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Syria CSOs Coalition Builder and Incubator

Our approach aims to strengthen coalitions between Syrian CSOs, empower them, and incubate community initiative to scale up our impact

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Explain your project idea in two sentences.

Our project aims to empower and aggregate the influence of Syrian CSOs through building Coalitions, mainstreaming values, empowering organisations and incubating nascent community initiatives.

What is your organization name? Explain your organization in one sentence.

Shaml is a coalition of Syrian CSOs that share values of democracy, human rights and gender equality

Is this project idea new for you or your organization? If no, how much have you already executed on?

We have implemented, revisited and improved certain components of this approach for over a year; including: formation of coalition, value mainstreaming, and empowering organisations . Some of its components, though, have not been fully tested yet; including: incubating nascent community initiatives.

What is the problem you aim to solve with this idea? How would you define this problem as urgent and a priority in your target community?

Fragmentation and saturated influence of local Syrian NGOs is the main problem addressed here. This issue has been identified as an urgent one by organisations that formed Shaml coalition, and as a result of cumulative experience and direct engagement with local Syrian communities.

What is the timeline for your project idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

Depending on funding availability, this project will ideally extend over 3 years period: First year: - Improve Coalition's structure, and continue working on empowering organisations and value mainstreaming in the coalition. - Create the prototype for all work processes. Second year: - Start incubating nascent initiatives with the aim of furthering influence to community level - Expansion of coalition Third year: - work towards exit strategy for supported initiatives - measure success

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of responsibility).

- A small core team for the coalition will manage and overlook implementation throughout as required - Technical Advisors will be recruited as per need identified by member organisations - Grant management team will work with core team and technical advisors to ensure scaling up of approach.

What do you need the most support with in this project idea?

  • Program/Product/Service Design

What is your primary goal over the next 6 weeks of Refinement?

  • Learn to measure and grow project results

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) results for this project?

We have developed some tools to measure our progress for some components of this project, but haven’t done so for all others. This includes: - Measuring improvement of organisational development through organisation assessment tools - Measuring progress on value mainstreaming through questionnaires and focus groups A framework will be developed to formulate the process of supporting community initiatives, including measurement of results

How has your project proposal changed due to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase?

Our design for the proposed project has gone through phases of revision and redesign. Some of the assumptions that we started with have been revisited during implementation. For example, at an earlier stage we have focused merely on coordination on project execution (similar to a consortium). Now our approach is more comprehensive, and focuses on the long term added value of the Coalition.

The idea we are proposing here is something that we have experiences and learnt first hand. It bridges different approaches, different goals, and challenges established paradigms of how to work with local civil societies and local communities. 

Probably you are all familiar with what is going on in Syria, but in the same time not entirely sure what is exactly happening there. It is indeed very complex, gloomy, and seems endless. As we do not have the choice of giving up, we are still trying to make things better. The idea we have is one of these attempts. We are going to explain what our idea is, but we have to explain the context first so the how and the why makes sense! 

The Context of Syrian Conflict - as brief as possible:

Our first attempts to bring about change in Syria was in March 2011, where we took to the streets, and wanted to change the regime, bring democracy, protect human rights and dignities, and make everything better. Before the current Assad present another Assad, his father, has brutalized the country for over 30 years. The fools we were, we thought that this will happen after few months of protests and strikes. The Assad regime utilized all its military brutality to ensure that nothing changes. Regime's escalation led to escalation on many other fronts, leading to a full fledged war in the country. Add to the mix regional powers with different conflicting interests, and different variations of Qaida and like-minded groups. Soon our focus on our vision and values were getting lost in the war. The need to maintain them was, and still is, crucial.

Context of Syrian Civil Society Organisations: 

Within this context many Syrian activists have got together and formed groups and networks to coordinate their work. These groups later became established and now are at the forefront of delivery of support and services to Syrian communities. Staff of these organisations work in the most extreme conditions, with increasing limited resources. 

The work they do varies from delivering humanitarian aid, medical aid, community centres, education, women empowerment, documentations of war crimes, advocacy, media, etc. The people that work in them are activist, humanitarian workers, doctors, teachers, and people coming from all different walks of life.

