Atlas Relief and Development International is an NGO with offices in North America, Europe, and the Middle East.
With a focus on empowering civil society and building strong foundations for peaceful and democratic futures, ARDI aims to support marginalized and vulnerable groups in conflict-affected areas. Founded in 2015, ARDI — meaning “homeland” in Arabic — is a small team with a big impact. Led by Syrian activist Razan Shalab Al-Sham, ARDI’s early work focused on supporting Syrian civil society, providing much needed support to refugees and internally displaced persons and facilitating coordination between groups on the ground while also conducting technical research to better understand the needs, challenges, and opportunities facing vulnerable communities. Since the organization’s inception, ARDI has continued to grow in both subject matter expertise and geographic scope, conducting research and providing capacity building and development support to communities in Syria, Turkey, Germany, and more. Now, ARDI is looking to the future, setting the stage for sustainable scaling and expansion in its continued efforts to empower strong, connected, and peaceful societies.
The strategic planning process involved a number of collaborative exercises, such as mapping the themes that ARDI currently works on and those they want to work on in the future.
In order to support ARDI as they transitioned from a small organization bursting at the seams to a medium-sized organization with clear plans and room to grow, Catalystas first held an initial meeting with ARDI’s management to better understand their current structure, decision-making processes, and ultimate goals. With a defined objective of creating a long-term strategic plan and making sure the whole ARDI team is on the same page as they move forward to expansion, Catalystas designed a series of guided strategy planning sessions for team members to come together in a participatory brainstorm. As Covid-19 restrictions made it difficult to come together in person, our team developed the sessions for virtual attendance, hosted in real-time both on Zoom and inside an online collaborative whiteboard style platform called Miro. Using this platform, we took the ARDI team through a number of collaborative exercises, from charting out the main strengths and weaknesses of the organization, to finding the overlap in everyone’s future visions for how ARDI can best grow and expand its work. In ongoing discussions over Zoom, during which everyone was encouraged to share thoughts, ideas, concerns, and questions, Catalystas was able to guide ARDI staff through each of the exercises, answering questions and providing additional support in making sure all staff members understood each process, the terminology being used, and the goals of each step. In using the two platforms simultaneously, we were able to facilitate a smooth and participatory brainstorming session where everyone felt comfortable sharing their thoughts and giving constructive feedback. Having the sessions in real-time also ensured that the whole team remained on the same page throughout the process, with the opportunity for immediate clarification and adjustments.
The sessions were hosted in two formats: one for the entire staff, and one just for management, with the latter including exercises on rethinking internal structures, imagining potential board configurations, and prioritizing policies and documentation for development. Alongside the interactive sessions, our team also prepared a guiding structure for a long-term strategic plan for ARDI management to follow, including overviews on redeveloping mission, vision, and value statements. Catalystas also supported ARDI in revisiting the “story” of the organization’s history and motivations, conducting an industry analysis to better understand strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and opportunities as well as potential partners and competition, and short, medium, and long term goals for the organization’s internal growth.
The strategic plan included a focus section on processes for external program development, including short-, medium-, and long-term goal development exercises and organizational Theory of Change guidance to channel growth into impactful and interwoven paths. Together, our team provided ARDI with direction on highlighting potential risks, roadblocks, and challenges and designing preventative mitigation strategies, as well as supporting ARDI management in identifying internal capacity needs and priorities moving forward. As they moved through each section of the strategic planning process, the ultimate goals — both short- and long-term — were solidified. With some additional feedback and guidance, ARDI has been able to successfully translate these goals into actionable steps that they are now taking to expand in a sustainable, impactful manner towards new avenues of funding, as well as new geographic targets.
Having to hold virtual sessions was a challenge; so much of the team building and creative strategizing process comes from being in the same space and bouncing ideas off of one another. However, while Covid-19 presented a challenge in facilitating a collaborative environment for creative brainstorming and participation, the ARDI team was fantastic in their willingness to try out new platforms and did their best to complete each exercise as a team. Whether contributing through speaking over Zoom or writing out ideas on Miro to visualize overlaps and gaps, the ARDI team was proactively engaged in the discussions . Holding these planning sessions remotely did, however, make bringing the team together easier. With staff spread out across multiple countries, continents, and time zones, virtual strategizing ensured that everyone was able to participate — once we found a time that worked for every location.
Additionally, making sure each team member understood the purpose of each exercise was key. From defining concepts, values, and visions to moving from ultimate objectives to actionable steps, sometimes returning to the basics was necessary before going too far ahead with each exercise. However, it also meant that the timeline for each activity often needed adjustment to enable the most effective application of each exercise. While some exercises were left for the team to complete on their own due to time constraints, it also guaranteed a strong foundation of understanding and consensus throughout the planning process and provided ARDI with capacity building opportunities in conducting and completing a number of exercises on their own with feedback provided afterwards from Catalystas. Finally, while language barriers and differences in roles led to some hesitancy in willingness to speak openly during the Zoom calls, providing an additional collaborative space in Miro where everyone could add their thoughts in writing enabled each team member to actively participate and contribute to the discussion at their own pace.
As the sessions progressed, it became clear that there was already significant overlap in the ideas and visions of both ARDI staff and management. The planning sessions allowed for these overlaps to become clear, solidifying goals and values into an actionable pathway for achievement and growth. In the same vein, gaps and challenges were also made clear. The ARDI team was incredibly open and willing to discuss these aspects and explore ways to overcome them, as well as identifying other risks and mitigation strategies. The small size of the team made virtual collaboration simple. While larger teams might need breakout groups for everyone’s voice to be heard, ARDI’s smaller team size meant only one group was necessary. Additionally, the clear goals laid out by management enabled Catalystas to steer the sessions in a smooth, precise direction, resulting in a strong foundation for a long-term strategic plan.
All in all, Catalystas successfully supported ARDI in establishing a clear strategy with ultimate objectives for growth and expansion into new geographic focuses and opportunities for partnerships and funding. With a stronger understanding of their internal strengths and challenges, they are now equipped to move forward with actionable steps towards their next phase of empowering civil society and supporting peaceful and democratic futures for all.
Aviva is a development and political stability specialist with over eight years of experience working in and on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Sub-Saharan Africa, and South & Southeast Asia. She focuses on the intersection of peacebuilding, empowerment, and gender equity, with an emphasis on interweaving growth and sustainability throughout social, political, and economic development. Aviva has experience in program development, implementation, situational analysis, and strategic planning in various contexts, including highly volatile areas.
Holding a Master’s in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, she has worked with organizations large and small, including Search for Common Ground, SPARK, the Netherlands Entrepreneurship Development Agency (RVO), the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank (FMO), and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
A lover of the written word, Aviva is an expert in writing and communications and embraces the challenge of creating content for a variety of audiences – from grant proposals to awareness raising campaigns.