10 years of SOC: 10 Steps to a Successful Civil Society Organisation


SOC’s Recipes for Success

Evaluation of two-year programme work of the Sarajevo Open Centre (2015–2016) has shown that six factors contributed to our success: approach to the work with individuals and institutions, recognition and production of ‘advocacy champions’, empowerment of other stakeholders in order to assume responsibility, knowledge production, internal organisation and method of work, and increased visibility. We have become an organisation with the capacity to advocate and to achieve institutional and legal changes of public policies that are significant and sustainable. The success does not mean so much to us if we are not able to share the learned lessons with others.

  1. Work, work, work, work, work!

It is not uncommon to merge the work attitude, personal beliefs and activist approach in the NGO sector. Many SOC members sacrificed their private time in order to succeed in some of their intentions. Although we worked four hours a day at the beginning, once the organisation was professionalised in 2011, long office work for more than eight hours a day paid off, but only because it followed strategic objectives, it was connected with other activities, and always considered other stakeholders and context analysis. We even stopped counting the lost weekends!

  1. Life-long learning

In an organisation where study nerds were preferred, an organisational culture was created where everyone was encouraged to learn: about finesses of BiH political system, advocacy, finance and administration, public communication, English… We attended numerous trainings, seminars and training programmes, but internal train-the-trainer sessions were particularly important. Constant learning is essential, because we don’t possess sufficient knowledge ourselves, and we must never lose patience in transferring it to younger, new and less-experiences team members, including volunteers.

  1. ‘Impossible’ objectives

We would probably not achieve half of what we did if there weren’t for the objectives that were set ambitiously, but not unrealistically. What helped us was the strategic plan which we delivered ourselves with some outside help, which encompassed the objectives we would like to see achieved. Finally, activities that contribute to each objective were implemented. In this way, we were able to constantly test if our work was leading us towards the attainment of our objectives and whether new activities we planned would potentially lead in the same direction.

  1. Sandwich tactics

Do you know enough delegates, decision makers? Do you communicate with them regularly? Do you keep them informed about your work, do you ask them about their plans? How often do you consult your end beneficiaries? Do you know their problems and can you mobilize them (and how quickly) to support your requests? Will there be a policy change, if it is not accompanied by a social change? If the change is introduced, will it be sustainable? How can media contribute to changes you advocate for? This is the series of questions that we ask ourselves constantly, because we believe that it would be better and more effective to put pressure and request both top-to-bottom (decision makers) and bottom-up (from the base and community that we work for) changes.

  1. Bring things to the end

Sending a letter/mail/fax to an institution is not enough. You should call them and check if they received it. And seven days later, do it all over again because chances are big that the key person – maybe the one reading emails – is on a vacation. The same call should be made again a month later. Repeat if needed, until you get some reply. Nothing is easier than forget that you sent an inquiry to somebody, especially when you don’t get any reply. Still, you bear the responsibility, because you want the reply, reaction or information.
This rule especially applies to other, much more complex activities, such as advocacy actions.

  1. External communication

Website, Facebook, YouTube, newsletter, press conferences, presentations, info sessions… We used different means and methods to present our work and successes to others. Work in a non-governmental organisation is often a mystery for people outside: what do they do and – more importantly – how they do it? Our biggest challenge was how to communicate so that decision makers, but also young students and the neighbour hairdresser upstairs can understand us. Remember that it is very important to be transparent with all partners and beneficiaries about the method of work and results, and with the donors about money spending. If you do your job well, let others know about it!

  1. Coalitions, initiatives, networks

Many of our successes would not have happened without the support of other civil society organisations and activists. Simple math tells us that other organisations have similar or the same objectives, and that joint endeavours can only benefit us. Advocating for inclusion of hate crime in the Criminal Code of FBiH is an excellent example, because it did not only concern LGBTI people, but also returnees, Roma people and many others. In this way, civil society’s requests have greater legitimacy before the government, and the civil society’s voice becomes stronger.

  1. Celebrate your victories

After the first thematic session in any parliament in BiH about LGBTI rights, which took place at our initiative, we opened a bottle of Champaign. True, it was cheap, but it did not spoil our celebration. It is important to recognise victories, however small them may seem, in order to gain the feeling that we are contributing to changes and that the efforts we put in changing of the society, public policies and laws were not wasted. Also, our work should make as happy and fulfilled, and if you follow this advice, it will happen.

  1. Look for new challenges

You managed to do something? Excellent, let’s move on! Celebrate, but don’t get carried away by your success. The world is still spinning around, and probably still needs your activities. Read, follow new trends and research, depending on available time and obligations. Find the time if you don’t have it!

  1. Know when to stop

Sometimes, things are simply beyond our control. No matter how hard we try, we are not able to influence some changes to the extent we would want. When that happens, the smartest thing you can do is stop, measure three times and evaluate the situation, and simply let it go, if necessary. On the other hand, sometimes certain battles need to be restarted, viewed form a different perspective, with the help of people outside, if possible. You certainly shouldn’t put your head through a wall, if you don’t want to get a headache afterwards.