I’ll start with a story. After the Brexit referendum, people who felt connected with my charity were disturbed by the rise in xenophobia and anti-immigrant feeling and wanted to do something to help.
We started with a meeting for carefully selected volunteer leaders from our network of community groups. As I’d hoped, the initial meeting bore fruit: having shared their stories and explained why they cared so deeply about these issues, the participants decided to back a campaign to resettle unaccompanied child refugees.
We set an initial target to raise £20,000, which would have funded the resettlement of 10 children in the UK. The result? We raised over £200,000, generated massive publicity and were able to help 100 young people. So how did we do it? Our success had several vital ingredients, many of which we’ve learned from the world of community organising.
1. Put people before the programme
Voluntary organisations face an ongoing challenge: how to get people to show up and participate in our programmes. We have a great idea after great idea yet, all too often, numbers remain low.
But on reflection, why should anyone else care enough to show up for one person’s idea – however good that person thinks it is? The solution is to flip the process: build relationships first and let the plan emerge from what people genuinely care about. That’s what we did here. Without any preconceived notions of a specific campaign, we called on an existing network, brought people together, triggered a discussion, and let a programme emerge.
2. Tap self-interest
But what explains busy people’s readiness to turn out for a meeting with little advance notice and then step up as part of a leadership team? And how can we explain the enthusiasm with which so many donors parted with so much cash in so little time?
Our secret was to identify people’s broad self-interest. Community organisers know that people are rarely motivated by pure altruism. To activate people, we need to understand what genuinely touches their lives. Not what they say they care about, but what actually gets them out of bed in the morning. And how did we know these were the live issues for people? Simple. We brought them together, built connections, and asked them to tell their stories.
3. Be relational leaders
If we try and achieve things alone, we often don’t achieve anything at all. Leadership does not mean managing tasks – it’s about building relationships and getting people involved. I opened our initial meeting and made it clear that I would not be giving my time to this campaign and that if it were going to happen, volunteers from the group would have to pick it up.
But this also meant I had to relinquish control, accepting that the group leaders often did things differently from how I would have done them. This had clear benefits: the leadership team made brilliant decisions and did things far better than I would have done. But more importantly: without my stepping back, the campaign would simply not have happened. Control, in this case, was the opposite of power and impact.
My experience as a charity chief executive has taught me that this model does not only work with volunteers. It also applies to paid staff. While effective organisations do need clear management, hierarchy and decision-making, we often neglect the important fact that an organisation is a network of relationships. So how can we shape our individual and team behaviours to let our charities benefit from the insights of community organising and relational leadership?
This is the question we’ll be addressing in an upcoming course; What Makes People Tick? on Tuesday 14 June.
If you’re responsible for leading people and building relationships with staff, trustees, volunteers, funders or service users, these courses will give you a great toolkit of leadership techniques. I hope to see you there.
Dr Matt Plen is Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism, a youth work, leadership training and community development charity.