Community connectors could help win the battle against COVID-19

Posted on 20 Aug 2020

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Our Community

Connectors have been busy helping to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Want to get in touch with hard-to-reach groups? Help could be at hand with a special group of people known as “community connectors”.

Community connectors may help you to:

  • Get in touch with groups you can't normally reach, with the right messages
  • Reach out to those who might not already be getting the right help.

The resurgence of COVID-19 in Victoria rightly prompted the state government to increase its push to get crucial health messages into hard-to-reach communities.

Nationally, not-for-profit leaders will know that reaching culturally and linguistically diverse groups (or CALD groups for short) can be a challenge to organisations relying only on traditional forms of connection, communication and outreach.

But an Australian expert believes community connectors are critical in the fight against the coronavirus. Many of those connectors – as strongly community-minded individuals – are likely already to be volunteers or even board members in your organisation.

The Institute of Community Directors Australia has previously profiled the work of former Swinburne University researcher Carolyn Wallace, who is now putting her knowledge into play as the new family and community general manager at Merri Health.

Carolyn Wallace
Swinburne University researcher Carolyn Wallace

The not-for-profit is one of the state’s biggest community health services, catering to nine municipalities across the north and west of Melbourne, and a population of nearly 1.7 million people, a third of whom were born overseas.

Catering to several COVID-19 hot spots, the service has been extremely busy.

Dr Wallace said the pandemic was a prime example of a health emergency that demonstrated the value of connectors.

“Blanket messaging will not get through to everyone. The thing about community connectors is they don’t just filter information, but ‘translate’ it. They know how to accommodate messaging to different groups and communities.”

Dr Wallace said this special group had an uncanny ability to connect others to services, information and resources. These individuals can also “span boundaries” between groups, organisations and cultures to cut across traditional barriers to communication and connection.

She said that the COVID-19 crisis had demonstrated that these bridge builders often:

  • Know people who have not been reached by COVID-safe messaging or might have misinterpreted messages
  • Know people affected by the coronavirus emergency who have not yet been assisted by support services
  • Are trusted by the people they connect with and can be useful intermediaries between services and community members.

Dr Wallace said that when the pandemic first hit, she was working at Castlemaine Health, where she sat on the board for nine years, and was involved in trying to improve COVID-19 message by helping to activate connectors in that part of regional Victoria.

“At Castlemaine Health, we’d already established a list of community connectors. As soon as COVID-19 hit, we got that list out and contacted people and set up Zoom meetings with health practitioners, members of the community advisory committee and community connectors.

“We just had a very simple agenda, [asking]: ‘What are you noticing from the groups that you connect with, what is the information that people are seeking, and how can we as health and community services better support the people you are connecting with?”

These kinds of insights are invaluable for health services wanting to understand their communities, she said. One of the big issues at Castlemaine was discovering the need for much more mental health support.

But the value of connectors goes beyond simply passing on information.

Dr Wallace said that at a time in which physical connection is limited, not-for-profits and other services can bridge that gap by activating connectors to help maintain a sense of community.

Even during lockdown conditions, community connectors “will seek other ways”. They are the kinds of people who will knock on the neighbours’ doors, pick up the phone, or ensure they’ve got teddy bears in the window, or find alternative ways to “get in touch”.

In the era of social media, you’ll also find them in places such as “buy, swap and sell” or parent support Facebook groups, although it can be tricky.

“There are so many groups and subgroups. You have to find your leaders and translate that into your social media environment.”

Dr Wallace warned that connectors were not simply tools to be deployed, and said it was important to realise that your organisation is building a relationship.

“They are not there for you to exploit or to co-opt.”

“The pay-off for them is that they value community connections, and if they find a way to better support people that they have (already) been connecting with in the community, they will be happy with that.

“People who are natural community connectors are very motivated by wanting to improve people’s access to social and support opportunities. When they can make them happen, that will make them happy. If you ask a connector why they do it, they will say, ‘I love people, I love helping people, I think this is a great place to live, I think everyone should be able to enjoy our community.’”

She drew a distinction between natural connectors and specialist workers who had their own methods and special skills to get in touch with hard-to-reach communities.

She said CALD specialists – for example – were specifically employed for the purpose, whereas connectors were already motivated to connect, where doing so aligned with their own interests.

She offered these tips for leaders wanting to recruit, retain and value these special community-minded individuals:

  • Your staff will know some local connectors. Ask them.
  • Remember that connectors can introduce you to other connectors.
  • Enable and support the activities of connectors (rather than co-opting them into your activities) by becoming a “connector-friendly organisation”.

If you are hunting for community connectors, you might find them in a business association, an elderly citizens’ group, or a skateboarding posse.

“It’s about thinking laterally, recognising diversity and difference, and valuing the relationships and connections that stand out in those groups,” Ms Wallace said.

Dr Wallace said the key resources organisations needed in recruiting community connectors were “time and openness”, which meant that after identifying and making contact with connectors, organisations must maintain a good relationship with the flexibility to give helpers the space, information or modified services they need to help them be more effective.


Become a member of ICDA – it's free!