So, what we are talking about here is an extremely complicated situation in which civil society groups, with limited experience in this field, are holding on to their hopes in building a better country and finding the means to achieve that. Let's list here some of the challenges that we face on a daily basis:

- Syrian CSOs and people that work in them are new in this field. They often are in desperate need of technical capacity and support to  do their work. International NGOs, companies and other implements 

- Syrian CSOs and activists do not have the same access established INGOs do to donors and resources, and they do not have in places the organisational structure that can help them with such access. This organisational structure is now better established among Syrian CSOs that have set themselves up earlier on in the conflict, but for new emerging initiatives, their ability to receive support is very minimal

- Syrian CSOs are faced with an extremely complicated political scene, to which they have to respond and react. It is very difficult to get to an agreement on a reading of the situation and the needed reaction. Most of the internationals that work on negotiations and mediation focus on getting political actors, but no one is working on getting the civil society together.

- Syrian CSOs have a vision for the future of the country and its people, but in the hostile political sphere, their lack of coherence and coordination is only weakening them. Conflicting views and stands shadows their values and vision for the future.

Our Pitch:

In a sense, as Syrian organisations and activists are the last holders of our Syrian cause, the vision of restoring human rights and democracy. We operate in an extremely difficult context. What is needed is to find ways to empower and mobilise this role. And this is what we are trying to do. Nothing in the "market" is working on this, and the need to have approaches that provides solutions for this gap is dire. 

"Typical" Approaches:

Here are some paradigms that we are going to bridge, with a brief description of how they usually look like. On their own, and using this typical approach, they are not achieving their intended purpose any more.

- Organisational development: usually focuses on short term training, workshops and the five-day long consultancies, with generic audience and covering generic topics. Their relevance to our needs is vague, to say the least.

- Grants provision and management: usually involves a focus on finance and procurement processes, and fails to provide needed support to grantees.

- Gender or mainstreaming: mostly a box-ticking exercise, again with little relevance or involvement of Syrian CSOs.

- Coalition building: no one is working on this!

These approaches are usually presented in separate packages, executed by different implementer, bearing no connection to the end goal and the future vision of our country.

What is needed is not a fund-focused quick-fix approach that was designed in some HQ that has little knowledge of the Syrian context. We need to break down the demarcations of these different programs in a way that is truly meaningful to Syrian CSOs and Syrian communities.

How We are Going to Bridge these Approaches Together:

What we are proposing here is a coalition builder and incubator model that addresses all the challenges noted above, using an approach that is built from within. In fact, the only way for it to work is to be merging from within.

The different component:

The Coalition:

(Bridging Syrian CSOs together, and aggregating their influence)

We came together, like-minded CSOs that have shared values, because we believe that we can empower each other and be stronger together. 

- The coalition of CSOs is governed by its constituents, and is staffed by a team that executes the strategy of its governing body.

- We work together on advocacy and campaigning, exchanging information and views on changes on the ground, and aligning our messages and statements. 

- We share information, resources, and support the coalition's ability to deliver services to all members

- And, most importantly, we build confidence and trust between different organisations and bridge the gaps between them.

The Brand:

(The strong Syrian CSOs that are known for their knowledge, practice, and credibility of Values)

First, to strengthen our organizations we have elaborated on an organizational development approach that responds to our needs, and reflects our capacities. We got rid of the typical workshop-based approach, and hired advisors that are capable of providing continuous excellent organizational development support, including ongoing coaching and mentorship, to all the member organisations in the coalition. The coalition finds the resources for this support, and delivers it to member organisations. 

Two essential elements here are "trust" and "ownership". Given the member organisations have themselves formed the coalition, this makes them feel an ownership to its programs, and thus gets them more involved and interested in its work. Moreover, the advisors that 

Single organisations cannot afford this kind of continuos support, but the economic logic of the coalition makes this support feasible. We are currently providing to our member organisations organisational development support in Finance, HR and program development and management.

Second, to ensure that our organizations reflect the future we aspire to, we give high importance to "value-mainstreaming". That is, we make our shared values within the coalition central to everything we do; to our policies, and procedures, to the different phases of our projects, to our communication, identity and culture. 

Thus, we will become known and effective as the CSOs that have adopted and practiced their future vision and values. This will add to our credibility and our capacity to have an impact on the future of the country

The Incubator Model:

(Linking our impact to the lives of communities we work with)

The last step is to link the impact that we are doing with the communities that we are working with. We aim to do this by incubating nascent civil society and Community Initiatives (CIs) that share our values through small grants and mentorship.

