“If you build it, they will come said actor Kevin Costner in the 1989 film Field of Dreams. When we began inviting applications to the RINGO lab — a systems change lab to re-imagine the INGO — a year ago this month, this familiar phrase may very well have been our guiding principle.

INGOs have long been under critique from actors in southern civil society or because of serious events like “Aid Too” and Black Lives Matter. The demand for change was already there. We just needed to build the platform to make it happen. And so, the RINGO lab at Rights CoLab became our very own “Field of Dreams.”

In less than a year, we’ve convened a social lab of people from across the spectrum of civil society — INGOs, southern civil society, funders, academics — alongside a vibrant network of stakeholders. It’s been a fascinating and challenging journey, coming together online at several points over the past year. We’ve been trying to make sense of a system that seems stuck somewhere in the 1990s, the heyday of aid and internationalism, when INGOs were rapidly expanding. Northern do-gooders flew around the world to “save” people or animals through acts of “charity” that seemed heroic and noble.

Even now, despite shrinking budgets and challenges from multiple fronts, few INGOs seem willing to release their accrued power and status. Meanwhile, many quietly acknowledge that NGOs are the new hotbed of neo-colonialism, which makes what we do in the RINGO lab all the more important. What we uncovered about areas of “stuckness” and areas of opportunity over this year has provided a platform upon which to start to dream together about what an alternative system might actually look like.

Fortunately, our Field of Dreams isn’t a lit-up baseball field in middle-America. Instead, it is an intense, online facilitated process of co-creation with lab members from all over the world — Russia to Colombia to Ghana to Indonesia — who have now created a viable long-list of potential “prototypes” that we believe can transform the system from the bottom up.

We believe that by actually experimenting with doing things differently, we will arrive at a better, stronger civil society eco-system. Our goal is for resources and power to be shared more equally between international, national, and local actors, built on a strong foundation of solidarity, not charity. This is as critical for human rights as it is for the environment, development, and humanitarianism.

The prototyping ideas are not yet fully formed. More work will be done in the first two months of 2022 to refine them, before pressing “go” at our Planting workshop on March 2. But thus far they capture everything from resourcing to governance and accountability, and of course, solidarity and partnership.

It’s been a long, challenging year for all of us in civil society, riding the wave of pandemic uncertainty and shrinking funding while trying to shift the dial on some massive external challenges like climate change, conflict, and inequality.

It’s tempting sometimes just to retreat into the known and let things bump along as they are. Arguably that’s what we’ve been doing with our civil society eco-system. But what’s the point of working in civil society if we don’t dream? We hope that our RINGO Field of Dreams can contribute to a stronger sector for years to come.

Here’s a “cheers” to how the RINGO lab evolves in 2022. Watch this space!


You can read about our latest December Portfolio workshop here.


Photo by Dương Trí on Unsplash