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Start with what you have, not what you lack: how Appreciative Inquiry put SCAT back on track

SCAT's Appreciative Inquiry process Since the Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT) was started in 1984, it has played an important role tackling social injustice in partnering with the poorest communities in the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape of South Africa, and more recently the Free State. Through its grantmaking, it has helped hundreds of small organizations address issues from human rights, gender equity, HIV and AIDS as well as local economic development. Challenged by changes in staff and management as well as an evolving operating landscape, a GFCF grant allowed SCAT to invest in a faciliated Appreciative Inquiry process (AI). Joanne Harding, Director of SCAT, talked to the GFCF about how an exercise in AI helped their team emerge from a period of transition.


GFCF: Tell us about the challenges SCAT faced at the beginning of 2016?

Joanne Harding: When I returned to SCAT as Director in early 2016,  after a five year absence, I knew that it had been a difficult period for everyone, including the board, the staff and grantees. After years of being financially secure, a loss of funding meant the organization had to use reserves, it faced looming expenses which meant no salary increases, it had to keep tight controls on overheads and had to reduce our number of grantees. This, along with multiple leadership changes, contributed to tension in the organization and had resulted in a loss of donor confidence and low morale.

Also since the number of grantees dropped from 90 to 40 local community organizations, this contributed to the existing challenges of reaching and building trust in very poor and marginalized places. It further impacted on our work to build community leaders within those organizations. The organization, that had sustained 30 years of contributing to positive community centered and community driven change in the country, needed help to get back on its feet and rebuild for a new future. 


GFCF: Tell us why you believed an AI process could help solve some of the challenges that SCAT was facing?

JH: I knew that there needed to be a process that allowed everyone to reflect on what had happened during this tough period of transition. I knew that it could not be one that led to blame and retribution, or an experience that simple rehashed the past. The process needed to allow for board, staff members as well as our local development agency partners to be reflective, yet move forward through a positive lens. The process also had to re-energize the organization and help it adapt to a changing context and a far more competitive fundraising landscape.

The purpose of the AI process was to unlock the good and positive about the organization and enable people to create an even better future in a participatory and reflective way. It followed four phases: Discovery, Dream, Design & Deliver and the process of AI opened a new opportunity for continued engagement with all of SCAT’s stakeholder groups. As a result of the process, a strategic plan has been agreed for the next three years.


GFCF: Can you share more detail on the process? How did it challenge people’s perspectives?

JH: Interviews with all grantees, workshops and a final Summit, allowed the team to understand each other’s perspective as well as benefit from institutional knowledge. For example, local development partners realized that SCAT was not immune to the leadership and funding issues they also faced. This contributed to a greater sense of unity and working together.

It also built a shared clarity of purposes between the stakeholders, allowing staff and board to be clear about the strategic priorities going forward. These commitments included to: increase access to justice and strengthen community based advice offices; recommit to gender equality; identify more platforms for youth; and, push for alleviating poverty. It also allowed us to understand the role SCAT plays in not just giving grants but also building capacity and incentivizing local giving through our local fundraising incentive scheme (where we provide matching funds as well as technical support for local fundraising initiatives).


GFCF: Looking forward, how do you think the AI process will help the organization grow?

JH: The process has strengthened our collective sense of purpose and the energy we need to help SCAT grow. This is important as we seek to rebuild the trust of external funders as well as our grantees. During the transition period, the number of corporate and foundations donors dropped dramatically from 22 to just two. Things are already looking better as the donor base has increased back to nine and the budget, in just a year, has almost doubled. We now realize we don’t want to be over dependent on one or two donors, so we are investing in rebuilding relationships and identifying long-term funding. 

Another fallout from the transition period meant the board became much more hands on and focused on day-to-day management of the organization, instead of just playing an oversight role. While this process did not alone shift this role back, it did help to rebuild trust with staff to be able to manage the day-to-day running of the organization.


GFCF: Are you positive about the future?

JH: Essentially, while SCAT has gone through some tough times, we remain committed to the vision of our original founders. They loved the idea of empowering communities, and not telling them what to do but instead providing resources, organization, and financial skills as well as mentoring to let them make it happen. We believe that the work SCAT does to help build local community philanthropy and invest in community leaders and organizations is critical in this time of growing inequality and marginalization in South Africa. It is an important vehicle to help reach these communities with constructive and tangible support so they can address their problems.


GFCF: What would you say to other community philanthropy organizations going through difficult periods of transition?

JH: I believe AI is an extremely valuable tool, especially for organizations struggling with change. At the heart of an AI process is the premise that organizations do their best thinking, visioning and planning when these are approached with an appreciative lens. Discovering what is good and positive about an organization unlocks its “positive core for change” and enables people to create an even better future. It does require honesty and courage to share, but since it is done in safe and constructive way, it can help to heal as well as rebuild trust. 

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