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Strategies for operating in volatile contexts: 5 challenges and possible solutions

In July 2019, our Communications trustee, Alice, spent two weeks working on a capacity-building project in northern Greece.

Alice, and her colleague, Samantha, spent their time observing the context of a local grassroots organisation, and putting operational procedures in place to facilitate the smooth-running of the centre. Here's a summary of their experience.

Open Cultural Center (OCC) sits on a high street in Polykastro, Northern Greece, it’s glass-fronted community café full of activity, from morning to night. Volunteers – both refugee and non-refugee – mingle with members of the community, from a diverse range of origin countries (Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Cameroon to name a few), as they share conversations, seek advice, play their favourite music, read, learn, and access the internet, over a cup of tea or coffee. It is a safe space, a place for people in transition and turmoil to feel grounded.

Within minutes of arriving, we (Alice & Samantha) had been warmly welcomed, and we could both sense the incredible atmosphere that OCC offers its members.

In July 2019, we were invited to Polykastro by OCC’s co-ordinator, who was happy to receive our support. He described the organisation as running more on the endless good will of its volunteers, than on well-built, robust foundations or processes. His fear was that, when he left to move onto a new position, or if a group of volunteers came in who weren’t quite as committed, the centre would suffer more than it should because those systems weren’t in place. He and his staff of volunteers were working long hours and felt they were often dealing with arising issues rather than having the chance to thrive and grow. This story is common in these fraught humanitarian contexts. These organisations exist in a context of chaos, in a landscape of constantly changing legal and practical concerns, and were often started in order to respond to an urgent need, by those with a surplus of care and passion, but with a very limited resources to be able to plan ahead. For these reasons and more, they often struggle to set up systems and processes which could provide longer-term sustainability and allow their staff space to breathe. Given the challenging circumstances in which these organisations run (refugee camps being opened and closed, changing asylum laws, climate difficulties, high volunteer turnover, significant trauma experienced by those they work with and for, and so on), it is awe-inspiring how much of an impact they can make. And OCC is no exception to this. Our job was simply to help make the background processes run more smoothly, and to support stakeholders by working with them to create long-term, achievable plans. While at OCC, the bulk of our work took place in a two week period on site, with preparatory communication beforehand, where we ascertained some expectations, and debriefing calls afterwards, where we were able to finalise details and assess how much impact our work had.

Despite being there for a relatively short period of time, by beginning our process with conversations with key stakeholders (both full time staff and volunteers), as well as observations of day-to-day activities including classes, we were able to quickly establish challenges and priorities and co-create solutions with the team, before taking steps to create a plan of action (Week 1) and implement some of the changes (Week 2). As so many organisations face similar contexts, we wanted to share some of the challenges encountered, and potential solutions to these, in order to promote conversation around good practice and organisation development in this sector.

1) Administrative organisation

CHALLENGE: Due to the ‘firefighting’ nature of much of this type of work, organisation of files, folders, paperwork and so on can be neglected and not seen as a priority. SOLUTION: Recruit volunteers/consultants who can focus entirely on this aspect of the NGO, either on an ongoing basis, or even as a one-off support to set up filing systems which are easy to follow and keep up to date, even during busy times. 2) Structural systems, including processes, guidelines and codes of conduct CHALLENGE: Due to the fact that often, these NGOs have opened in urgent, crisis-ridden situations where they are often simply keeping their heads above water in an attempt to continue provision to those in need, there can be a lack of systematic processes and guidelines. This can lead to staff and volunteers actually facing an increased workload, as they almost need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ time and time again. SOLUTION: Take time out to ensure necessary systems are in place. Brainstorm with the team which documents or codes of practice would be helpful to have available, and then work to get these ready. It will take time to set this up, but will more than make up for itself with reduced workload in the following months or years. For example, induction guides for new volunteers, staff organisational charts, registration forms and guidelines, codes of conduct/policies for staff, volunteers and users, ‘handbooks’ for each department/aspect of the NGO’s provision.

3) Refugee/asylum seeker volunteers reaching their full potential

CHALLENGE: Volunteers from the refugee/asylum seeker community have a huge amount to offer, but due to obstacles such as PTSD and sometimes less familiarity with ‘Westernised’ organisational processes they are not always able to reach their full potential.

SOLUTION: Offer training, especially coaching-style professional development where possible, to support the transition of these volunteers towards new styles of work. Also, where possible, invest in/find provision for psychological support for volunteers, to help them work through their trauma. 4) Volunteer induction process

CHALLENGE: The heavy workload of staff members and existing volunteers means that when new volunteers are recruited, they can be left under-prepared for their role, with limited communication prior to arrival at the organisation. When they start, they may have to figure things out for themselves. When they leave, there can be little follow up in terms of getting feedback, or seeking support with fundraising/training new volunteers.

SOLUTION: Setting up systems which are easily deployable and can be replicated regardless of workload of staff. This includes creating welcome guides to send to new volunteers before they arrive, induction documents/checklists which can be given once they arrive, with inductions being offered by existing volunteers in the handover process, and creating feedback forms/agreements with volunteers for commitments they will make once they return home. 5) Long-term strategy CHALLENGE: Often, even senior staff are working day-to-day, just trying to keep the organisation functioning. This means there can be limited long-term strategy or planning, including things like monitoring & evaluation or growth opportunities in terms of reaching new users/communities. SOLUTION: Senior staff can work with their team to come up with ideas for the future of the organisation, and practical, realistic ways to improve monitoring and evaluation. Then they should pull these ideas together to produce a long-term plan, which is shared with all other staff and volunteers, and work with them to build a simple M&E system so they can measure impact as they go. During the short time we were with OCC, we couldn’t complete everything we wanted to leave in place before leaving (the last minute dash to the local printing shop to finish the last few things is a testament to this!).

However, we undertook the work with a certain approach which was focused on maximising our impact. At the heart of this was keeping the current staff/volunteers central to all conversations and decisions. We used coaching-style meetings with all staff to identify challenges, priorities, and their suggestions for improvement, and then put their suggestions in place. We had regular meetings with the co-ordinator to ensure we were continuously working with the organisation and not simply imposing external solutions on them. And we took the time to go through the changes with individuals including where they could find relevant documents, how to deliver training to new volunteers, and checking that they felt the changes were useful. We had a fantastic time with the OCC team, and we wish them all the best!


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