Unsung Heroes Dialogues: Autumn School

How can civil society respond to the current working conditions for civil society activists?

Responding to barriers, new and old, faced by young activists and civil society at large, CGE is coordinating the implementation of the Unsung Hero Dialogues project.

This project aims to highlight the importance of those involved in civic engagement in social and political discourse, while also building the capacity of NGOs and young activists to advocate for policy reform which would enable them to live more financially viable lives.

The Autumn School 

Following the UHD Survey on ‘Work in Civil Society Organizations’ the UHD consortium organized an Autumn School to develop campaigns and concepts for policy reform, as well as to build the capacity of young activists, in Mühlhausen, Thuringia in late October 2020.

Connecting young activists from a broad range of origins, diverse in their academic fields, geographic and professional backgrounds, and forms of civil society engagement, the Autumn School was able to draw on perspectives on civil society from many different angles. 

COVID-19 Precautions – Hybrid Event

To ensure the Autumn School was as safe as possible, while also accessible to a wider audience, it was run as a hybrid event, combining online and offline participation simultaneously. With the majority of participants onsite in Mülhausen, the group of online participants engaged with the trainers and other participants through Zoom, exploring tools like Miro, GSuite, and others. This was a comprehensive attempt to explore new forms of collaboration during the COVID-19 crisis and will inform many future events.

The Program

The first three days focused on strengthening and sharing participants’ conceptual understanding of civil society work, while the second half of the program focussed on group work on campaigns and lobbying strategies.

Following arrivals and first introductions to the project and each other, the participants were introduced to the Autumn School program in detail, and the preliminary results of UHD’s survey to give broader context to the Autumn School. This was followed by sessions on the Coordination of Civil Society and on Regional/National Differences in Regulating Civil Society.

Day Two started with an exploration of Labour Rights and Unions for and in Civil Society, followed by sessions on Communication Strategies for NGOs – ‘How to Create effective campaigns’, introductions to lobbying, and on creating sustainable networks over the course of this day, the participants had the opportunity to engage with two experts on lobbying and sustainable networks – Pegah Moulana and Georg Pirker.

On Day Three, there was a Mid Term evaluation before participants were split into groups for their group projects which would last for the rest of the activity. The three groups each focused on Lobbying, Campaigning, or Online Campaigning. Throughout day three, four and five, they were supported to develop action plans and concepts for their campaigns/lobbying ideas. 

Before the Autumn School ended, the groups met once more to share, give feedback and improve their creations before the Final Evaluation and officially Closing. 

Group Outputs

The Autumn School participants split into three tracks, a lobbying group, a campaign group, and an online campaign group, each producing an individual output in response to the survey data gathered by UHD earlier in 2020.

The Lobbying Group undertook research on the working situation of Civil Society Workers, exploring the need to create quality control mechanisms for employment conditions in civil society organizations; how to ensure sustainable networks are being built by civil society organisations;  the research already undertaken on unions at the European level; as well as developed concrete recommendations for NGOs to lobby for and implement safeguards for civil society workers.

Further, they discussed the logistics and practicalities of lobbying for policy reforms with various stakeholders and have produced a white paper on the professionalisation of the civil society sector, which will be a strong advocacy tool throughout the rest of the UHD project and beyond.

The offline-based Campaign Group

Formed the campaign: “Let’s sing about unsung heroes” which aims to raise awareness of the value of civil society workers, and has the objective of creating a network and union of civil society workers starting in January 2021. 

The online-based Campaign Group undertook research on the makeup of the civil society sector, focusing on:

principles for hiring Civil Society Workers; the role of volunteers and employees; the power dynamics in the sector; and the barriers of access to the sector.

In response, they formed a set of principles for equitable hiring processes. These were formulated into a pledge which NGOs can sign to signal their support of transparent and fair hiring processes in NGOs.


During a health and economic crisis, civil society has continued to be an active force for fundamental rights and has demonstrated itself as an essential support for a healthy and responsive democracy. Thus, the Autumn Schools’ exploration of the crises within civil society has been both timely and necessary. As civil society continues to play a great role in institutions, communities, and political change, conversations such as those we had at the Autumn School, on power dynamics and unfair practices within the sector that also reflect external pressures, especially a lack of truly sustainable funding and recognition, are essential for the continued growth, development and survival of civil society.

What’s next?

The UHD project has continued to work with Autumn School participants and will be supporting the implementation of their campaigns and lobbying concepts. Throughout 2021, awareness raising events and lobbying events will be implemented in all of the project countries, more data will be gathered, and their findings will be shared with the public! 

To keep updated about the work of the Unsung Hero Dialogues, please follow us on Facebook!

The Unsung Hero Dialogues are supported by the European Commission program, Europe for Citizens as well as local and regional funders in the participating countries.

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