Fostering collaboration

Networks are made up of a number of protest movements that share the same goals and vision and can play an important role in enhancing the sustainability and efficacy of individual movements. Networks often allow movements to pursue campaign strategies and achieve gains that are not possible alone. Networks can enhance the power and influence of citizens’ voices in advocating for policies and improving governance, and provide a platform for knowledge and resource sharing. Civil society networks have become partners of choice for many international development agencies seeking to maximise the reach, scale and impacts of their programmes (see here, page 1).

In this section:

Choosing the type of network

Choosing partners

Characteristics of successful networks

Establishing networks

Additional resources

Did you know?

In October 2015, Tunisia’s civil society National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work in building democracy and peace following the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. The Quartet brought together four different, established civil society networks. They developed a road map for agreeing to a constitution and holding elections, and forged a new, alternate process of dialogue (see here, page 10).

Choosing the type of network

There are numerous ways that protest movements and civil society organisations can come together to form networks. Deciding what form of network you would like to join or start requires a careful consideration of what your movement wants to achieve through collaboration with other organisations and movements. Networks may be formed for at least five distinct reasons and each comes with different levels of commitment to coordination.

“Networks are more likely to be efficient and effective when they align their shared purposes with a network structure that is best suited to their level of interdependence.”

To exchange information

This requires a low level of interdependency and limited joint decision-making as the network is essentially made up of informal relationships between organisations or movements. Usually information is shared when one organisation convenes a meeting for partners (see here, page 16).


For the coordination of policies, programmes or activities

This requires limited interdependence but some joint decision-making. As this form of network is really about finding ways that different movements or organisations can complement each other in their individual actions, coordination is generally done by the leaders of the various  movements (see here, page 16).


To obtain common funding

Funders may require that certain targets be met by the organisations they support. One organisation or movement may not have the capacity to meet all of these, but can achieve this when they partner with others. A network of movements or organisations formed for funding purposes often requires joint decision-making on finance issues, and often must be legally registered. This kind of network requires joint project management and finance teams to ensure that all organisations in the network work together to meet the funder’s targets and funding obligations (see here, page 16).


To create new joint ventures

The creation of new joint ventures such as advocacy campaigns or service delivery programmes can require a significant amount of joint decision-making focused on programme action and strategy. Members of such a network may decide that it is necessary to establish a new coordinating organisation made up of members from the different founding movements. This is likely when coordination is envisaged as necessary in the long term rather than for a single campaign.  Alternatively, the network may be an alliance hosted by one organisation for a specific limited-period advocacy campaign (see here, page 16).


To create a long-term common identity

This requires high levels of join decision-making. Movements work to create a new common organisation, with a vision, codes, policies and leadership structure separate to that of its member organisations and sometimes legal registration as a new entity. This form of network often hires permanent staff and uses formalised procedures such as leadership elections. It can be effective for longer term causes and campaigns (see here, page 16).


Choosing partners

Choosing which organisations and movements to partner with in a network must be done after careful consideration of a movement’s needs. Factors such as whether a movement requires meeting space, greater numbers of supporters, expert information, social credibility, or international awareness may for instance influence why particular partners are chosen. The most effective networks are those that have a clear purpose and collaborative strategies to achieve it. Partners must be chosen based on an alignment of purpose and needs (see here, page 20). Based on the nature of your movement and the purpose for which you want to establish a network, there are a number of partners you may wish to approach.

The most effective networks are those that have a clear purpose and collaborative strategies to achieve it.

Grassroots movements

The changing nature of protest and the rise of mobile connectivity has made the work of grassroots movements easier and led to these movements becoming key drivers of democratic change (see here, page 4). Grassroots movements are often seen by many as far more representative of communities and aware of the problems they face than formalised civil society organisations. They are also generally more diverse in terms of their demographics and more creative in their approaches to protest (seehere, page 2). It is important that grassroots movements form networks with each other, that formalised civil society organisations network with them and that funders work directly with grassroots movements. Grassroots movements are often organised around specific issues that affect people’s everyday lives. These issues are not always unique to a particular community and collaboration between different grassroots movements experiencing the same issues may increase pressure to resolve them. Grassroots movements often represent the people who are the most vulnerable, marginalised and excluded from society. For instance, grassroots movements in Latin America have often been the main representatives of indigenous interests.[1] The formation of networks of grassroots movements, formalised civil society organisations and funders can enhance the reach, influence, relevance and ability to work effectively towards change.


