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What happens in Stockholm...

by Jim McShane, CEO,  Ark Housing Association

I hadn’t expected to be visiting Stockholm any time soon. My Swedish experiences pre-our CO3 trip were limited to several Netflix film releases and the occasional trip to Ikea. My knowledge and understanding of the history, complexities and interwoven dependencies that make up Swedish Civil Society would, as far as I was concerned, remain an unknown, unknown.

However, all that was about to change.

When the CO3 leadership award winners were announced earlier this year, I was delighted to be recognised in the “Making an Impact” category. However, that delight was mixed with a little trepidation, when I learned that, as part of this “prize” I would be visiting Stockholm, for four days, with a group of people I hadn’t known. This trepidation, quickly gave way to a sense of excitement as our winner’s group newly formed whatsapp page began to evolve from the pleasant introductory hellos, to that more befitting of a group of friends looking forward to their first school trip together. It seemed that I might just enjoy this trip after all.



The itinerary was jam packed. It was clear to me from the outset that Nora was going to make sure she delivered VFM for the CO3 membership body by working us to the bone! Taking in a wide range of activities, across two very full business days on a tight timetable, our trip would ultimately prove not only to be hard work, but lots of fun too.

On travel day one, we arrived in Stockholm early evening, and having made our way to our hotel held an introductory meeting with Truls from Ideell Arena, Stockholm’s equivalent to the CO3. Truls was a generous host throughout our entire stay, and on that first evening, he set out the programme of what was going to be an interesting few days of interactive learning. The programme we later learned was devised by Truls, having first taken on-board an understanding of us from Nora as third sector leaders and of the organisations that we led. Truls and Nora were focussed on us taking as much learning away from this trip as we possibly could, and I was very impressed that the time was taken to carefully sculpt this programme to maximise our benefit.

Our first evening was spent getting to know each another better as a group. We enjoyed a meal and a bottle of wine in a local American Midwest themed restaurant, swapping anecdotes and learning about each other’s challenges and priorities as third sector leaders. Already, I was finding this leadership exchange very useful and our official programme had yet to start.

The following morning, our visit kicked off in earnest with our first visit to one of the purest forms of a membership led organisation in the “Swedish Civil Society” - KFUM Central. The equivalent of the YMCA. We were given a guided tour of the building, learned about the services and activities on offer, about its governance structures, membership influences, and the history of this very successful organisation. In line with what would be the format for our entire trip, this visit and every interaction throughout our stay thereafter, would be an engaging two-way encounter.

The second site visit that morning, was to a very different kind of third sector organisation. Cancer Fonden. The Children’s Cancer Charity. Invited into their Boardroom to receive several presentations to set the scene, we were then invited to discuss this organisation’s structures, fundraising methods, key priorities, successes and future challenges. This visit proved to be a sobering reminder of the impact of cancer on society right across Europe and of our continued collective goal of combating this deadly disease. I was surprised to learn just how much the third sector in our respective countries was leading the way in this endeavour. As it turns out, we had three very accomplished and experienced third sector cancer charity leaders within our cohort and it was a tremendous realisation of just how much in common we had in this area.

After lunch, we moved onto the University of Stockholm for an opportunity to further develop our understanding of the Swedish Civil Society and to undertake a theoretical exploration into new and existing forms of civil engagement and social entrepreneurship in Sweden.

Thursday evening, we went to an Italian on Nora’s dinner recommendation, and just like the flavour combinations infused in my venison risotto, the relationships and connections amongst our group were beginning to flourish. It was clear that I was going to enjoy spending the next couple of days learning about this wonderful capital city and its people.

Friday morning arrived quickly, especially for those of us who had decided to take in a little more of what late-night Stockholm can offer. We kick started Friday’s programme of visits with a session that could be best described as a speed dating event at the Ideell Arena Head Office. It is here where we met with a range of Swedish leaders to discuss the finer points of the Swedish Civil Society and how this “society” is woven into the very fabric of Swedish culture.

The concept of the Swedish Civil Society was now firmly beginning to take shape in our minds, but what was also becoming very clear, that on a benchmarking basis, and on reflecting upon impact and outcomes, that we back home, were doing similarly great things in our third sector. Albeit under a different guise, governance, or financial structure. We were not only going to be taking some learning from this trip back home. We had also shared our collective experience and insight with our Swedish counterparts and left with some reassurances that our third sector was one of the best in the world. 


Our final afternoon involved an interactive walking tour of the city followed by a session at the Ersta Skondal Bracke University where we developed our theoretical understanding of the subject at hand, eventually closing official business with a round table discussion capturing our thoughts, feelings and observations from the previous two days. This final day pulled together very neatly for me the learning from the previous two days.

We celebrated our final evening together at a traditional Swedish restaurant and on the Saturday morning before departure we took a guided tour of the city, accommodated by the wonderful Marcus Hammer, a former associate of one of our group. This was a great way to round off our “holiday”.

Overall, it was an extremely enjoyable experience and I would highly recommend the CO3 awards programme, if only to earn the chance to avail of this fantastic opportunity.

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