Through this we will replicate the work that has been done with coalition members in new emerging initiatives. Organisations that are member in our coalition will leverage their networks inside Syria to identify promising initiatives on the community level. A suitable model will be developed to support these initiatives to have a lasting impact within the community. This model will entail provision of mechanisms and structures to receive funding, will aim to mainstream shared values, and will ensure a good understanding and adoption of the coalition's brand. 

By supporting Community Initiatives, and replicating the support model, we will further our impact and bridge a strong relationship between the communities we serve and our values.

Our conclusion - Why you should support us:

The approach outlined above merges different approaches, with various components all working together to ensure one single goal; improving the lives of the communities that we work with, keeping in mind at all time not only immediate needs, but also long term values and vision. 

We have been working on and developing this approach for the past year, looking at different ways to bring Syrian civil society together, and bring civil society's vision and values closer to the people and communities and their lives. We have piloted some components of this approach, and are in the process of finding support for the rest. We are confident of the viability of our approach, and of our ability to scale it up through incubating nascent community initiatives. 

Who Benefits?

We may group beneficiaries in two tiers. Unlike in "usual" project design, the group of people the we seek to benefit are not the group that we will work with: a) the first tier, or what we can call "direct beneficiaries" of our work are the Syrian civil society organisations. These are the groups that we will work with directly, but they are not the ultimate target of our work. b) the second tier, or the "indirect beneficiaries", which, for us, are at the centre of our work. These are the local Syrian communities that civil society orgs work with and support. By empowering the work of nascent and emerging CSOs, we aim to improve the lives of the local communities that they work with and serve. By mainstreaming our shared values within these organisations, we aim to create a model that reflects these values and exemplifies them in practice, rather than in theory. By incubating community initiatives we aim to scale up our impact and build lasting relationship.

How is your idea unique?

Our approach is truly unique for two main reasons: - It is fit-for-purpose, in the literal and most efficient sense of the word. We built it based on our direct experience, our own struggle and challenges, to address the gaps and misfortunes of whoever is doing similar work around us, be it donors, international or national NGOs, or other companies. It is built from within, making all involved and feeling ownership of work; - It bridges different approaches together, rather than use a ready-made model of intervention; - It is possible to replicate and scale up the approach in a way that increases impact and influence with people and communities.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.
  • Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.

Tell us more about you

Established in 2015, Shaml is a coalition of six Syrian CSOs that have joined together to advance civil society efforts in Syria. Shaml is comprised of a group of some of the most successful and promising Syrian CSOs: Basmeh and Zeitooneh, Emissa, Kesh Malek, Local Development and Small Projects Support Office (LDSPS), Olive Branch, and Women Now for Development (WND). These CSOs have demonstrated expertise in providing a range of services: human rights advocacy, education, women’s empowerment, psychosocial support, peace-building, conflict transformation, local governance technical capacity building and service delivery, and humanitarian assistance. Shaml’s vision is to build a future for Syria that respects and adheres to values of Democracy, Human Rights, All-citizen Equality, and Gender Equality. To achieve this vision Shaml members believe in a) taking a holistic approach to their institutions and programs, that is, by incorporating these values into their organisational development, b) outraching to civil society and interest and demand for their values, and c) implementing advocacy programs that target Shaml members and its larger network. Our work to date and our plans for the future are rooted in five core organisational strengths: Visionary Commitment to values: Shaml members have not had to compromise their values to adapt to changing conflict dynamics or donor conditions. Despite unimaginable circumstances, Shaml organisations have worked tirelessly to advance their core values through their programs. This commitment is the asset that has enabled Shaml and its members to work closely together to build a strategy that guarantees their role in the future of Syria. Trusted advocates: Over the years, Shaml members’ representatives have met with senior figures and institutions that have a role in Syria in the US, EU and UK; including US Secretary of State, UK Foreign Minister., EU parliamentarians, major think tanks, and leading media outlets. In addition, half of the organisations chosen as CSO representatives at the 2016 London Donor Conference were from Shaml. Effective engagement with humanitarian actors: Shaml is currently a member of the UN’s Humanitarian Liaison Group (HLG), the highest strategy advisory body in Turkey in regards to the Humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis. As one of the four Syrian representatives, Shaml represents a network of 70 Syrian organisations that have pressured the UN to investigate the adherence of its Damascus based operations to Humanitarian Principles of Independence and Impartiality. Exceptional reputation: Members of Shaml have successfully managed funds from a wide range of UN, government, and INGO donors. Between them they have a proven track record of safely and effectively implementing complex programs.