Formalised civil society organisations

Formalised civil society organisations, including those typically identified as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) regularly form networks with one another around particular issues. Traditionally, funders have been willing to form connections with formalised civil society organisations, often to the exclusion of grassroots movements, because of the institutionalised nature of these organisations and their ability to meet the accounting and reporting requirements for grants (see here, pages 2-3). It can be very beneficial for movements to partner with formalised civil society organisations because they may have connections in government that enhance their ability to effect change, resources such as the ability to book venues and pay legal professionals, and regular staff who can carry out the day-to-day administrative tasks that go along with effective civil activism (see here, pages 18 and 22). When selecting which formalised civil society organisations to partner with, it is important to establish whether they require that, in all circumstances, partners use the civil society organisation’s branding and whether there is any flexibility in the way that resources provided can be used based on changing contexts.[2] Civil society organisations that recognise that publicised partnerships can both legitimise and delegitimise protest movements depending on the context are good partners. Similarly, those that understand the way that needs can change in a protest context and do not place onerous conditions on the way their assistance can be used are effective partners.

Did you know?

Protests in Algeria in early 2019 against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth presidential term began as a grassroots movement in several cities after anonymous calls appeared on social media for people to protest. The movement also partnered with formalised collectives including Mouwatana – a citizen-led movement that includes political parties, associations and individuals – to urge Algerians to take to the streets (see here).

Network-building organisations

Organisations exist that are specifically set up to create networks between social and protest movements seeking to achieve the same aims. These network-building organisations generally specialise in particular issues and facilitate contact between protest movements working on these issues.[3] Aside from facilitating this contact, many of these organisations work on capacity development for the movements they work with, to help ensure the sustainability of the networks they create. For instance, in Mexico, one network-building organisation that supports people working with families of disappeared persons also runs civil society schools that help equip activists with the tools they need to run their movements effectively.[4] Such organisations may only assist you if you actively approach them for help and explain how your movement meets the overall vision they wish to support. The Mexican organisation, for example, only assists movements that have the goal of long-term transformation of the context that enabled the disappearance culture to develop.[5]


International NGOs

While there is often distrust of international NGOs among activists, they can be useful partners. Organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Oxfam operate in a number of ways. While they are best known for providing humanitarian support to those affected by conflict or disaster, they also work to support protest movements. They can provide useful technical support, information and guidance on international legal and administrative frameworks (see here). The support that international NGOs give can be used to help create diverse, multifaceted campaigns based on good research that is difficult to dispute. This is the way that the Red Cross supported the disappeared movement in Mexico. The organisation was particularly useful in assisting with forensic analysis to identify human remains. This was used as a lobbying tool to support other protest strategies and lent support to the credibility of the movement.[6]


United Nations Agencies

The United Nations comprises countless agencies that work towards a range of goals. If an agency deals with the specific issue that your movement is interested in or a challenge that your movement is facing, partnering with a United Nations agency – often in an informal capacity – can be extremely useful. For instance, in Chile during the student protests, the police were particularly brutal towards protesting secondary school children. The student movement approached the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for assistance. UNICEF issued statements condemning this brutality, which increased international attention on the issue and international pressure to stop the violence against protesters.[7] United Nations Special Procedures, such as the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and of association, may also be useful partners in investigating human rights abuses and reporting on human rights violations (see here).


