Highlighting Learning Journeys for 3 Social Lab Teams in Cambodia

Rachel DickinsonRebooting Systems, Reimagining Projects

These activities are being conducted as part of the three-year USAID-funded Local Organizations—Movement Towards Self-Reliance (LO-MTSR) activity implemented by The Cloudburst Group (Cloudburst) and their two major partners, PartnersGlobal and the DevLab@Duke University. LO-MTSR aims to increase the organizational resiliency of Cambodian civil society organizations (CSOs) across the health, education, food security, environment, and democracy, human rights, and governance sectors by increasing their capacity to expand their networks and tap into new markets and revenue streams, decreasing their reliance on aid from foreign donors, and empowering them on their journey to self-reliance.

The Social Lab methodology brings together diverse local stakeholders across an ecosystem to improve trust, voice, and accountability while creating, and then reflecting on the results of short-term “lean experiments” to test solutions to local challenges. Lean Experiments are designed by local lab teams to quickly and cheaply gather evidence to validate or invalidate assumptions about the solutions to local challenges. A reflection workshop is held every two months during which teams present to each other the results of their experiments and the implications for moving forward with their proposed solutions. Based on what they learned from the experiment and from the feedback, the team may decide to design another experiment to do further testing on their original solution or pivot to a new solution and design an experiment to test still unanswered questions. In Cambodia, the Social Lab model and its emphasis on lean experimentation has built skills in teamwork, independence from international implementing partners, and action/reflection cycles. Each of three Social Lab teams has had a very different learning journey, a hallmark of the social lab model.

The Cambodia Social Enterprise Network (CSEN) is a group of CSOs focused on environmental protection, disaster preparedness, and/or food security. This team came up with the idea to create a joint social enterprise for ecotourism hosted in tandem with a local community based in the provinces. Visitors to the site could enjoy time in nature while leaving minimal impact on the environment. Their social enterprise would have special emphasis on reaching youth for environmental, agricultural, health and peace education. For their first lean experiment between March and May, this team did a site visit to Chambok Resort. A successful site for ecotourism, Chambok Resort was a great resource for learning what it takes to run a social enterprise. Along with learning about budgeting and finance models, the team came to understand the importance of a strong leader and dedicated individual to make sure things are moving forward, especially during start-up. The multi-organizational collaborative joint venture they are testing is new for Cambodia.

Between March and May, the Social Youth Festival team, a group of youth-focused organizations, experimented around messaging for helping others to understand the purpose of a youth festival event they hope to hold in early 2023 and attract the attention and commitment of other youth organizations and donors. The annual youth festival brings together youth and NGOs from many different sectors to demonstrate youth talents and achievements, foster networking between youth and NGOs, and build collaboration among NGOs and other stakeholders. For their experiments, this group created and distributed a pitch PPT, developed a youth Facebook page, held stakeholder engagement events, and met with members of USAID. Doing so allowed them to test interest in their idea, get feedback on a prototype design for the festival, and hone their ability to succinctly get across the potential impact and relevance of the event idea. At the Social Lab reflection event in June, the group connected directly with USAID, which for many Social Lab participants was the first time they had an opportunity to interact directly with a donor. This team, under Youth for Peace as a member, also co-planned and applied for a USAID-funded opportunity to improve youth leadership and inclusion using the social lab approach to recruit, train and coach youth in Cambodia.

The Cambodia Resiliency Network (CRN) was by far the largest Social Lab team coming out of the March event. While the other two teams started with 5-6 founding organizational members, this team started with 15 member organizations. Much of the learning in the first round of experimentation was therefore around organizing and engaging with a team this large. The group of cross-sectoral organizations, including health, education, and agriculture, aims to build a structure to share and apply to joint proposals or individual job opportunities for its members. While they have been able to share member profiles, create a Facebook page, develop terms of reference for the network, and elect a 5-person steering committee, member engagement has been challenging and a couple organizations decided to drop from the group. Intentional learning around working in large teams was put into practice in June when new organizations asked to join the team. The existing members had to make the tough decision to say, at this time, they could not take on additional members. This decision freed up the team to accelerate experimentation around funding models that can support joint proposals.

Each of the three teams is doing a second round of lean experimentation from June to August, exploring ways to answer critical questions about their ideas. We look forward to learning more about each of their learning and experimentation journeys between now and September!