly. It requires us to take the time to enable people to tell and make meaning of their own stories, so others can act with them and on their behalf. The single most difficult issue we face globally is keeping people motivated. There is such disengagement and disillusionment about political systems, and when people are disillusioned, they will disengage.
Nonprofits can play an enormous part in putting the passion back in politics through engaging people and assisting in the negotiation of power. This requires the sector to take that role seriously and should be a primary reason for the sector’s existence, not just to defend the status quo, but also to challenge it. Some people fear and steer clear of politics. It is possible, however, for nonprofit leaders to assert the non-partisan aspects of their work and develop prevention strategies, while recognizing that the personal is fundamentally political and therefore unavoidable.

We need to enable people to engage at whatever level of society or sphere they operate. This will enable them to challenge and enhance the democratic process, and create the framework necessary to advance social, economic and political justice, and to strengthen democracy.

Together, we need to lift our sights and create the image of a transformed society. We need to identify the perpetual horizon.

A wealth of individual and collective responsibility is untapped in every community. When engaged, this responsibility provides phenomenal levels of local energy and creativity, which, under the right conditions, can transform not only that place, but also help to transform the context. The context and the place are interconnected. Society itself, with its rich tapestry of diverse stakeholders, deserves to be treated as the whole and intricate system it is, as do the people who inhabit the system.

I have been repeatedly awed by the degree to which ordinary people become powerful catalysts for positive change if they’re engaged and empowered.

But engaging people must always be done with respect for complexity. We must recognize and respect the interdependent nature of communities and events. We too often treat events as isolated incidents, not understanding how intervention in one part of a community can wreak havoc in another place or at another time. Too often we blame individuals for problems, even when these individuals have little or no ability to control the events around them.

Northern Ireland is a devolved region of the United Kingdom where the NGO movement started in 1870 with the abolition of slavery in the U.K. One of the cornerstones of life in Northern Ireland has been the rich and vibrant nonprofit sector, with over 5,000 organizations, employing 30,000 people. This sector has provided the solid bedrock that has seen us through some of the madness we have faced, grounding us in reality through an action-oriented, bottom-up approach to local development.

The history of partnership in Northern Ireland dates back more than 40 years to the 1960s, when we were very introverted in our outlook, possibly through oppression, which led us to look safely inwards at single issues or geography. In the ’70s, collective and cooperative action, including the civil rights movement, emerged. Yet by the ’80s, the Thatcher years, the climate of enterprise and individual supremacy contrasted sharply against an emerging, collectively focused nongovernmental sector.

In the ’90s, the NGO sector matured into an era of partnership. Sound, vibrant community activity had a sense of purpose and confidence that enabled communities to see the possibilities in working with others and to tackle significant local issues over which they had little individual control, yet which determined how they lived. Wisely, the sector has increasingly concentrated on the job of broadly building social capital to make peace and create economic prosperity. People understood they must be more politically aware and active, and thus more engaged with government, thereby fundamentally influencing the ways in which policies were and are developed at the very highest levels.

In 1993, the Community Development Review Group, of which I was a member, presented a series of pioneering reports to government on support for the NGO sector. These highlighted the value of working in partnership and the power of community involvement in ensuring effective policy-making.

Subsequently, in 1998, the government published a compact—or memorandum of understanding with the sector—called “Building Real Partnerships.” It recognized “Our vibrant, extensive community voluntary sector makes a significant and crucial contribution to many aspects of social, economic, environmental and cultural life in Northern Ireland, and we are committed to building stronger partnerships to work together as social partners to maximize benefits for society.”

You may have seen many such documents, which eventually act as handy doorstops or simply gather dust on shelves. This is not the case in Northern Ireland. Government took it seriously, officially and formally recognizing the nature, scope, diversity and value of the sector.

In particular, government respected and supported the voluntary sector’s independent nature and right to campaign and to challenge, and to value its participation in developing public policy. In return, the voluntary sector recognized government’s discrete and strategic role in the development of public policy and the delivery of services within the legislative and financial framework of public accountability. Members of the voluntary sector saw their role as independent advocates who can campaign for change in response to need, and recognize how working in partnership can enhance their ability to meet their objectives.

The NGO sector has played a key role in creating space at the local level for political dialogue in communities and local council chambers. They helped stage the “Yes” campaign, which encouraged over 70 percent of a disparate and divided electorate to vote in favor of a shared government, which was established in 1999 and led to the election of a new 108-person local assembly, an executive committee, and the establishment of 11 government departments. The creation of the assembly’s first-ever Programme for Government as a strategic framework within which the work at both the local and central government level could merge, was a big step forward. In addition, a civic forum gave NGOs direct access to political institutions.