Foreign states and diplomatic missions

While forming partnerships with foreign states and diplomatic missions can be difficult because of the politics involved in supporting protest movements in other states, particularly when these movements are calling for democratic change, foreign states can be useful partners. Many states care little about the opinions of their own people but are concerned about foreign perceptions.[8] As part of a combined strategy, internal pressure through protest coupled with external pressure, including in the form of sanctions, can effectively bring about democratic change. This was the case in South Africa, where pressure to end apartheid came from numerous sources both domestically and internationally (see here, page 146). Protest movements in some states send members abroad to lobby support from foreign governments and diplomats.[9] External pressure need not only be in the form of sanctions. It may also be about ensuring that states meet the obligations they have to the United Nations or regional human rights bodies in terms of international law and standards.


The media

The media is a powerful partner for any protest movement. It is important that movements approach progressive media houses to conduct interviews with protest leaders, invite them onto panel discussions and if possible air documentaries about the situation that led to the protests. Radio, TV and print media are all potential partners, as are more contemporary forms of media such as YouTube content creators. Examples of successful partnerships have included media houses setting up livestreams of protest activities and favourably reporting on protests in Armenia.[10] Social media platforms are also important tools for protesters. Messages can be spread quickly and to a large audience, but members of protest movements can also use new media to write about their experiences, post videos of events as they happen and communicate with each other. A successful movement will ensure that they rely on both traditional and contemporary media, using different platforms to reach different groups of people, and using many platforms to amplify the voices of activists (see here, page 11).

“Social media is slowly becoming the place to hold leaders accountable, especially in Africa.”

Did you know?

Protesters in 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations in Sudan used particular hashtags on Twitter as repositories for news and videos, group chats on the communications platform Telegram and a few Facebook groups to organise and maintain the momentum of the protests.

(see here)

Characteristics of successful networks

Successful civil society networks often share similar characteristics. They can be grouped into three broad areas: (1) history and external environment; (2) social aims and technical expertise; and (3) leadership, governance and management. None of these areas can be ignored when designing, establishing and assessing successful networks (see here, page 11).


History and external environment

Successful civil society networks are often built on the historical relationships of individuals within different organisations. Networks of people and organisations that have worked together or interacted before are often the most effective. Networks of organisations that already have social capital and influence in society also tend to be effective as they are able to combine and compound their pre-existing power. The civil society National Dialogue Quartet in Tunisia is a good example of this. In 2011, this network was made up of four well-established organisations and together they were able to develop a roadmap for agreeing a new constitution and holding elections, and forged a new, alternate process of dialogue (see here, page 10). It should be noted that in states that have very closed civic space, it is difficult to form successful networks because meeting and communication facilities are often limited by the state (see here, page 12). In such instances, effective networks are often more informal and comprise partnerships with international actors rather than domestic ones.[11]


Social aims and technical expertise

The most successful civil society networks are generally those that mobilise around issues that are valued by the public. These are often issues that have already received a lot of attention in the media and are the subject of public scrutiny. A popular social aim is not enough, however. Networks need to have technical expertise to address these aims, including a wide range of knowledge, skills and other resources, from legal and media expertise to social mobilisation and legitimacy through extensive research. Successful networks also establish exactly what is meant by expertise and use this to guide the additional, outside partnerships they form and the work they commission (see here, page 12).


Leadership, governance and management

Networks work best when leadership, governance and management are relatively collaborative, relying on collective leadership, where leaders represent the vision of the whole and put aside individual egos; representative governance, which involves all members either directly or representatively and either informally or formally; and coordinating management, which establishes guides for voluntary actions and works on systems of trust rather than the relatively directive and hierarchical approaches common in single organisations. Collaborative systems for governance and management functions, such as record-keeping, communication, fundraising and financial management, are also important to a network’s success, especially in larger, more institutionalised networks that must account to multiple members and funders  (see here, page 13).


Establishing networks

Once you have established the type of network that would be beneficial to your movement and identified the partners you would like to include in this network, it is important to consider how best to establish the network and maintain relationships between the movements or organisations that comprise it. The establishment of a network requires that the partners involved decide logistical aspects that may be complex, such as leadership structures if these are desired, campaign strategies and long-term plans, including those relating to potentially sensitive issues such as finance. The way that each of these matters is decided upon will depend on the context of a network and the parties that comprise it. However, movements that are members of effective networks have shared how they went about achieving this.


