How community initiatives organise and function

Through interviews, survey data and workshops with initiative leaders, several common activities emerged. We group these activities into five ‘phases,’ and document our findings in a series of process maps, annotated with qualitative insights from primary research. The process maps aim to incorporate a series of key steps and actions, questions and concerns voiced by initiative leaders, data points and opportunities to improve the specific phase of inquiry.

Starting Up An Initiative

The Many Starts to Social Impact

The initiatives leaders we spoke with described starting their initiative as an exciting period. The pathway to deciding to start an initiative varied widely – some started by doing volunteer work abroad, before seeing that there was a need in Singapore that they could support. Some were passionate about a very specific cause, and started their initiative out of a feeling of necessity or an intrinsic need to contribute to that cause. Others were driven by an interest to work on social initiatives in general and experimented with a few different ideas before settling on their specific niche.

Many started with a spontaneous activity or initial prototype just to see what was possible, and then considered how to move forward afterwards – rather than having a full fledged plan from the beginning.

This initial step was critical for them to discover how people responded, consider the potential challenges they might face down the line and decide if it’s something they wanted to commit their energy to. The prototype activity is often self funded by the initiative founder; if it is successful, they might start to consider external funding sources. In this sense, government grants might not be as much of a catalyst for new initiatives as an enabler for initiatives that have already gained some traction to branch out and do more.

I didn’t know there was this whole community of people out there who were interested in the same thing.

What’s a journey without some hardship?

Gaining momentum and establishing commitment amongst team members and volunteers was cited as an almost universal difficulty. Several initiative founders discussed the “churn” in the more tumultuous early stages, where team members left the initiative over the time commitment or disagreements about how to get started. Others worried that if they started something, they would need to keep doing it, or that they might receive a complaint for doing something out of the ordinary. However, many founders were buoyed by meeting and getting connected into a broader network of people who were interested in similar causes. Considering how to strengthen these support networks can be an important element to get people through the initial hurdle of starting something new.

47%

of volunteers with community initiatives said that they had considered starting their own initiative but had not;

The reasons they cited for not doing so included: lack of time, thinking others wouldn’t be interested, and not knowing how to go about doing it.

太麻烦

(Mandarin for “too much trouble”)

Others said there was too much of a likelihood of receiving complaints or getting in trouble for doing something different.

Fundraising and Finances

While grant funding is plentiful, it is seldom seen as a first choice for community initiatives.

In fact, while only 10% of initiative leaders in the survey indicated that ‘grant writing’ was one of their top 5 types of needed support, 52% said they needed help with ‘fundraising.’ For the approximately 80% of initiatives that said they require funding, grants only make up approximately 20% of their budgets. Commonly cited challenges with grant funding included the cumbersome process to obtain it (spreadsheets and forms were often referred to as too complex and time-consuming); challenges with receiving payment (such as waiting until the project was completed to be reimbursed for expenses); and finding that grants were restricted in what they would pay for, which did not always meet the needs of the initiative (e.g., paying transportation costs for volunteers, or longer-term strategic planning activities). Some initiatives also mentioned that government funding could make them less autonomous, or come with strings attached. For instance, some grants require reporting on KPIs, which could change the nature of the initiative and what they do.

The more indirect challenges that were cited with fundraising included the time and effort needed to manage relationships with donors, not knowing what is and is not officially allowed, and maintaining accountability and transparency in how donated funds were being expended.

Does your initiative require funding?

What are your sources of funding?

There was one time the government was like, ‘Oh, if you plan to be doing some ground up initiative we got some funding for you.’ So, everyone went for the funding rather than the purpose (of the initiative).

One common question that many initiatives struggled with was whether they should register as a legal entity in order to make fundraising easier.

Many thought it would give them more credibility amongst potential donors, but struggled with whether to register and become a more ‘official’ entity. On the whole, the information that is available on this topic is scattered across websites and difficult to decipher, and the process to become registered can be cumbersome and confusing. Becoming registered seems to signify a certain level of formality and commitment that can be at odds with the more informal and organic nature of some initiatives, and it’s difficult to determine what the requirements and trade offs are. On the whole, those who did decide to register as a legal entity found it difficult to determine which entity they should register as, and were surprised by the direct and indirect costs associated with doing so. For instance, a bank account and corporate secretary can cost more than several hundred dollars a year. However, for some corporate sponsors, having a dedicated bank account for the initiative is a pre-requisite for them to donate. Some initiative founders also mentioned that the structure and focus on budgeting that resulted from registering was useful.

Some of the more established initiatives did not seem to have too much difficulty in obtaining funding, and were less interested in the financial donations than in using the donation as a way to engage the donor themselves to become more fully invested in the initiative (as a volunteer or in another more substantive role). This was seen as a path towards longer term ownership and sustainability.

“After we started the process, we realised the cost of registration is actually very, very high. Like, if you were a normal corporation, you can get a company secretary for $300 – $400 a year. For us, it’s going to cost more than $1000. Opening a bank account, they said I’m not a social enterprise, I have to pay the same price as any other SME (small and medium sized enterprise). The whole system is actually unconducive for registration but we already started the process, so we’re going through anyway. Hopefully it does turn out that it’s easier for us to fundraise. I actually don’t know if that’s true.”

Outreach and Communications

Outreach and communications are relevant to many community initiatives, particularly those engaged in advocacy, and those who are looking for partners, volunteers or funding. There are very few initiatives we know of, although this is naturally biased, that have no desire to bring awareness to their work.

However, outreach and communications is seen by some as a double edged sword.

