Coaching, knowledge exchange and support: the future of Matchbox

Nthabi Mokoena

As part of The Engine Room’s process for designing a new organisational strategy, we spent some time reflecting on, and refining, the ways in which we provide support. This provided an opportunity for us to co-create a regional support team strategy that articulates how we provide direct, intensive and context-respecting support to civil society leaders and their organisations. For more on how our strategy ripples across our work, read Zara’s earlier post on implementation and Sara’s on our research work, and keep an eye out for upcoming updates.

Seven years of Matchbox partnerships–through which we worked with social justice organisations in Latin America and Africa working on a diverse range of issues including legislative and procurement transparency, service delivery, budget monitoring, documenting and visualising police violence, and more–have given us many insights on what kinds of organisations we can best partner with, and how. We have rooted our approach to organisational support in the pursuit for justice, equality and equity. Our new strategy re-affirms this commitment and provides the foundation upon which we can further elaborate what our in-depth support will look like in the coming years. 

The foundations

In order to uphold our mission of strengthening the fight for social justice by supporting civil society’s use of technology and data in strategic, effective and responsible ways, we anchor our ways of direct support within the following pillars:

  1. People: At the centre of our support is care and respect for the people we work with, and, in turn, for those who they work with. We build relationships and partnerships that promote honesty, transparency and care. We believe that none of our work is possible without prioritising the wellbeing of the people doing the work. We also believe that strengthening the capacity of civil society organisations is inherently dependent on strengthening the capacity of the people within civil society organisations.This pillar reaffirms our organisational approach to self-care and community-care; that caring about our team and our partners’ wellbeing is a political act that is core to being able to achieve our mission. 
  1. Partnerships: Building partnerships is critical to our work. We accompany our partners through collaborative design, development and implementation of tech and data projects that strengthen their work, while exploring new methods to better support our partners and facilitate learning. We seek and explore partnerships that are non-extractive and non-exploitative but are based on honesty, transparency and ownership. One way we do this is by centring our partners in the stories we tell about our work together, and promoting their expertise.
  1. Power: Taking power into consideration is essential to designing effective context-respecting and responsive partnerships that protect activists and organisations at the forefront of social justice efforts. Through solidarity and partnership, we promote collective power (power with), we respect our partner’s agency, capacity and ability to make change (power to and power within) and we name and expose oppressive forms of power (power over). 
  1. Politics: Our approach not only centres power but it acknowledges that all oppression is linked. We use an intersectional lens to understand systems of power and to guide our way of working. We see the politics of knowledge, representation, language, access and resources as important in how we organise and form partnerships.

Refining our support

The process of redesigning our strategy and making these foundations explicit gave us the space to think about our Matchbox programme and what changes we wanted to make about our most intense support format. Implementing our new strategy and wrapping up existing Matchbox partnerships in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic brought additional considerations around care, support through crisis and the interconnectedness of the issues we care about. 

Guided by our refined mission, as well as by lessons learned from past iterations of the Matchbox programme, we are redesigning Matchbox to  include two components: (1) project-based support on undertakings with strong tech and data components, and (2) individual coaching to social justice leaders interested in building their technical intuitions and capacities. Our regional focus remains on Africa and Latin America.  

In a nutshell, our support will use the following methodologies:

  • Coaching: We will use what we’ve learned and what we’ve heard to provide context-respecting coaching and advice to social justice leaders and their organisations. This remote support will be done through intensive one-on-one sessions and through online group workshops, calls and webinars. Among other things, we’ll provide coaching to social justice leaders on how to manage data in responsible ways, how to proactively defend their work, how to organically build their own technical capacities and skills, and how to approach technology and data projects with an intersectional, justice-focused lens.
  • Horizontal knowledge exchange: We will use our positioning, operational experience, knowledge and resources to make connections across diverse communities. We’ll facilitate online and offline convenings for knowledge exchange among activists and organisations, while co-creating justice-based approaches to technology and social justice. 
  • Project support: Just as in our existing Matchbox format, we will continue to accompany our partners through the design, development and implementation of tech and data projects to ensure they’re taking into account the lessons learned by others. Our coaching and horizontal knowledge exchanges will be complementary to our existing support portfolio. 

Why coaching?

Social justice leaders do not operate in isolation – they play a crucial role as parts of larger movements and communities. When activists become stronger, movements gain strength as well. As leaders move from one organisation to another, they disseminate their knowledge, and strengthen the broader movement.

Our reimagined format does not discard the need to strengthen organisations – it only adds to that. We acknowledge the importance of an accumulation of knowledge by many individuals within an organisation. We see coaching as a tool to complement both individual and organisational strengthening.

Exploring our position

The process of updating our strategy also allowed us to re-examine our position within the tech, data and social justice ecosystem. As with our organisational strategy and our direct support both highlight the importance of:

Understanding that context matters: We are based in the regions we work in, and bring years of expertise working within social movements and civil society in our respective countries and regions. We are strategically positioned to provide direct, intensive and context-respecting support to civil society leaders and their organisations, and we deliberately focus on those from resource-constrained backgrounds, as part of our justice-based approach. Our position does not mean we should take up unnecessary space; we refuse to parachute into regions and take up space that could be better utilised by local organisations, for that reason, we prefer to strengthen local organisations and hubs so that they can further strengthen their regional tech and data for justice ecosystems. 

Identifying and surfacing needs from our partners: Embedded in the work we do is knowledge that our partners know their contexts and theories of change best. As such, we listen closely to them, in order to identify common challenges and trends. 

Engaging in collective learning: Our support allows us to harness collective reflection and learning. We continuously make and hold space for learning and knowledge exchange within the communities we serve, seeking to not be extractive but instead encourage horizontal knowledge sharing.

We do not have all the answers, and we are exploring and experimenting with different methodologies for intensive support. We are hopeful that we will settle on one (or a combination of a couple) that best serves the needs of our partners and drives our organisational mission. If you have experiences with coaching in civil society that you believe we should learn from, feel free to email nthabi[at]