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Building Malaria Consortium’s comms capacity

8 June 2012

Increasing communications capacity is a priority for most international NGOs. At Malaria Consortium, we wanted to increase our capacity in order to inform and engage people in support of on-going malaria efforts worldwide.

For us, this means communicating key learning and evidence from our work on the ground to a wide range of audiences.

As a fast-growing international NGO, we recognised that increasing our outputs and reach needed to be a priority for us, if we wanted our external communications and advocacy activities to have impact.

Ninety five per cent of Malaria Consortium's staff is based in Africa and Asia, so our capacity building activities needed to include face-to-face workshops, and remote and online discussions. One of our primary aims was to provide relevant training, policy guidelines and continued support for staff gathering qualitative materials in the field.

During 2011 we spent several months developing a communications toolkit ( you can download it here: Tool Kit ) to support staff gathering materials for external communication purposes. We identified three key areas where the toolkit might offer support: gathering information, capturing good photographs and writing up work or producing case studies. The toolkit provides simple guidelines for staff who may have little or no comms training but want to undertake an interview, or write up a case study.

Supporting key objectives

As a relatively young organisation, Malaria Consortium does not have established communications and advocacy teams in all of its country offices, so a single comms guide for use across the organisation is a good support tool which helps reinforce our key strategic communications objectives.

Once the toolkit was complete, we worked with an external organisation to produce training materials based on it. We also sent out a needs assessment to all participants, enabling us to identify specific areas of focus.

In February 2012 we travelled to Uganda to run two communications capacity-building workshops, set up by colleagues in Kampala. The sessions ran over two days (one day theory, one day practice). There were 21 participants and the course focused on the following areas: understanding messages and audiences; generating materials for communications; interview techniques; securing consent; good photography; how to write a short story; and the dissemination of stories and materials to external audiences.

A practical exercise on day two was spent at a Malaria Consortium field project, with participants conducting interviews with staff in a local health centre and members of the surrounding community. All participants then reconvened to discuss experiences and share learning.

Although a full analysis of the impact of the training will not begin until 2013, the sessions highlighted a lot for us to think about. It gave insight into what skills and resources we already have to build on.

One of the key aims was to highlight parallels between participants’ existing work, and broader external communications outputs such as published interviews, films and photography. As a technical organisation, many of Malaria Consortium’s staff have a background in social science, with strong research and interviews skills. For some participants, it was more about a shift in focus, for example interviewing in order to write a news story, as opposed to interviewing for data collection or donor-reporting.

Lessons learned

On a practical level, we learned a number of things:

  • Keep workshop groups small.
  • Give participants time to discuss challenges and ideas in the context of their own projects and regions.
  • Find out about participants – understand the environment someone is working in and challenges they face.
  • Include as many interactive sessions as possible. The more opportunity participants have to exchange views and share knowledge the better.
  • Try and resolves issues as a group. If it isn't possible during the course, make sure you respond to all queries and areas of concern.
  • Discuss definitions of terms used by your organisation (and the sector). It may sound obvious, but with a network of staff you will most likely have slightly different interpretations of communications and advocacy terminology.
  • Leave time to build learning gained during workshops into your communications strategy and workplans.
  • Finally, really listen to you colleagues – you will benefit from their insight and feedback.

Overall, the training sessions produced a wealth of ideas, energy and resources, which for a growing organisation means opportunities for innovation and real progress. What was clear, predictably, was the complex nature of building capacity; a session that was intended as a simple exercise around interview techniques turned into a lengthy debate about media policy and ethics.

But discussions of this kind, especially spanning continents and contexts, should happen more often. They offer a unique opportunity to hear varied perspectives and lead to organisational change. With the training sessions due to run across five countries in sub-Saharan Africa alone, this debate will hopefully be the first of many.

Michelle Davis

communications manager, Malaria Consortium

Michelle is a communications specialist, with over 10 years’ experience directing documentaries and factual programmes for the BBC. Having previously ran the Communications Department at Muslim Aid, she is currently Communications Manager with Malaria Consortium.