New Year-looking back and looking ahead

Another year gone by. Last year I made little time for blogging. My standard excuse: too busy with my work for clients or with my volunteer work. That explanation suggests that one excludes the other, which may not be the case. The synthesis of working and sharing is called Working Out Loud (WOL). As defined by John Stepper WOL is “making your work visible in such a way that it might help others….. when you work in a more open, connected way – you can build a purposeful network that makes you more effective and provides access to more opportunities.”

It has been buzzing around WOL on internet for some time now, so I have some catching-up to do. The  basics I learned from this blog by Sahana Chattopadhyay and you will find some practical, critical thoughts on the subject by Nigel Young.

Particularly Young’s first point is relevant: “WOL is about working in a visible space not preparing and presenting in that space”.  Unfortunately not all the work I do for clients can be be done in a shared, let alone public space. So how do you manage that? Can you do part of your work out loud and be quiet about other parts?  Would that still be WOL? Anyway, I am going to try an find out this year how I can WOL and be discrete, protecting the interests of the organisations I support.

But even if I end up working really quietly in 2016,  I will steal ideas from the WOL-community. For example, I will follow in the footsteps of the “writer who draws” and makes “art with words and books with pictures”,  Austin Kleon  and be creative and Steal like an Artist (thank you Russell Kerkhoven)

Stealing, sharing and amplifying or endorsing: often my own experiences are not at all unique, and others formulate much more eloquently the issues I come across in my own work. A good example is a blog on non-profits by Vu LE I started followng in 2015. Check out this one for example on  lessons learned in 2015.  I particularly like the one about the danger of ignoring the elephant in the room:

An elephant in the room is most destructive when it is ignored. Every organization has an elephant. Or an 800-pound gorilla. Or whatever large animal is representative of a problem that everyone knows exists but no one wants to wrestle with. Deal with it head-on, because ignoring it usually makes it worse.

Next year I hope to become better at dealing with elephants large and small. Will keep you posted!

New challenges: GrantCraft

My consulting practice is on hold because I dove into a new project. It is called GrantCraft, a joint venture of the European Foundation Centre and the – New York-based  – Foundation Center. GrantCraft collects practical wisdom from grantmakers and philanthropist and turns it into guides, workshops, videos, and other tools to help philanthropists hone their craft.  Grantcraft is not about blueprints or recipes. It explores how practitioners deal with dilemma’s and tradeoffs. It helps you organize yourself and your  work and provides tools to make grant-making more strategic, and benchmark effectiveness.  GrantCraft delivers these materials through its website

When I started out as a consultant in 2008, I was ready to head where my clients were leading me.  Without a detailed plan, just like Yogi Berra warned – indeed, I did end up some place else. But I very much enjoyed the trip.  I definitively will not miss having proposals rejected, the umpteenth tender failure….  But it was certainly very gratifying to explore and address a variety of organizational problems with clients: from mainstreaming gender in international coöperation,  to supporting good governance of a Women’s Fund in South Africa, addressing age diversity in HR policies in Dutch municipalities and measuring effectiveness in attending to victims of commercial sexual violence in Latin America. With GrantCraft I will still be working very much around learning with those who try to promote social justice.  But it will no longer be in a personal, advisory capacity.

I may be blogging here but you do check the GrantCraft blog!

A lucky 2011


I wish all my readers a very healthy and lucky 2011 and hope for a year full of inspiring meetings – virtual or real-time.

We seek evidence to confirm preconceived notions, even ambiguous evidence we interpret in favor of our ideas, this is what psychologist call the “confirmation bias”.  Psychological experiments also found that we consider people who succeed more valuable, admirable than people who do not and other theories and experiments argue that we feel more comfortable and happy when we see patterns in events, as opposed to having to undergo than as completely random. Yet a lot of things that happen around us and with us are quite random, more random that we are comfortable to see. And then the “butterfly effect” which says that very small changes (the flutter of the wings of a butterfly) can have enormous effects.  Success, so much valued can be derived from random chance and very much based on biases instead of intrinsic value.  And so is failure.

Leonard Mlodinov’s book “The Drunkard’s Walk – How Randomness Rules our Lives” is a great read for anyone interested in diversity and change in organizations. Learning from best practices is not one of his recommended strategies:  that success may have been quite random and been the result of a drunkards walk: the path molecules follow in space, incessantly bumping and being bumped. Eager as we are  to see patterns we look at the best practice to see how they can be replicated, but randomness cannot be replicated.  Mlodinov questions learning from past performance and recommends we focus on our ability to react to events and not to rely on our ability to predict them. Altogether an interesting book to read.

