By Anna Northey
It takes more than NGOs to make real, meaningful social change happen. It takes much more. Of course, you are thinking. There are donors, volunteers, employees, government departments, partner organisations, advocacy groups and more. To use a pretty cliché analogy (forgive me), there’s a huge engine of moving cogs of different sizes, shapes and functions that come together to drive action and change. I could write a lot about this, but I’ll leave that for another time. Right now I want to focus on one particular cog – the community in which we hope to affect positive change. Drilling down even further, I want to concentrate on the influencers within these communities who really make it all tick.
These days we have influencers everywhere; from the 70,000-odd self-labelled influencers who dot your LinkedIn feed (read here for an entertaining synopsis of this kind), to the trendy types who get paid to market products to their huge network of Instagram followers. However, I want to focus on the people within physical communities that have the networks to leverage true change in attitude and behaviour amongst their peers. These people have the selflessness and drive to take it upon themselves to get NGOs’ programs really pumping and moving forward. I’d like to explain how much they do to drive change; if they weren’t there, little of what nonprofits try to do would actually work.
Take a guy I met recently called Pak Eko as an example. He is a regular guy with a family, a home, a job and a dog – an immediately likeable, genuine person. He has a love for jumping on his bike and touring the Sumbanese countryside, meeting people along the way and chatting with them. So, he has been to the remote communities around him that are off-grid with no access to electricity at all. He knows the struggles people endure because of this. Pak Eko is also a guy who has built good connections with local NGOs, government members and village leaders in the region. He spends much of his own time leveraging these relationships to encourage change and suggest solutions, like the introduction of solar power, to those who can make change happen. It takes time to convince people of the long-term value of interventions like this, but he does so because he believes it will improve people’s lives. If Pak Eko didn’t jump on his bike and reach these communities, maybe no one would, at least not anytime soon.
Another influencer is Pak John from West Timor. He is a respected member of his community who runs a local NGO. He is earnest and good-natured in communicating his aspirations for a better future for those around him. Along with local village leaders he has kicked off a grand plan to implement the use of clean water filters en masse for the better health of the entire district. By making an example of one village of around 300 houses through putting a water filter in every home, he hopes to demonstrate the health benefits to neighbouring villages so that they might follow suit. When people see him using the filter, they trust it. One sip from Pak John can do the job of any given employee of an NGO stepping in from outside who could spend years trying to convince people.
Everywhere nonprofits are you will also find countless brilliant ideas, different approaches, selfless acts and unique stories of influential people. The reality is that NGOs cannot possibly come up with a model to deliver goods and services that attempt to bring people out of the cycle of poverty which will work everywhere. There is no one-size-fits-all and no perfect solution. Moreover, it simply cannot work without trust and understanding from within the community. An NGO can help to promote trust and can share their knowledge and ideas, but they won’t get anywhere without important relationships with influencers, like Pak Eko and Pak John. These influencers can take an initial model and utilize ongoing support structures to build something new and more robust that is specifically suited to their needs. They are the ones who know the unique needs of their communities, recognise potential in a solution and have the ear of their networks to push it forward.
When we talk about influencers in marketing, it’s not just people with scores of followers who are the really powerful ones. Anyone can gain a huge list of followers using the right tools and techniques. The real influence is within the people who have connections with the right groups of people and, in the famous words of one of my favourite influencers Simon Sinek, ‘who believe what we believe’. These influencers built their networks of followers over time by voicing their opinion loud and clear, acting and delivering on ideals and ideas and speaking to people about things they want to hear about. They built up their own credibility, and now their followers almost intrinsically trust them. It is these people who can say what we would like to be able to say to the people we want to talk to, but using a louder, stronger voice.
Much like the value of this kind of influencer to a particular brand, influencers within the communities in which NGOs work are like gold. They are the ones who can truly get things moving because they believe with their heart and soul that there is a better way for the people in their community. They can deliver the knowledge and information behind that belief to their networks in a way that is relevant and meaningful. When they trust an idea, a product or a person, so does their community. When they say it works, people believe them. NGOs absolutely need these people – this well-oiled and pivotal cog – to get anything off the ground.
Anna Northey is an Australian Volunteer for International Development (AVID) assisting poverty alleviation organisation Kopernik as a Communications Advisor in Bali, Indonesia. AVID is an Australian Government Initiative.
Featured image from Pixabay.
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