A growing understanding of the principles of equity, diversity and interdependence comprised a parallel development prompted and promoted by the NGO sector. The Equal Opportunities and Good Relations Legislation of 1998 brought in the legal obligation to consult with NGOs about the equity of governmental policy and strategy in nine categories covering age, race, sexual orientation, religion, political opinion, disability, marital status and people with and without dependents. Through the Equality Impact Assessment Process, the government must test all new policies to ensure that there is no differential impact upon any of these nine community categories.

However, we must also be aware of the dilemma posed by too much of a good thing. One small group in Belfast has answered over 600 consultation documents in the past three years! Consult-itus has broken out.

Northern Ireland is considered an exemplar of good partnership working, acting to some extent as a guinea pig for the European Union—especially through the E.U. Peace Programme. This program organized itself around its potential to develop, from the bottom up, locally led initiatives to tackle multi-dimensional problems with the aim of establishing peace at the most local of levels. Good practice and advocacy by NGOs influenced the policy-making consciousness of the whole government in some very interesting ways, including the establishment of 26 partnership boards—one in every local government district in Northern Ireland—starting in 1998.

In 2003, “Partners for Change”—a sister document to the previously outlined compact—reiterated government’s support for the voluntary sector, and further recognized the value and endorsed the need for a working partnership as a shared value. The definition: “…relationships between public, private and voluntary and community sectors, to broaden experience and understanding and promote the development of holistic approaches.”

The compact clarifies respective roles, establishes the shared values and principles that underpin partnership, and identifies commitments to ensure that the relationships will develop proactively. It details actions for all 11 government departments under the cross-cutting themes of Capacity Building, Working Together and Resourcing the Sector. Significantly, it states the shared vision of government and the voluntary and community sector is “to work together as social partners to build up a participative, peaceful, equitable and inclusive community in Northern Ireland.”

So, what have we learned from the practice? In the first instance, we must remember not
to swamp what is fundamentally a sound approach, but keep things simple and focused, recognize the importance of relationships of trust and shared responsibility, and most importantly of all, create a multiple dialogue that aims to empower the most vulnerable, and is key to sustainable democracy and citizens involvement. This also brings with it the responsibility to promote good relations, which we are still in the process of defining in terms of interdependence and how we trust and value each other, how we treat each other, and how we individually lead. After all this, one may rightly ask why do we still not have peace in Northern Ireland?

We do have peace, a troubled peace admittedly, but one where there is dialogue and one that recognizes that this is a long-term process. The nonprofit sector is once again playing the key role in engaging the public by signing people up to a campaign called “One Small Step,” which aims to challenge perceptions and change attitudes to the building and valuing
of peace.

The NGO sector is an army that is fighting apathy and powerlessness, recognizes the long road to be traveled, values devolution, and recognizes the power of Northern Ireland’s first Programme for Government, which is very clear about its willingness to build social capital and promote a working partnership. The NGO sector has made the investment to bring the various strands together, to ensure the filling of the democratic deficit, and keep people engaged. That’s why there continues to be hope.

As you can see, I worked in a very interesting and challenging place at a seminal time, building my own experience with that of my community, which created subtle but powerful influences on the bigger picture through small, mutual steps.

One story I will share with you is drawn on my local government experience in Fermanagh, a beautiful rural area in the west of the United Kingdom, well known for its prolific community and voluntary sector, and its initiatives in rural development.

In 1998, to create the first integrated area development plan in Northern Ireland (of which there are now 26), we used FutureSearch, a planning methodology that lets a system achieve its capability for action in a relatively short time.

Together, people explore their past, present and desired futures to discover common ground, and make concrete action plans on shared motivational goals, employing a new appreciation of the whole system.

Finding common goals did mean leaving titles, differences, superiority and denial at the door. In our community of 55,000, this included the head of education with the teachers, the head of health services with the patients, and so on. It involved 150 meetings and nine working groups to ensure the delivery of our 13 programs, 43 themes and 377 actions, and the achievement of our vision of “A happy, healthy people at peace and proud of their place.”

People welcomed the fact that the strategy was a true exercise in collective thinking, and a move away from reactionary problem-solving. Its success was evident in the quality of the thinking, the clarity of action, the effectiveness of communication, and cooperation not just at the local level, but also centrally with government bodies and organizations.