Over the past year I have blogged infrequently and the last few months I have read mostly quite boring documents. So  my new year’s resolution will be to blog and read more,  to trust and respond to chance and hope for a lucky 2011 and lots of inspiring people and reads.  Which I also wish to anyone who reads this.

hearts and minds….

Last week PSO – an organization I used to work with – celebrated its 25 year anniversary. A feat to be celebrated, indeed.  Two keynote speakers contributed to the celebrations.  Ilco van der Linde, founder of “dance4life” and  “masterpeace” who argued that people only come together and move when you speak from your heart, development cooperation has been too cerebral too long, and when people did not respond to the messages from the sector it is because we fail to connect with their hearts.  Rajesh Tandon of PRIA responded arguing that we should make sure our heart feeds into what we think to feed into action and criss-cross and backwards……

heads, hearts and action

I like that approach. I guess Ilco is right that a lot of conflict can be resolved and mediated when people put their heart to it, which makes his campaign “masterpeace” a brilliant initiative. But when NATO, Putin and Wen Jiabao discuss tension in Sudan their heads and their (economic and political) interests rule, not their hearts. So maybe we do need a mix of these two to feed into our action. And by the way, our actions also need to feed into our heads and hearts, which is simply another way of saying that we should learn from what we do

Happy anniversary PSO

note: the “heads” you see are 11 out of the 19 female Heads of State in 2010.


I have been too busy for blogging lately. Actually since September I have worked and traveled, supporting three non-governmental organizations in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Brazil who work with commercial sex-workers in the process of learning from their doing. As part of an evaluation process I also wrote case stories on prevention of HIV/AIDS among young gays in Honduras and among transsexuals in Ecuador. And I am involved in the evaluation of the woman’s rights component of the programme of grants covering several countries in Latin America, a major evaluation project with 8 other professionals from Costa Rica, Honduras, Haiti, Uruguay and the Netherlands.

It is very frustrating when you spend more time on report writing for clients than on blogging. If only because some of those reports will never be read by more than 5 or 6 people. But I did get to meet some interesting and courageous people: activists for LGTB-rights and other human rights defenders a variety of street workers and activists who relentlessly fights for the interests of those who are marginalized and excluded. Courageous because some of the actually received threats. And there was a lot of learning:
– in Nicaragua we tried to set-up a simple monitoring system that actually informs about how the clients are doing and not only on what the organization is doing with the grant money. From the reports and evaluations I have read over the last few months – piles of them – what the receiving organizations does with the grant money seems to be the overriding concern. Surprisingly few pages are actually dedicated to how all this affects and changes the life of the beneficiaries.
– it was also nice to work with a Dutch organization that makes grants to organizations in developing countries and that actually invited a group of them to tell them face-to-face how they do as funders. They were really very open. Based on some case stories written by external people, in the group we looked the concerns and issues that arose from that funding experience. All the organizations got a lot of “food for thought” out of that open and frank debate, which they most probably will use to improve on what they are doing: something that is not the standard for evaluations in the context of development coöperation.
– and I also learned a lot myself: about the need to improve my skills as an interviewer and about my strengths in facilitation, about the situation of women’s rights and women’s rights defenders in Latin America, and a neat technique to “dissemble” controversial statements with a group: with some colored cards and some magic you can bring in different experiences and look at what is the essence of the problem, instead of a traditional exchange of views.

And before you know it fall is over and we are all heading for winter…………. Brussels is freezing cold, but with some luck my strawberries will come back in the spring…

It actually snowed tonight:

strawberries in the snow

Changing lives – Cambio de Vida

ICCO, a dutch development organization collaborates with three different partner organizations in Latin America that support children who are exploited in prostitution and women who want to step-out of commercial sex work.  With resources from he Dutch government they fund the work of their partners and promote collective learning from experience.  The title of the program is Cambio de Vida – Mudando de vida because the ultimate aim is enable women and children to drastically change their lives.

Collective learning among different organizations with different approaches, using two different languages, working in three different countries: that forms quite a challenge. But there is more to it. When talking about sexuality there are other language barriers to cross not only grammatical ones. In prostitution or sex work semantics are a critical issue. Prostitution has negative connotations as an immoral act. Also there is a difference between being a prostitute, or being prostituted.  Are you being immoral, or are you an innocent victim of immoral people  – pimps, brothel owners or traffickers (all M/F)?

