Why Human Connections Matter
Ok… first time blogger, so a bit nervous. I’ve been working in the community sector for nearly twenty years and I thought I would take a moment to see if I’ve learnt anything. Just to summarise, I started off working with socially excluded groups as a community development worker, but really found my home with Galway Volunteer Centre, where I’ve been employed as a manager since 2007. I think it’s fair to say that the work in Volunteer Centre’s is highly (dare I say it?) administrative. In a nutshell we use whatever type of technology such as CRM, email, phone, social media, and podcasting to assist members of the public to volunteer with the wide variety of organisations that use our service to advertise roles. The magic happens elsewhere, but we like to think we sometimes provide the rabbit and hat!
One of the best things about working in a volunteer centre is that you meet people who want to make a difference, both in their community and in themselves – and that applies to the members of the public, most of whom have never volunteered before, and people like you, who go above and beyond to change all our lives for the better. In Galway we have worked with over 600 different non-profit organisations, from the household names to the groups just getting off the ground or working away quietly for years. It is important to us that our service is seen as welcoming and neutral, with large and small organisations in whatever area of work treated the same.
In our work in Galway, it quickly became very obvious to us that, just like ourselves, non-profit organisations desperately need more resources and support to get further along to achieving the individual objectives and visions. To pile on the clichés, we, the people working in the not-for-profit sector, punch above our weight, go the extra mile and push the envelope on what is possible with very little. We do it because we value people, and a lot of time we know that if we don’t do it, well, it won’t happen. In many ways, despite the challenges and often sheer stress inducing frustrations in our work, we are lucky because we are doing work we care about.
I think it is reasonable to say though, that in recent years, it has been getting harder to see those real reasons we do what we do, due to the recession and reduced funding pretty much across the board, and increased regulation, which is a necessary and very worthwhile development for the sector as whole, but presents new challenges to already stretched services.
And that’s probably only scratching the surface.
On top of these external factors, I have always been struck by two very interlinked self-inflicted barriers that I think impede the sector from being more successful in our work, both in how we react to events and how we influence others.
Firstly, we tend (and obviously I’m generalising) to focus our efforts on the problems we face, what we need to address these problems. In other words we focus on what is missing, what we don’t have and try to figure out what we need to do to fill that gap. And often, the solutions are about going to others and asking for help in an already overcrowded environment of help-needers. We end up in a prioritisation of need/exclusion which keeps us competing with each other, fighting over the scraps. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how we got here, but I assume it related to our history around religion and centuries of lack of control over our own destiny.
Secondly, from my perspective, there is ironically, very little sense of ‘community’ in the community/charity/not-for-profit sector. Even in a small city the size of Galway, I am often amazed when people who I thought should be working together closely for years, meet for the first time. Nobody has any strong sense of what anybody is doing. We ran a short workshop before, with about 30 groups talking about their challenges, and I was surprised by the amount of people who came up to me after and said they got great comfort from the fact that they realised they weren’t the only ones with the same problems. We work hard, but we often have the blinkers on, through no fault of our own. Time is precious, and we focus on what is in front of us. But this is not a long-term strategy for success.
So, if the above is true, what can be done? As in most of areas of life, the solutions are simple, but putting them into action is the trick. We need to take the time to focus more on what we have already and use this to get to where we want to go. We need to define our future by our strengths and not our weaknesses. I’ve attended a number of The Wheel's events recently where a simple question was asked – ‘Tell us about something good that is happening in your community, and why you think it works’ – a radical question! This type of approach transforms a room, and energises people as to the possible, and points to the creativity and expertise within our communities.
Secondly, and in parallel, we need to make it part of our work to help each other, and we can only do this by coming together (and I’m not talking WhatsApp here!) and making the human connection. We all need help and we all can help. I am always struck by the fact that in the community sector, networking happens around the edges, but is never the main event. How do we find out about each other, if we don’t give it the space and the time it needs. With the support of The Wheel’s Training Links fund, we are hoping to develop an initiative in Galway that creates more opportunities for people to develop new working relationships, and build long-lasting connections between organisations. We essentially all want the same the thing, so we need to help each other.
Working together also gives us strength in numbers, as The Wheel has shown in the last 20 years. Together, we are an important of part of this economy, but more importantly, this society. We are the ones who bring humanity to what can often seem like a very hostile world. We are the ones that are relied on to pick up the pieces when it goes wrong. We should expect more respect from the rest of society, but we can only do this together. And, if our work in the Volunteer Centre tells us anything, there are many more people willing to get involved!