Expertise in sector

  • 1-2 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

Attachments (1)

Shaml - User Experience Map.pdf

The following experience map focuses on the experience of one of employees in one of the organisations in the Coalition. This user experience map will describe our approach to empowering local Syrian organisations through coalition building. This is one component of the approach detailed in other parts of our submission


Join the conversation:

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Hi Wisam and Team!

We’re excited to share with you feedback and questions from the BridgeBuilder team and an external set of experts. We encourage you to think about this feedback as you continue to improve and refine your idea. You are welcome to respond in the comments section and/or to incorporate feedback into the text of your idea. Your idea and all associated comments will all be reviewed during the final review process.

• One expert shared: “What I like about this proposal is that is appears purely led by local organizations, which is terrific. I appreciate their honesty about their need to further refine their ideas and to strengthen to measure results. I think if they continue to refine and work on this it is incredibly promising!”

When thinking about desirability, feasibility and viability here’s what experts shared:
• One expert shared, “The most important element it seems to me is to narrow the focus of the initiative to a more specific type of community initiative so you can measure results to start. The collection of substantive areas represented by the coalition is very broad. While the areas are complementary (e.g. democracy, women's issues) it will be tough to compare results across very different projects. Do they want to narrow their focus to democracy projects? To peacebuilding projects? To service delivery projects? Or if you want to keep a more broad focus can you get really specific about the one or two ways you will support a few different broader areas of focus?”

Human-centered design starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their real needs. How does this idea consider user needs?
• Yes! How will you bake user-feedback into your organization as you grow?

Outstanding comments and questions:
• One expert shared: "I would love to learn what your top one or two goals are and how those relate back to the result you are measuring”

Thank you so much for sharing the important work you are doing!

In case you missed it, check out this Storytelling Toolkit for inspiration for crafting strong and compelling stories: Storytelling is an incredibly useful tool to articulate an idea and make it come to life for those reading it. Don’t forget - June 16 at 11:59PM PST is your last day to make changes to your idea on the OpenIDEO platform.

Have questions? Email us at

Looking forward to reading more!

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//One expert shared: “What I like about this proposal is that is appears purely led by local organizations, which is terrific. I appreciate their honesty about their need to further refine their ideas and to strengthen to measure results. I think if they continue to refine and work on this it is incredibly promising!”//

Indeed, the development of this proposal is a result of our immediate experiences with the communities we work with on one hand, and the bigger international NGOs and donors on the other hand. It is a result of continuous and ongoing tweaking to find the best solutions for the challenges we face. We do recognize that established approaches and paradigms of work are a result of years of work, and are not that easy to replace or find an alternative to. For this it is important for us that what the coalition provides to its member organisations offers a true added value, and alternative solution to the gaps that are not addresses in the typical approach of INGOs work.

///One expert shared, “The most important element it seems to me is to narrow the focus of the initiative to a more specific type of community initiative so you can measure results to start. The collection of substantive areas represented by the coalition is very broad. While the areas are complementary (e.g. democracy, women's issues) it will be tough to compare results across very different projects. Do they want to narrow their focus to democracy projects? To peacebuilding projects? To service delivery projects? Or if you want to keep a more broad focus can you get really specific about the one or two ways you will support a few different broader areas of focus?”///

I completely agree with your comment. One of the challenges we are facing in making progress on that front is the broadness of our approach. This is a result of the fact that the coalition started with a diverse set of organisations that are working on a variety of fields. This diversity is an advantage that we plan to build on, but also a challenge when it comes to programming and narrowing down focus of our work. I think this is where we will be ultimately heading.

I can make an observation on where we are at the moment, and say that this where we are. The area that resonated most amongst our member organisations is “gender equality”. A Gender Working Group has been formed to mainstream this value in our work and practice. We have conducted recently a survey that examined the views of staff members of 6 organisations that are currently member in our coalition. We had a response of over 370 staff members, which is amazing. We are currently analyzing data of that survey, and this will help us determining where we stant in terms of gender equality, and what our priorities should be.

In this sense, it’s possible to say that Gender Equality has organically surfaced at the topic of priority for the organisations that are member in the Coalition. Probably a similar process will prioritize something else in another coalition.

The energy and focus of the Gender Working Group will soon result in more elaboration on the means and tools on how to measure our progress, as a group of organizations, on gender equality. We will be able to better able to flesh out this concept, and transform it into a set of agreed indicators and parameters that will help us measure the adherence and commitment of a certain organisation to gender equality. They will also help measure the progress of one of the organisations in regards to its work on that aspect.

