Connecting Hubs from DC to Monrovia!
By Open Gov Hub Director Nada Zohdy
A few weeks ago I had the true pleasure of visiting our affiliate Open Gov Hub and partner the iCampus in Monrovia, Liberia for the very first time (on my first trip to West Africa actually). I ran our brand new, week-long “How to Run a Hub” training for the iCampus team. We learned a tremendous amount from each other, and all came away with renewed energy for tapping the incredible potential of this new hub for Liberia, and for growing a truly global network of partner Hubs working together for open government, accountability, and social change around the world.
The iCampus is Liberia’s very first innovation hub - a gathering point for innovation and collaboration to promote accountability and social change. My visit was part of an exciting collaboration: a 6-month Staff Swap between the Open Gov Hub here in Washington, DC and the iCampus in Monrovia, Liberia (made possible through support from the Open Society Foundation).
The goals of our staff swap program are to:
Help support the sustainability of the young iCampus (they started to run activities in November 2016 but just fully launched this July!) through our new “How to Run a Hub” training and manual, which summarizes key lessons from the Open Gov Hub’s 6 years of successful operations and growth, in helping many groups share resources and facilitating collaborative events and programs
Connect and foster relationships between our two member communities in DC and Monrovia to learn from each other and work together
My week in Monrovia was jam-packed with many training sessions and meeting so many incredible, inspiring people! We wished we had more time but were still able to run the full new Hub trainings for the iCampus team (which includes various staff from the 2 co-founding organizations and co-operators of iCampus, which are the Accountability Lab and iLab Liberia). We also hosted the very first “Ignite Night” Event in Liberia - a fun, dynamic event that featured 4 lightning talks from Liberian youth leaders, each talk exactly 5 minutes with 20 slides that automatically advance (to keep things to the point and fast-paced!).
We even recorded a 12-minute podcast interview between me and my iCampus counterpart, Luther Jeke, about lessons from the exchange visit. You can listen here (Go easy, it was my podcast debut :)
Here’s a snapshot of some of the many takeaways:
What I Learned
1. First and foremost, our two hubs have far more in common than you might expect! Despite being on other sides of the world, we share many similarities in our missions, programs, operations, and roles as staff. This validated just how relevant and transferable the "hub" model is around the world. We have had affiliate Open Gov Hubs since 2014 when our first partner hub was established in Nepal, but this in-person visit was the very first time we could start to see just how relevant our experience in DC can be elsewhere, and to see just how far these mutually beneficial relationships can go.
Many people may understandably argue that the density of NGOs and the NGO environment in Washington is incredibly unique and thus that this model can’t just be copied and pasted elsewhere. But we've found that our unique model - as a social enterprise innovation hub focused on helping members share resources and work together to advance open government reforms - can indeed thrive elsewhere. Even the success of the "Ignite Talk" model (which we started to use in DC last year) was transferable.
It was also so encouraging to build solidarity between our teams, who share both the opportunities and challenges of the very unique (and sometimes isolating and misunderstood) work of running innovation hubs.
And perhaps most importantly, it was so powerful to see just how much innovation hubs can support and catalyze communities of change makers everywhere. After all, the work of social change can be very difficult and isolating no matter where you are, and hubs offer both access to essential resources and, even more importantly, to supportive relationships to sustain us all for the long run and help us thrive in doing this work.
And I think that by visiting in person, I could get members of the iCampus community truly excited about the vision of what’s possible! By sharing the story of Open Gov Hub’s great evolution and growth in our first 6 years, and by facilitating discussions that helped them uncover for each other their top challenges and strengths (or as we like to say, "pains and passions"), I hope every iCampuser came away feeling energized about the role they can play in making this vision possible, for the benefit of all.
2. Remember to always adapt your message to the community. Many of us in DC realize that we often use a lot of opengov jargon in our work, which can act as a barrier preventing everyday people from becoming advocates for this critical work. Yet in the course of explaining what Open Gov Hub is to many Liberians during my visit, I was challenged to adapt my language and explain our work and its impact in straightforward, clear terms. Even the very name "Open Gov Hub" took some explanation for people to grasp. So I adapted and tried to link this concept to issues they are passionate about and get excited about. I was asked: what is open government anyway, and why should people care about it? How can it have an impact on their lives? These are exactly the kinds of questions we need to ask each other more often, to continually refine our messages to reach different communities, and build the broader global opengov movement.
3. The power of the arts to get people engaged in social change. I was surprised and inspired by seeing just how much artists are already an integral part of the iCampus community, and this is absolutely something I think we could do much more of here in DC. Musicians performed at the beginning and end of our Ignite Night event, and many more Liberian artists will be able to link their art with social change messages by taking advantage of the new Media Lab (complete with production services) at the iCampus (where we recorded our podcast!). At another NGO event I attended, audience members were even invited to the stage to tell jokes and entertain each other before the formal program began. These experienced reminded me that creative arts - whether music, visual arts, humor, or other vehicles for storytelling and expression - really move people to care and act on issues no matter where you are in the world. I believe there is so much more we can do in our own work to leverage the arts as an entry point for greater community empowerment and civic engagement.
What I Shared
Some of my top pieces of advice that I offered the iCampus based on Open Gov Hub's 6 years of experience included:
1. Strive to become 100% financially self-sustaining. Creative income generation and strong financial management are the foundations for self-sustainability and long-term success. More social impact organizations would do well to think creatively about how they can generate income as a means to more flexibly fulfill their missions (without as many donor constraints). And it may not be the most glamorous aspect of managing a dynamic innovation hub, but business planning and financial management are by far one of the most essential. Support from funders and sponsors can be absolutely essential to kick-start new innovative ideas (and indeed have helped iCampus with its success thus far, but no funding will ever be as flexible as the income you earn yourself. So I encouraged the team to work toward that goal - and helped them work on updating their business model - to help maximize the freedom and flexibility they have in managing iCampus to best fulfill their own vision.
2. Start the planning for every meeting, event, or program with a clear goal, before jumping in to the inevitable flurry of activity. With Open Gov Hub running 150 activities and events per year, we know from experience how easy it is to fall into the trap of getting caught up in the constant churn of activity (as the meeting place of so much activity for so many interesting ideas and people)! But in order to have the most impact as a hub, it is always important to first clarify what is the goal of this activity, then design it to best fulfill that. Only with constant checks on clarity of purpose can hubs fulfill their true potential.
3. Everyday issues will always arise, but part of the key to success for any hub is streamlining core operations and processes to predict and prevent 90% of the most common everyday issues that arise. As large shared workspaces for so many different people, it is only natural that the Open Gov Hub and iCampus teams regularly encounter problems reported by members and visitors (from tech to facilities issues and more). This can create a lot of stress. So to reduce headaches and keep our team productive and motivated, we've learned to predict 90% of the most common challenges and establish very clear processes for how to quickly and proactively respond to them (knowing 10% of the time, unexpected issues will still always arise). We share various workflows and checklists we've developed over time to really optimize our everyday operations and run as much as possible like a truly well-oiled machine.
These are just some of the many insights we uncovered together during this inaugural staff swap program between Open Gov Hub in DC and our global partner Hubs.
Stay tuned for more as my counterpart, iCampus Manager Luther Jeke, comes to visit us here in DC in a few months, and we report back on his learnings and impressions. And stay tuned in the coming months for more updates about this new track of work directly linking us in DC with our global affiliate partner hubs - currently in Nepal and Liberia - and hopefully more to come around the world!