Compared to prostitution, the label “sex work” describes the activity in a seemingly neutral way as an economic activity in which sexual services are provided in exchange for money.  The term emerged among sex workers who wanted to combat the stigma of immorality, who wanted to rid themselves of stigma of being guilty and claim their rights as workers not as victims.

Another option is to talk about minors or women whose sexual and human rights (as migrants) are being violated.  In this terminology children and women are also victims but they do not need to be saved from immorality but they suffer injustice and need support to claim their rights.  No one is guilty in the moral sense, adults can be voluntary sex workers whose human rights are being violated. For example,  when sex work is legal (like it is for adults in f.e. Bolivia) sex workers may suffer discrimination and violent harassment by the police.

So in choosing your words you are choosing positions.  But not all positions are being disputed. With all this debate on semantics, everyone involved agrees that minors should never abused to provide sexual services in exchange of anything.  Article 34 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is quite clear on this.

Article 34

States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. For these purposes, States Parties shall in particular take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent:

(a) The inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity;

(b) The exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices;

(c) The exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.

Language differences – in terms of grammar or politics – do not have to preclude collaboration of collective learning. In Bolivia the ICCO partner organization, the Hermanas Adoratrices work with “children and women that are prostituted”. But they collaborate in fighting trafficking and exploitation of children with the Bolivian  “Organización Nacional de Activistas para la Emancipación de la Mujer (ONAEM”) who also advocates for sex work to be included in the nations Labour Code.

Besides the attention for children, in the ICCO program Cambio de Vida there is a focus on women choosing voluntarily to change their lives.  The team of the Hermanas Adoratrices will share their experience with portuguese speaking activists of Sodireitos based in Belem, Brazil who fight to defend human rights,  in particular sexual rights and the rights of migrants and women that are involved in sex work in Surinam.

So an awareness of the politics of language and respect and acknowledgement of the differences is important for learning. And you also need some tools.  ICCO is a global organization and actively uses social media to promote learning. In this program we are using a limited access wiki-space to share and comment on the reports and papers and documents we produce and we use delicious to tag and share resources we find on the net. With these tools and a sensitivity for language we aim to share and learn. But, as Mileny Matos, project coördinator for Sodireitos one of the participating organizations puts it in portugese, it also needs a sense of community.

Reinventing the wheel in a U-shape

Reinventing the wheel has a notoriously bad connotation, at least in my mother tongue. It stands for a useless waste of energy and money. For doing something that has already been done, finding out what has already been found out.

Best practices are the prescribed remedy against reinventing wheels since the 80-ies. Every development organization – governmental or non-governmental – has at some stage tried to identify its “best practices”. Not always very successfully. Joint efforts with the communication department were doomed even before they started.  But also among the operational staff and policy makers the debate would normally focus on which practices were “best” and not on what we can learn from them. I remember in 1998 trying to introduce the alternative concept of “interesting practices” in one organization I worked for. Simply to be able to move ahead a process that was stuck in a debate about what was “best”.  Without success however, they insisted they only wanted to learn from the best.  Best practices are still very popular. Recently in a blog on best practices for knowledge management,  Suarez expressed the hope they would soon transform into “good practices”, to become “common practices” and hopefully disappear altogether.

But knowledge practitioners have become increasingly aware that the learning is not in the practice itself but in the process. Nancy Dixon wrote about an exiting process in her article of 2004 entitled: Does your organization have an asking problem? She emphasizes the process of promoting dialogue and asking questions instead of the storage of solutions or best practices.  While the learning process she designed and describes in the article is labor intensive (and therefore costly), Dixon insists that such elaborate process is much more efficient than building and maintaining a costly database with good practices.

Theory U (2009) of  Otto Scharmer could be an explanation of what happens when we identify and discuss “good practices”.  Theory U is a model that identifies different phases in a dialogue and learning process.   In three steps you go down in the “U”. During these steps you let go of the past. That allows you to connect (presencing) and continue to go up the other leg of the  “U” and co-create and co-evolve.

Getting down the first leg is difficult. When reading or listening to someone elses experience we start what Scharmer calls “downloading”.  Even if we are not defensive, we tend to look at something new by trying to connect it to our own experience, to patterns we know. Nothing wrong with that, but learning requires we move on and let go of our existing patterns, suspend judgement and look at what we see with new eyes. That allows you to see the things that do not fit your existing patterns and connect emotionally with the experience.