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///Human-centered design starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their real needs. How does this idea consider user needs?
• Yes! How will you bake user-feedback into your organization as you grow?///

One of the aspects that makes the Coalition’s work closely links to the actual needs of its member organisations is its governance structure. The coalition is governed by representatives from its different organisations. The General Assembly of the coalition, which includes a wider membership from all member organisations, decide how the strategy and the programmes of the Coalition look like. The Board of Directors of the Coalition have the oversight over the Executive Body, and ensures that it is meeting the needs of its member organisations, and bridging the gaps that they identified as priorities.

In a sense, we do not have the option of not taking the feedback of our users into account :) That said, however, a governance structure is not sufficient to ensure a constant revision and improvement of our work. At the moment we are doing this with the energy and enthusiasm of a new idea that we want to see happening and succeeding. What we need to move to is a place where this process is structured and efficient.

If I compare where we are standing at the moment, with where we were standing a year and a half ago, I can say I am proud of the extensive process of consultation and listening to the feedback of our member organisations. The next step would be to install this process as a main function in the Coalition.

One thing to point out here, is that we have been lucky in the past period to work with donors who understand and appreciated the context and work we are doing and what we are trying to achieve. This is a very fortunate privilege, and, unfortunately, not always available. In a context where many donors would like to see local NGOs implementing the donor’s own strategic goals, rather than the local NGOs addressing what they identified as priorities, local NGOs often find themselves “forced” to follow rigid logframes and indicators. This is not the space to say this, but thank you to our past donors :)

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///One expert shared: "I would love to learn what your top one or two goals are and how those relate back to the result you are measuring”///

I will copy this from our strategy document (which I will be happy to share):

“The Coalition aims to increase cooperation and collaboration between Syrian CSOs and to aggregate their voice and influence on the future of Syria.” And our programmes aim at: “ putting Shaml members in a stronger position to have greater impact and better ability to achieve democracy, human rights, gender and all-citizens equality in the future of Syria.”

These are the three objectives that summarise the totality of our work, and how we see ourselves realising our goals:
Objective 1: Shaml organizations become stronger institutions committed to their values
Objective 2. Outreach to Syrian CSOs and build the momentum and support for Shaml’s value-based approach
Objective 3: Aggregate the voice of Syrian CSOs to become key advocates on topics related to their core Values

Not all these objectives are addressed in the design we have put here. What we have proposed for IDEO is part of this vision. What we aim to achieve by building coalition and incubating community initiatives is to improve the position of Syrian NGOs and Syrian communities to have a better influence on a democratic future for their country. In addition, we aim for that to be complemented by advocacy and campaigning efforts, which will bridge the improved position of Syrian NGOs with the direct impact they would like to achieve.

Now, to address directly the question asked, measuring how these different components will serve directly our goals will be very complex. We have done some work on this in the past, and made a little bit of progress. The complete picture of how to measure this success is still not fully there.

Using typical approaches to measuring results of an organisation did not exactly work very well for us. We ended up coming up with arbitrary numbers to measure our success, but we were not very satisfied with them. For example, we thought that we can measure the growth of an organisation by a mix of using Organisational Capacity Assessment Tools, and we also expected that it should reflect in an increase in their annual budget (increase in their services and the number of people they serve). However, we were not successful in isolating the influence of the services that the Coalition offers, and the success that we can attribute to us, from other factors and influencers that contribute to the growth of any organisation.

Another difficulty we have faced is the difficulty in capturing the more important, and less tangible and more complicated to pin down aspects of our success. A crucial success we are achieving, for example, is in terms of building trust and confidence between the different organisations that are member in the coalition. While this relationship was limited to senior leadership level of these organisation, now it includes a wider spectrum of different levels of employees of these organisation that are now more in touch with the work of their colleagues in other organisations. This is a huge success for us, and is exactly what we want to achieve. Measuring it, however, is a different story.

We do not have a final answer for this. What we are doing now is to have continuous consultation with our members and their staff, to examine their views on the added value of the Coalition's work, and whether they think its work is contributing to the aims it is trying to achieve. Two weeks ago we have three long meeting in which we examined some of our underlying assumptions, and looked at the contribution of our different programmes and initiatives towards our goals. This approach is promising to outline the way forward in terms of measuring our success, and linking the different components of our work to our overall goals.

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