group of people sitting on grass together in sunset

Never ask for volunteers – get them on a Social Capital journey instead

Published: 26/02/20 | Categories: Volunteering, Author: Andy Green

As part of the inaugural Social Capital Week, Andy Green from social enterprise Grow Social Capital explains what are two of the worst questions you can ask in communities, and how you might re-frame your conversations instead.

The two worst questions you can ask in the world are:

‘Does anyone want to volunteer?’

Only to be trumped by the pinnacle of bad questions:

‘Do you want to join the Committee?’

The big problem is that if you are working to achieve change in the world you need to connect, engage and involve other people.

No one is an island.

Yet, if you want to achieve real, sustainable change in the world you need to do even more. You need to nurture a tribe of changemakers to achieve the difference and vision you share through building their confidence, capability and connectivity.

But anyone involved in working with communities knows the frustrations, challenges and obstacles of getting people to do things. Never ask for volunteers. You soon discover how people run a mile if you ask them to ‘join the committee’.

Social capital – the oxygen in communities

To realise any collective potential in community development you need to understand the bigger picture. You need to identify how the oxygen that makes any social interaction happen is a familiar, yet not fully understood term – ‘Social Capital’.

In any social interaction there has to be a minimum level of trust, a sense of ‘I can live alongside or work with these other people’. That ‘we may have something in common’, a common interest, a common purpose, a common quest for change.

It is Social Capital that provides this togetherness – an ecosystem if you like – of how we live or work together, how we co-exist, co-operate or even collaborate to make things happen.

Social Capital is best understood by recognising there are three different types:

Bridging Social Capital is where you connect with people like you: people with the same or similar backgrounds, interests or aspirations. The good news is thanks to technology we are much more closely connected with people like ourselves. Someone who shares your political views, love of West Highland Terriers or knitting is just a click away.

Linking Social Capital in contrast, is connecting to people unlike you, where through circumstance you are interacting with the people through happenstance, you chance across in your local pub, bus stop, chip shop queue, or whose children happen to go to the same school as yours.

The bad news here is we are getting less connected with people unlike us. Thanks to changing technology, along with different social and economic trends, we are hanging around with each other less, witnessing an increasingly atomized, individualistic world – resulting in greater loneliness, less trust and polarization with people unlike us.

The paradox is how the growth in Bridging Capital creates a world where you only engage with people exactly like you, resulting in the danger of your being less tolerant, patient or empathetic with those unlike you.

Lastly, there’s Bonding Social Capital, a sense of identifying yourself with a sense of place or group, such as your neighbours the fellow team members or supporters of a common cause. Your shared sense of identity provides a reference point for how you define and describe yourself: ‘I’m a United or City fan, a Lancastrian or a Yorkshire person, a Welsh speaker’ and so on.

This kind of shared sense of identity can empower – for good and bad – and can provide a quick cut-through on who to trust in a complex, confusing world. Even here, with greater geographical mobility and lesser communal engagement we are witnessing decreasing Bonding Social Capital.

Going forward, we need to grow relationships that go beyond acknowledging each other (notwithstanding that this in itself can be quite significant) to deeper bonds of mutual trust and inter-dependency.

Your relationship journey may go something like this:

  1. You recognised the existence of another
  2. You spoke to another person
  3. You listened to another person
  4. You know the name of another person
  5. You now know the other person and some personal details about them
  6. You agreed to meet again
  7. You care about common interests
  8. You feel you can work alongside the other person
  9. You can do something together to make your world a better place
  10. You care about the other person 

The Manchester Model

Inspired by the work of mental health charity Mind North-West – who provided a new alternative way ahead for delivering quality mental well-being guidance services in austerity – the ‘Manchester Model’ provides a potential way ahead for anyone wanting to create change in our communities. It uses a five-step process.

First, you identify what you have in common with others: your united interests, values and ambitions, where you can advance shared goals.

Second, you establish ‘partnerships of equals’: partners who respect each other as equals. Partnership can be a derided term in regeneration work with a reality all too often being ‘partnerships of unequals’.

Third, you create a bigger dashboard of what you are seeking to achieve: how can we work collaboratively to achieve all our goals, rather than working in isolation?

Fourth, you work to build the capacity of your communities by nurturing their confidence, capability and connectivity.

Fifth, you always make an ask. This is done partly to create additional resource. The very least you could ask is for feedback – to enable you to grow, spread word-of-mouth to publicise your cause, or share any learning with others to extend your impact.

Yet, the more fundamental reason for making an ask is to change the narrative: if you don’t ask you are simply acting like the fairy godmother, waving your magic wand to change others. Making the ask begins to instil a local culture of reciprocity.

Getting people to contribute, however, changes your narrative to one of a shared story of togetherness; of how together we can create the change we desire. Changing the narrative from ‘victim’ to one of a self-transformation hero provides immediate inspiration, as well as a platform for truly sustainable and scalable community change.

Recognizing how Social Capital underpins what we do enables us to understand our work better, and how it really works. It gives more power to our elbows by validating and legitimizing activities which can often be easily overlooked, dismissed or ignored, where funders and government simply don’t get to understand why they too often fail to deliver. Those ‘soft outcomes’ that can be hard to measure and evidence but we can easily sense have happened. Social Capital could be the concept that allows you to better and more convincingly articulate why and how soft outcomes are so important among your constituencies of activists, service users, co-producers and so on.

By using the lessons of the ‘Manchester Model’ to build confidence, capability and connectivity we create a real social capital dividend, harnessing bridging, linking and bonding social capital, enabling ourselves and others to be more self-reliant, come together, collaborating and co-creating to create our better world.

And that journey begins not by asking for volunteers or inviting to join the committee. Instead, identify small easy tasks, ideally something that people might like or not be seen as too onerous. This is a smarter and a far more productive way by building both Social Capital and a pathway of engagement, together.

Grow Social Capital is a social enterprise established by PR expert Andy Green and experienced community development practitioner Russell Todd

They want to collaborate with communities – of geography, identity and shared interests – to unleash a Social Capital revolution in Wales and beyond. 

The inaugural Social Capital Week that this blog launches aims to focus, share and harness understanding – but above all, curiosity – about the concept of Social Capital. 

You can follow Grow Social Capital at @growsocialcapit, and all week keep an eye out on twitter for the #SocialCapital hashtag – and join in with our Twitter chat on 27 February at 12:30. 

You’re also welcome to join Grow’s open Slack channel for social capital champions.