Sharmer insists learning is a process involving emotions.  As he puts it:  “at the bottom of the U our current self and our best future Self—meet and begin to listen and resonate with each other”.   Let’s look at that again: “my current self and my best future self listening to each other” – to my current rationalist self  that sounds pretty odd.   But it does resonate with my experience that the most productive learning experience involved emotions, painful sometimes.   Actually, that thought is a perfect example of “downloading”.   So,  as a next step on my way down in the U of Theory U,  I will have to suspend my judgement, try to see things with fresh eyes (or did he mean a fresh I?).

Anyway, meanwhile I guess I will continue to do some reinventing on this blog.

Evaluation frustration and fun

Evaluations have always been very important in international coöperation. Some of us evaluate, others are being evaluated or manage evaluation contracts and processes. Some of us find evaluation processes rewarding, many find it a frustrating experience. Too often we hear too little is done with the outcomes of evaluations, that no real learning comes from them. We also see that important stakeholders are not heard, or cannot influence the outcomes.

What is it that makes evaluating or being evaluated so frustrating? How can we do things differently. How can we use images? Social Media? Triggered by our frustrations and inspired by the ideas we developed addressing them, we want to create opportunities to share experiences. To do so we offer a compact series of tailor-made, modular – open subscription – learning events the first to take place in June 2010. In our philosophy the best cure for frustration is fun and the best learning is learning from each other!  We are not subsidized or sponsored. Participation in the events will be low-cost but not free.

The first event is scheduled for 23-25 June. Want to no more and register visit our website for more information? Go to . For more stuff on evaluation check our blog evaluation5.0

Learning and accountability

If you Google for development coöperation (just over 1.000.000 hits) you will find that some 132,000 of those hits refer to both “evaluation” and “behavio(u)r(s)”.  So behaviour is clearly an issue when you look at evaluation of development coöperation.

Out of the one million hits on development coöperation, 4730 give a hit for “evaluation tools”, 2180 for “evaluation tool”. For “evaluation methodology” the result is 5160, and for its plural 2430.  If you look within the one million hits for development coöperation for “behavior(u)r(s) of evaluators” you will get exactly two hits.

Evaluation. So much reflection on behaviour, on evaluation methodologies and tools but the behaviour of evaluators is never studied,  at least not in the context of development coöperation.

4 Rooms of Learning

Most evaluations primarily aim to satisfy accountability requirements. Tax money is allocated and channeled down a chain towards public or private actors and finally to the ultimate beneficiaries. Actors in the chain need to inform the actors one step above them. Besides information coming from that actor itself, external audits ensure that resources are handled in accordance with certain standards and not misused for other purposes than they were intended to. External evaluation normally looks as to whether the “use according to the originally intended purposes” actually has any of the originally intended effects on the ultimate beneficiaries.

But do we actually learn from evaluations. Learning and accountability are not the same. Accountability normally has a legal and institutional dimension; it involves negotiation, judgment and possibly punishment.  Learning is much more fluid process, there are few rules, it can be an individual or organizational dynamic and it can be quite irrational, involving emotions.

It happened to me again a few months ago: the evaluator comes in, hired by the provider of our project’s financial resources. We are to be reviewed “as part of standard accountability procedures”.  After having told us what will happen to us – we and our work are the ‘object’ of evaluation, the evaluator and donor are the subjects in this evaluation grammar – the evaluators cheerfully adds he hopes we will also learn from the process.  Intimidated, I nod, off course we hope to learn, it would be actually inappropriate to say you do not intend or expect to learn. But you know you will not. The fact you are treated as an object, and respond that way seems to play a role in does, but how?

Weisbord and Janoff use a four room model for learning: Home base is the room labeled “contentment”.  Inevitably at some stage we are in “denial”: reality has changed; our assumptions were wrong, things do not go as well as expected.   In a learning process you are able to move on, acknowledge you have a problem and focus on finding a solution: you may linger sometime in the room labeled “confusion”. That uncertainty can lead you to growth, change and move you back into “contentment”, or – if learning does not take place – it hurls us back into the room of denial, waiting for someone or something to draw you back into the uncomfortable room of confusion.

What influences whether the evaluation actually help us overcome denial and confusion and generate growth and learning?  When I commission an evaluation or when I am being evaluated in order to be accountable, will I actually also learn? Besides methodologies and tools, the behavior of all those directly involved that will also very much determine or not whether I will actually make my round through those four rooms of learning. But if Google is a measure there seems to be no yet any serious confusion about behaviours of evaluators.