One aspect that amazed me was the spirit with which  people took part and why. The first conference was held on a very snowy January night, on an island in Lough Erne. One participant on the boat asked, “Are we mad?” Another quietly answered, “We are honored.” I have found time and again that people are ready and eager to take ownership when they’re afforded the opportunity to do so.

In this case, and to my surprise, many of the participants had never worked together before, even though Fermanagh is a small place. The FutureSearch process enabled them to accept polarities, bridge barriers of culture, age, class, gender, ethnicity, power, status and hierarchy by working together as peers on tasks of mutual concern. It interrupts the tendency to repeat old patterns—railroading, fighting, running away, complaining, blaming or waiting for others to fix things. It gives people the chance to express their highest ideals, filling the blank page of the future together in a fun and creative way.
People came out of their comfort zones to look at who they were and how it shaped their actions. No one had the whole truth, and the extent to which we face this fact will partially determine the quality of life in our community.

One example of how honored, committed and empowered people felt is the story of one participant who had gone home overnight between sessions and showed up late the next day, saying she had a bit of an accident on the way. When we traveled back home that night, we saw her car in a deep ditch by the side of the road, literally back end up.

I learned that communities would not be transformed by the actions of individual organizations or sections of the community that act in isolation. Instead, we must change the interactions among people, public organizations, institutions, the private sector and voluntary organizations to work together on a basis of respect and trust. Collaboration is essential to cope with the ever-increasing complexities of life itself.

The resulting Fermanagh People and Place 2010 plan is a source of great pride to the community, which is continuing to deliver its actions, despite a change of leadership, because it was our plan. Furthermore, it is being used as an example by other communities and districts in their forward planning, which is the greatest testament of all.

When I moved from local to central government, it was with hope. My experience with FutureSearch at the local level inspired me to use it at the central government level, to apply some of the lessons I had learned, and to get a grasp on a field that had considered itself previously unnoticed and undervalued, namely arts and culture. I had to encourage my new civil-service colleagues to have trust that this technique would work. They viewed me warily, nervous about moving away from departmental territory and aghast at the selection of some of the stakeholders for the first conference, where both disciples and archrivals were put together in one room for two and a half days! I assured them that the core principle of a whole systems approach, of giving a voice to all opinions, was essential to engagement, ownership and effective policy-making.

We have had considerable success and have moved significantly over the past three and a half years with a series of eight FutureSearches, covering geographic information systems, archives, arts, soccer and Ulster Scots, and libraries—very different issues that drew blood (relatively speaking) in some instances, but created new and effective ways of working in a partnership mode.

This is now the modus operandi for effective consultation, and not just in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. It’s also being used increasingly in both central and local government, including the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, which has used it to look at the issue of a children’s strategy, and the Department of Education, for development of educational policy. The experience of each of the strategies is the emergence of a series of working groups that report to the ministers and whose reports thereby shape public policy and even statutory legislation.

We now have—for the first time ever—a strategic framework for the development of culture, a way forward for the future of the library service, and an interdepartmental strategy with four government departments working on a strategy for unlocking creativity, from early years through lifelong learning. It has proven to me that methodologies do make a difference.

The fundamental principle is about effective engagement with the community as the whole system that it is, consulting people in a way that builds ownership for the eventual policies that emerge.

Partnerships in Northern Ireland are alive and well, covering a range of issues that include local area development, education, economics, health, arts, policing, community safety and peace and reconciliation. Patience, trust, respect and shared visions are the essential ingredients of local democracy, developing great deeds by small steps together. The prize is more effective initiatives, innovative approaches, better coordination, less duplication of resources, less dependency, not waiting for someone else to act, much faster implementation, the improved ability and capacity to cope with change, the enabling of choice, and the taking of new paths.

The drawing together of the strands requires devolution, and the prize we strive for is in our Programme for Government vision of a “peaceful, cohesive, inclusive, prosperous, stable and fair society firmly founded on the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust, and the protection and vindication of human rights for all.”

It has been a long haul, and a continuous process, with many steps back as well as forward. But from my experience, it works and it’s worth it. You can re-motivate through engagement, you can speak out and be heard. You can make a difference. NGOs have a vital role to play in making the connections, building capacity, translating messages, painting pictures, and telling stories that realize the shared dream of combined governance and democracy—trying, in the words of Nobel Prize-winning Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “To make hope and history rhyme.”