Supporting with humility

Nonso Jideofor

At the core of our work is supporting organisations to accelerate their social change and social justice goals by responsibly integrating data and tech into their work. To do this in a sustainable and impactful way, we’ve learned the importance of centring their expertise, style of work and understandings of different contexts. From that foundation, we can weave in our own learnings – collected over the years of supporting partners – to increase our partners’ impact. We recognise that through this process it can be difficult to spot biases, ensure what we’re exploring is contextually appropriate and more. That’s why in all our support – particularly in our intensive support through our Matchbox partnerships – we emphasise the importance of supporting with humility.

In our Matchbox programme, supporting our partners with humility means that we start with the knowledge that our partners have a lot to teach us. We learn by active listening. We ask clarifying and provocative questions and, as we receive answers from our partners, we repeat back what we are hearing. We believe it’s important to approach a partnership in this way because of a few core beliefs: 

  • Our partners are the experts. Our partners’ experiences should inform and guide the work. We don’t want to lose the experiences and hard-won knowledge that our partner has already gained by assuming we know better than they do.
  • Relationships are built on trust. A successful partnership takes time and requires gradual trust-building. (That’s part of why our Matchbox partnerships last over a year.) Effective and sustainable solutions are more likely to grow from a strong foundation of trust than from a “let’s just get it done” mentality.
  • We are working towards sustainable change. This means we’re responsive to partners preferred pace of support, while keeping an eye out for times where we can strategically encourage them to think differently. This balance is particularly important in considering sustainability – if we try to move at a pace or in a direction that our partners don’t believe in, the changes we work towards will be short-lived. 

How do we support with humility?

There are no set rules around how we navigate this interaction, but there are commonalities to some experiences we’ve had. Based on our past Matchbox partnerships, here are a few ways we support with humility:

  1. We listen and learn first before sharing our own experience. Truly listening requires suspending our responses until we’ve heard the full arc of what a partner is sharing. In our Matchbox work, it has meant adapting our communication and listening styles in order to fit best with theirs. We have also found that our partners are extra receptive to hearing us share not just our knowledge, but our own vulnerabilities and learning experiences. 
  2. We prioritise immersing ourselves not just in the context of the work, but in the partner team, too. We invest time in understanding the work that partners have accomplished so far and in learning who on the team did what. Honouring and building on this history – including what has been a driving force in the past – is important to make sure we’re moving forward in the right direction and in the right way. This means making time to meet with our partners in person whenever possible.
  3. We tailor our support to the strengths of the organisation. Inspired by our value of creating structure that enables serendipity, we come to our Matchbox partnership eager to identify the ways the organisation is strong and demonstrating leadership. Depending on what we find, we adapt our methods and co-create new ones with our partner. This means honouring both tactics that have worked in the past and new approaches that could work better.

Support learnings in practice

In work with one of our newest Matchbox partners – the Legal Advisory and Information Center (LAIC) – we were able to put this all into practice. One of the biggest concrete takeaways was a more nuanced understanding of the context of their work. While we approached the partnership with some understanding of land tenure rights, by taking a back seat and listening we learned even more. LAIC’s deep experience showed us how pernicious insecure tenure is, affecting not just informal settlements, but inner-city buildings and state-subsidised housing – some estimates say that up to 60% of South Africans experience insecure tenure rights. At the same time, LAIC showed how there were analogous systems to the formal market system for processes like land access, management, holding and transfer (particularly in the context of Soweto, South Africa). 

Side-by-side with LAIC, we worked through the knowledge and ideas that we each brought to the table. Through that process, we discovered new focuses to our work together. We had started the partnership primarily focused on LAIC’s litigation work as the main advocacy tool, but soon we recognised how important their day-to-day data collection work was, too. Together, we hope to explore how the data that LAIC has already collected could be used both for action – by protecting residents from eviction – and advocacy – by changing the restrictive laws around tenure.

What’s next?

We’re eager to share these approaches in the hope that other support organisations (and partners themselves!) can engage with what we’ve learned about providing humility-infused support, build upon it and incorporate aspects of it into their own work. If you’re interested in discussing these approaches with us, feel free to get in touch. You can learn more about this year’s Matchbox partners here or get in touch with Anca (Latin America and the Caribbean) at anca@theengineroom.org and Nonso (Sub-Saharan Africa) at nonso@theengineroom.org.

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