Network building in times of peace

Movements are best placed to establish connections and networks in times of peace. It is difficult to build relationships in the height of a protest because the environment is emotionally charged and fluid.[12] Instead, the building of networks should be seen as a preparatory step before protests and campaigns begin in earnest. In Chile, in 2009, the three largest student movements organised a conference that was attended by student movements from both public and private universities, the education workers’ unions and the unions’ parent organisations. At this meeting, the various movements were able to form relationships and started sharing information. They established which movements were politically and ideologically aligned and which were not but could still share useful resources.[13] This meeting was the foundation of the collaboration between student movements in relief efforts to assist miners during the 2010 mining crisis and the mass student protests that achieved reforms in the university funding system in 2011.[14]


Meetings in person

When establishing a network, and throughout a network’s existence, it is important that member movements and organisations meet in person, if possible. Protest movement leaders in Azerbaijan have found that it is much easier to persuade organisations, particularly formalised civil society organisations, international NGOs and foreign states, when representatives plead a movement’s cause in person. This enables potential partners to empathise with the struggles faced, ask any questions they may have and gain an understanding of the exact situation on the ground from first-hand accounts.[15] It is also important to meet in person regularly because personal motivations matter. The reason why individual movements and their leaders join and participate in networks may be constantly changing. Meetings in person make it easier to evaluate whether these motivations still align (see here, page 90).


Group agreements

While many networks are established in situations of social conflict, it is also common that they will experience internal conflicts. This can be difficult to manage and can lead to the breakdown of a network. As such, at the very beginning of a network’s life, members should draft a consensus-based group agreement that lists the underpinning values and commitments of the network. This should guide the functioning of a network and be used to mediate any internal conflicts. On a smaller scale, if networks have regular in-person member meetings, a group agreement could be compiled at the beginning of each meeting that details the values and commitments of the people present at the meeting. This document can then be used as a guide to deal with any internal conflicts constructively and respectfully, helping to ensure that conflict does not lead to the breakdown of relations in the long term (see here, page 94.)

“Once in dialogue with potential program partner networks, an environment for good communication needs to be established, so that each participant in the discussions can voice its own ideas about purpose(s) and role(s) and listen to those of others.”

Knowledge and connection sharing

While some networks are established to meet a particular aim and then disbanded, others exist in the long term, and sometimes in different iterations (see here, page 10). Even when networks disband after achieving a specific goal, knowledge sharing can and should continue. While this support may not be formalised, it helps to ensure the sustainability of relationships and movements in the longer term. One of the most important kinds of knowledge that can be shared is around other movements that partnered to achieve different goals and how the partnership was managed. Members of protest movements may know about movements or organisations that work towards the same goals that their ex-partners are now seeking to achieve.[16] Sharing this information can be invaluable and reduce the time it takes to establish a new network.


Additional resources

For more information check out:


[1] Interview with a member of a civil society movement in Chile.

[2] Interview with a member of a civil society movement in Armenia.

[3] Interview with a member of a network-building organisation in Mexico.

[4] Interview with a member of a network-building organisation in Mexico.

[5] Interview with a member of a network-building organisation in Mexico.

[6] Interview with a member of a network-building organisation in Mexico.

[7] Interview with a member of a protest movement in Chile.

[8] Interview with a member of a protest movement in Azerbaijan.

[9] Interview with a member of a protest movement in Azerbaijan.

[10] Interview with a member of a protest movement in Armenia.

[11] Interview with a member of a protest movement in Azerbaijan.

[12] Interview with a member of a protest movement in Chile.

[13] Interview with a member of a protest movement in Chile.

[14] Interview with a member of a protest movement in Chile.

[15] Interview with a member of a protest movement in Azerbaijan.

[16] Interview with a member of a protest movement in Armenia.


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