Plugging into 'the connectors' - a powerful resource for your community organisation

Posted on 15 Nov 2018

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Our Community

Connectors are the precious people who know many others and get things done. They have an uncanny ability to connect people, or to link them to resources, or information, or services. Often they'll notice people who aren't being included and they'll do something about it.

Now an Australian study into the role of these special individuals has described the incredible resource and potential they represent, particularly when it comes to engaging with people in the community whom services find the hardest to reach.

Swinburne University of Technology PhD candidate Carolyn Wallace has become fascinated by these fixers, who can, she's written, "facilitate the flow of ideas, information, activities and relationships" across organisations, and across social and cultural boundaries.

Her research is examining:

  • what characterises local community connectors
  • how they make connections and span boundaries between people, organisations and resources
  • the role of technology and social media in connections, and
  • perceptions about the connection between health and community services and their communities.
Connector in trees
Connectors are happy to help, and for many of them, it's just an instinct.

An instinct for empathy and help

Ms Wallace has conducted a widespread literature review and examined case studies in regional areas of Australia and Ireland for her research. She found connectors don't have a common personality trait, and they don't have to be long-term locals to have an impact in their communities.

She did find that connectors must also act as "boundary spanners" to be successful. They are often described by those around them as "engaged insider", having a "bridging role", or acting as a "cultural bridge", "nexus", "intermediary" or "trusted liaison".

But she says all of them demonstrate:

  • Love for and interest in people
  • Love of their communities
  • Openness to new ideas and information
  • Willingness to learn, and
  • Respect for privacy and confidentiality.

Mostly they're non-judgmental types, and many of them demonstrate flexibility and a general openness too.

Ms Wallace believes for many their skill is instinctive.

"Many of the connectors I spoke to talked about how this has been a consistent pattern in their life. They have a natural empathy with people, sense of justice and view that all people should be able to participate in their community."

But Ms Wallace also believes those skills can be learnt, with some connectors having been invited into the fold by other, more experienced connectors.

Wallace Carolyn withconnector
PhD candidate Carolyn Wallace (left) is researching "connectors", such as this friendly fellow pictured on the right, who are making a difference in their communities in Australia and Ireland.

A new model, building on strong connections

Ms Wallace's early findings suggest that social connectors can have a big impact on their communities, and on the efforts of health organisations to engage hard-to-reach groups.

Their work has the potential to bring about new friendships, improvements in mental health, expanded social support, employment, practical help with finding accommodation or financial aid, increased community involvement, and leadership development.

In health-related studies, it appears the connectors can boost health-related knowledge and behaviours, and remove barriers to service access and participation, especially for individuals on the margins.

Ms Wallace is creating a model allowing organisations - health services in particular - to learn to identify and work with these connectors, and to measure their impact and effectiveness with diverse groups. That model will provide information about what works best, and how to recruit connectors of varied ethnic backgrounds, ages and abilities.

Ms Wallace says the model will highlight the fact that successful connectors are able to bridge boundaries, whether they are organisational, professional, symbolic, social or cultural.

Often, connectors are the ones who initiate the flow of ideas, information and relationships, thereby also strengthening connections across the community.

Virtual connectors, using new digital tools

Social media platforms - particularly Facebook - are growing in importance for connectors wanting to alert people to events, promote programs, demonstrate successes or boost fundraising.

Ms Wallace says some connectors have built online communities that translate into "offline" connections, supports, and that all-important boundary spanning.

But few studies have looked at how organisations can "leverage the digital networks that community connectors have".

"Only a small number of the connectors I spoke with use social media strategically to build new connections within their community," she says.

But she urges some caution in automatically embracing social media methods, saying that a careful approach is required to avoid creating privacy issues, and to ensure a civil tone is maintained through interactions.

How to tap into your local connectors

In her case studies, Ms Wallace found some connectors she spoke to were already putting their connections into play, by connecting people to information or services. And all of them were happy to do more of this connection work, expressing a keen interest in building stronger links with local services.

Ms Wallace says organisations wanting to tap into the special abilities of connectors should ensure those connectors are supported. They'll need reliable contacts at any organisation they work with, for example.

And organisational support staff must be prepared to travel to where the connectors live, rather than expecting them to make the journey to the neighbourhood house, community health centre or any other community centre.

Similarly, the organisation must make the effort to stay in touch with the connector and not expect the opposite. And the organisation should ensure it is providing up-to-date information and giving proper recognition to volunteering efforts.

Ms Wallace's studies found health services tended currently to use connectors "in a limited way", such as with one-off programs. But she says forging longer-term "partnerships" produces much better results.

Ms Wallace says organisations seeking to capitalise on the talents of connectors must take care if they don't want to burn the bridges they're trying to create.

"Listen to them and work with them in partnership," she says.

"Stay with the areas they are passionate about as that's where they want to direct their energy. They are not staff and they have their own priorities."

If you succeed, she says, you will gain much more than your organisation expends in resources.

And the connectors themselves are keen to be involved, "because they like to help".

If you're trying to find the connectors in your community, who better to track down a connector than … a connector?

Connectors garden
Shared facilities such as community gardens are a connector's natural habitat.

How to help the helpers

There are many things that can help or hinder connectors. The settings in which connectors work best involve:

  • open community structures
  • locally owned assets, such as community centres
  • the involvement and support of local representatives
  • investment in training community members
  • good administration of social media, and
  • clearly articulated local plans and strategies.

Conversely, the work of connectors can be undermined. Ms Wallace's findings highlighted the following barriers:

  • overly bureaucratic processes
  • poor community facilities
  • poorly informed service providers
  • organisations that refuse to share resources and information
  • organisations that hold false assumptions about how welcoming they really are
  • institutional ways of thinking, in which staff assume people will "come to them"
  • lack of trust in the capacity of "lay people"
  • staff not being paid for the work it takes to find and work with connectors
  • lack of incentives to do this work.

Organisations themselves can act as connectors too. Ms Wallace cites men's sheds, neighbourhood houses, libraries, sports clubs and community gardens as typical examples of connector groups.

Why it's time to spread the connections

Ms Wallace's study found "despite positive outcomes, the idea of working with community boundary spanners is not as widespread as it could be".

And while some might consider her findings "common knowledge", the model she is generating is a way of deploying them widely.

Ms Wallace hopes to draw on further case studies and resources to build a model other organisations will be able to use. She expects to distribute the information online after she completes her research late in 2019.

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