How we’re getting there – putting strategy into practice

Zara Rahman

This week, we shared our new organisational strategy, as described in further detail by my colleague Julia. In this post, I wanted to share a little bit how the strategy – and the planning that went into it – is affecting how we carry out our work and behave as an organisation. Keep an eye out for future posts from my colleagues on how the new strategy will shape our research and direct support work. 

Much has changed for The Engine Room over the years, and we want our strategy to reflect that change and the change to come. We’ve grown from a scrappy non-profit to one with relatively stable funding and more power in the space than when we started. It was important for us for our strategy to recognise this positionality –the power and privileges that we have in comparison to many of our partners–and guide us in being a thoughtful partner working towards equity not just in the social justice issues we engage in, but in our own behaviour and the movements we’re part of, too. 

One of the ways we do this is by explicitly defining the work we do (as well as the work we don’t) and the key terms that we rely on. This strategy makes it  explicit that we will support groups and movements working towards social justice and equity. However, to effectively do that in our external work, we also need to practice principles like equity and justice internally.

One side of the ‘equity’ debate that I rarely see talk of, is about how ultimately, establishing equitable systems means those with power and privilege must give up that power. I appreciated Darren Walker’s blog post where he called this out explicitly: “It will demand that the privileged among us not only give something back, but also give something up.”

So what does giving up power, or redistributing power, look like in practice at The Engine Room? 

Doing the work internally

Internally, there are a few things we’ve been trying to do. Most centre around making often invisible structures of power visible and identifying cultural-specific best practices, or ways of doing things that might speak to certain people’s implicit biases, but not others. We’ve found that being as explicit as possible goes a long way towards avoiding misunderstandings, and, crucially, also gives people the information they need to grow and claim the power that is available to them. 

For example, over the past year, we’ve systematised everyone’s job descriptions to fit the same template, outlining clearly what the scope and range of their role is, as well as their main duties and responsibilities. There are both vertical ways for someone to demonstrate leadership (eg. by leading a team) but also horizontal, cross-organisational ways (e.g. by someone leading a certain area of work at the organisation, such as knowledge management). This is an ever-evolving area of work that we could do more on, though, and we’d love to hear how others do this. 

Another is by redoing our team structure, so that there are clear areas of work that are led by different teams, and ensuring they have the space to define what those areas look like for them. Last year, we made changes so that we now have four teams: Research and Learning, Engagement, Tech, and Regional Support. These teams necessarily overlap in some areas, but we’re trying to make it clearer where different teams ‘lead’ and other teams ‘support’, to empower everyone to take ownership where they can. 

Each team has been developing a team strategy for their vision of their area of work, inspired by the organisational strategy, which they’ll share more about on our blog, too. These team strategies were developed by the teams, led by the team leads, with myself and our Executive Director, Julia, giving feedback and guidance. Ultimately, we imagine these team strategies will help teams make decisions about what areas of work they pursue, establish priorities, and ensure that we make the most of the many strengths of team members.

Internally and externally, we operate in English as our main language. But lots of our team members speak many other languages – and right now, our team has a lot of native Spanish speakers. Noting how difficult it is to work in a second language (all praise to you!), we’ve begun to offer team members the space to write documents like blog posts in Spanish, and we’ll get them translated into English.  We’ve also begun translating much more of our work into Spanish, to make more visible the fact that much of our team is able to provide support in Spanish. This is an area we could definitely do better in–and we recognise that English language fluency will remain essential for working at The Engine Room–but we hope to make it a bit easier for those who are working in a second (or third, or fourth) language. 

In terms of visibility – we encourage everyone on the team to both write blog posts, and also share their opinions wherever they’re invited to (if they feel comfortable and want to, of course!). To me, one of the biggest strengths of the Engine Room has been precisely this–a diversity of opinions and approaches clearly on display. Instead of having an ‘organisational approach’ to complex issues of tech, data and justice – we encourage people to embrace their differences.

There are lots of tweaks that we’ve made to our human resources policies and practices, too, as our People Lead, Anneke will share more on soon. 

Weaving our politics into our work

In terms of our external-facing work, my colleague Nthabi outlined multiple ways that we go about thinking about power in this blog post, Deconstructing Knowledge and Power in Our Work

We’ve also continued to do some processes that help us continually assess our own position within the ecosystems in which we exist. (As my colleague Barbara wrote about here, power imbalances also exist between civil society organisations, not just between grantees and grantmakers.) For example: when we get asked or invited to put a proposal together for a potential consultancy, one of the first questions we ask ourselves is: are we the best people for this? Do we have proximity to the issue or can we structure the proposal so that we give power to those who are?? If the answer to these is ‘no’, we’ll forward it onto others who we know, or ask them if they’d be interested in being introduced. 

This year, we also (for the first time) offered payment to interviewees from resource-constrained organisations in order to compensate them for their time. This is a practice that we’d like to continue, and that requires us to make sure we’re planning a budget line for this from the very beginning of conceptualising projects. 

We’ve developed participatory research processes to ensure that people closest to the issue at hand are the ones deciding how information is gathered.  We’ve also offered payment to ensure that the consultants we work with have the time and resources to go back to those communities and explore research findings with them. 

Conducting research remains a large part of what we do, and it’s crucial for us that the evidence we build is accessible to everyone, not hidden behind paywalls or only shared with paying partners. For our research projects, we share outputs in accessible ways – recognising that doing this takes intentional work beyond just publishing a long PDF report. This is one area that we’ve experimented with in the past–from newsletter digests highlighting key findings, to hosting calls to share our work–and one area we look forward to exploring further, as my colleagues in the Engagement Team will share more on soon. 

…and there’s more to come 

All of the practices shared here are works in progress, things that we’ll iterate upon, hopefully improve upon, and learn from. There are many more areas of work, both internal and external, that we hope to strengthen in the future so that we’re living up to our strategy and principles. If you have suggestions or questions on anything mentioned here we’d love to hear from you! Reach out at Next up in this series will be posts about the ways in which our four teams are using our organisational strategy to develop their own team strategies – sign up for our newsletter to be kept up to date with those!