The Community Development Resource Association (CDRA) was founded in 1987 as an organisation development agency supporting civil society organisations and individual practitioners working in social change and transformation. At that time, its purpose was to provide organisation development services to non-governmental service organisations (NGOs) in their strivings to become more effective in their social purpose. The CDRA was founded out of the knowledge that the organisational and institutional forms and practices that give shape to society are not capable of changing society without changing themselves. We have spent twenty five years searching for, exploring, practising and promoting organisational practices that are more suited to the purpose of social change and transformation.
Over the years our work has maintained a South African focus while working in other parts of Africa, Europe, Sweden and Finland. We have worked with all sizes of civil society organisations in many sectors building an informed picture of the complex world of the NGO and civil society development. Though a small percentage of our work, we remain involved in doing work with northern global civil society organisations and donor agencies. Through this we continue to serve, and learn from, organisations that are very influential in shaping development funding and cooperation.
From the beginning the primary allegiance of the CDRA has been to the process of development and over the years, our form of development practice has evolved to a point where we now offer a critical and challenging approach to the development sector. Our approach aims to support development practitioners, organisations, institutions and networks in improving the quality and effectiveness of their practice – we see ourselves as contributing towards the quest for approaches to social development that truly enhance capacity, empower and ensure participation. This is reflected in our practical approach and methods which strive to develop capacity and transform power relations.
The CDRA is a centre for organisational innovation and development practice. We value people’s ability to organise, and so shape the world. We foster and promote innovative organisational forms and practices that seek to transform power towards a just world characterised by freedom, inclusion and sufficiency.
As a centre, we act as a resource and co-learner with those who want to innovate and push the boundaries in their social change practice. We are not simply a service-delivery organisation, nor a for-profit consultancy – we are a development and research organisation striving to make civil society organisations more effective in their social purpose.
We have three interconnected fields of work:
Strengthening organisation (including forms of organising)
Towards this end, we accompany organisations and people through their processes of change, development and learning. Through our accompaniment practice:
- we support organisations to become more effective in their social purpose;
- we support the initiatives of people at community level to gain more influence and control over their own processes of development, learning and change.
Operating at these different levels we have learned how similar many of the needs and problems are and how much could be improved by listening to and learning from each other and by surfacing the resourcefulness of people.
Courses (learning programmes)
Through our courses (learning programmes) we bring together practitioners and organisations who believe that civil society has a critical role to play in the evolution of society. We aim, through our courses, to contribute towards building a developmental practice that is effective in challenging restrictive relationships of power, which enhances people’s capacity and resourcefulness and contributes to positive social change.
Research and Inquiry
Through our research we design, facilitate and participate in processes aimed at and emphasising inquiry, reflection creating the conditions for peer learning and learning between collegial organisations. Such processes are designed to surface, share and improve practice, to generate practitioner voice on matters that shape and inform social change practice. Through research we pursue two primary agendas, transformation and information.
Sharing our learning
We share our accumulated learning with others through our courses, publications and our website. Our practice has been shaped and informed primarily by a South African experience and through our publications we are able to share knowledge drawn from accompaniment, research and inquiry experiences with a wider audience of practitioners. Over the years the publications and website have become a means through which our learning and insights from practice have become an expression of ‘voice’ through which we have challenged dominant perspectives and practices that are not necessarily developmental.
Our own learning
We invest in our own internal organisational learning and action research drawing on all of our experience to contribute towards more effective, innovative and developmental practices. Through our regular learning rhythm individual and team learning is sustained and methodologies and approaches refined on an ongoing basis. The regular learning is also the space out of which the organisation’s own organisational strategy is formulated and harnessed into concrete plans of action.
Challenges and Opportunities
The challenges faced by the CDRA are not unique; many other civil society organisations and NGOs more specifically face similar challenges regarding their financial sustainability.
In 2011, after 24 years of supporting other organisations and individuals in their processes of development and change, the CDRA had to face its own transformation precipitated by the funding and financial context. Over the last seven years the organisation had been finding it increasingly difficult to generate a combination of self-generated income and funding to sustain the organisation in its old form. A transformation was inevitable and the organisation terminated the permanent employment of 11 of its 18 staff members. The new form comprises of a smaller core of seven full-time permanent staff working closely with associates.
Looking to the future, we believe that organisations working in the field of human development and social change should be contributing more to innovative thinking and practice related to complex living systems. The living systems we work with are composed of infinitely interrelated individual human elements that have the added possibility of free choice, free will and human agency. These characteristics of the human condition that make social systems most complex and unpredictable are the very ones we seek to enhance and amplify. Into the future, we seek to inquire into, explore and develop innovative organisational forms and practices to expand the freedoms of people and increase their choices.
As we embrace the next phase of our development, we seek to bring our experience into productive collaborative relationship with other organisations and individuals who are committed to pursuing new organisational forms and practices. Our biggest challenge is to renew and find new relationships with other civil society organisations, governments and business – we need to associate and engage more collaboratively with those who present opportunities for mutual learning and benefit. With a government that drives the development agenda, there is opportunity for working collaboratively in partnership.
We believe that what is needed is more robust and creative engagement between civil society organisations, government and business. In this way, new organisational forms and practices will emerge that have a better chance of meeting the challenges of our time and enabling us to meet the needs of the marginalised and excluded.
What we have to offer
Given that we have worked mostly in South Africa, we have accumulated experience, knowledge and understanding of the NGO and civil society development – given the vast number of organisations that we have worked with, this experience has great depth and breadth and is nuanced. To date, we have worked with over 700 organisations. As many of our course participants have come from further afield, we have insight into the developmental challenges facing global civil society organisations and donor agencies.
We have extensive experience in designing and facilitating action research processes that bring practitioners together to inquire into thematic focus areas, learn from each other and contribute to the development of new organisational and community practices drawn from experience.
We have established relationships with an enormous array of organisations and practitioners committed to finding ways of being more effective in their social change and transformation practice. Although we have a stronger relationship with the recipient end of the development aid chain, we have experience of working at all levels. Owing to this, we are a connection point for a large community of practitioners.
We have a body of writing and publications exploring new thinking and practices commensurate with the demands of transformational development. In addition to hard copies, many of our writing and publications can be found on our web site (www.cdra.org.za).
Over 25 years, our contribution lies in bringing the experiences and voice of civil society into the public space.
For more about the Community Development Resource Association, refer to www.cdra.org.za.