Of particular note is the impact that media coverage can have on an initiative. Some initiatives don’t feel equipped to handle the extra attention, or are concerned about their initiative growing too quickly before they are ready for it. One initiative said that with attention also comes increased expectations – a group that is known for supporting low-income children may find themselves to be the de facto contact for others who need support, or they may feel pressure to continue or expand their work, even if that was not their original intent. As a result, some initiatives are quite careful about how they engage.

I haven’t even tapped into engaging on Facebook. If I get 500 likes, then 1,000 likes, then I start getting the attention – do I have time to manage that?
They were willing to give us free media space, but we had to pay for our own production and I think that could easily reach four to five figures. It’s not a lot of money, but still, we need to raise it. So, it’s a good opportunity but we won’t pursue it yet.
The example of the “Golden Staircase” was used by one interviewee as an example of how small initiatives could unwittingly generate large amounts of attention, and deter others from doing the same. In this instance, a local artist covered a staircase on the 20th story of a housing block in gold foil, resulting in dozens of newspaper articles and sparking a national debate on the use of public spaces. (Photo from Today Online)

Another concern was raised regarding negative responses and censorship.

Several initiative leaders discussed the impact of people responding negatively to their work – examples include disputes about an initiative’s use of public space; criticism that highlighting social issues reflects poorly on Singapore; discomfort with openly discussing sensitive topics; or complaints that volunteers are doing work for free that should be paid. Such comments are often spread through complaints to authorities, social media or online comment boards, and can have a large reverberation on the initiative leaders. As such, some initiatives find themselves self-censoring what they say or do in order to minimise conflict. As a result, they may not reach their full capacity for experimentation.

Initiatives’ engagement with outreach, understandably, varies widely.

Some initiatives are better than others at “pitching” themselves while others have difficulty telling the story of what they do; some have access to professionalised skills, such as copywriting, graphic design and photography, while others do not; some have causes or projects that are more compelling while others struggle to gain support; and overall, few measure impact and outcomes, despite it being an area of great interest to potential partners. Thus, there is a wide range of support that can be provided to engage initiatives in effective, productive, but also managed outreach and communications.

Volunteer Recruitment and Management

Volunteer recruitment and management was a topic that came up repeatedly in the discussions with initiative leaders.

There were conflicting views about the roles of volunteers and how to best engage with them. Some thought that there should be more “bite size” opportunities for volunteers in order to reduce barriers for them to participate, while others found the temporary and one-off nature of many volunteers to be, at best, difficult to manage and at worst, counterproductive.

Aspects of volunteers’ last experience that could be improved (n=106)

Better interaction with fellow volunteers0%
Better understanding of the community you serve0%
Better communication before/after the activity0%
Better publicity0%
Better interaction with initiative leaders0%
Clearer instructions and training0%
Delivering the promised experience0%
Fewer hours of commitment0%
Others0%

From the survey, we found that there are opportunities to more deeply and substantively engage the existing volunteer pool. A mere 25% of initiative volunteers expected to ‘contribute to society-at-large’ through their actions, and after volunteering, only 16% felt they had actually done so. Sometimes, something as simple as a follow up could suffice to improve volunteer engagement – while 90% of volunteers said they would volunteer again with the same initiative, only 48% said they received a follow up call or email about the initiative’s progress and future volunteering opportunities. This speaks to a need for initiative leaders to consider the “volunteering experience” and how to keep volunteers engaged over time and build their commitment to the initiative. This includes making volunteers feel that their time was valued and enjoyable; and connecting volunteers with the cause and impact of their work.

The skills-labor mismatch was also cited numerous times.

Skills-based volunteering does not just benefit the initiative. Based on the survey data, providing skills to execute an initiative has a significant positive correlation with measures of volunteer satisfaction including: enjoyment, feeling like one’s contribution made an impact, memorableness of the experience; professional usefulness; and personal fulfilment. Providing basic labour, such as handing out flyers, had a negative correlation with the same measures of satisfaction. In the survey, 53% of the respondents had provided skills while 63% had provided basic labour (figures are greater than 100% because respondents could select multiple options).

We need more creative volunteers – we have a lot of volunteers who offer their help, but they just want to be on the ground, distributing groceries…

However, higher levels of engagement with volunteers can require a significant investment of time and energy by the initiative leaders. Scoping tasks and activities and writing job descriptions were cited as difficulties. Greater commitment from volunteers can also lead to new challenges. Given the voluntary nature of community initiatives, hierarchies tend to be flatter and participants are more likely to bring their personal preferences and viewpoints into the initiative. This was apparent with several initiative leaders, who discussed challenges they face with managing differing opinions and conflict amongst key team members as well as volunteers.

It’s indisputable that volunteer management and recruitment are key areas of concern. Our research suggests that while more effective channels to recruit volunteers is important, equal emphasis should placed be on ensuring that the initiative leaders consider how to better engage with the volunteers they have, and develop the structures and competencies to lead and manage conflict.

We try to keep as lean as possible because I don’t really have time or bandwidth to manage volunteers. People are willing to come and help out, but if they were to ask me right now what I need them to do? I can only tell them, ‘Okay, for tonight I need you to do this, this and this,’ but I can’t articulate a longer term role for them just yet.
Once in a while we get difficult people. I’m quite chill and relaxed in terms of organisation, but they bring expectations – ‘you should be a professional organisation, you should be this and that.’

Sustaining Operations

Given the voluntary, informal nature of community initiatives, there is no clear consensus around how initiatives see their longer-term trajectory. Many do not have the desire to scale or sustain over time. They may see it as a temporary or one-off action, or get together on an ad-hoc basis when they feel like it. Others desire to sustain their initiative, either by themselves or through succession planning and finding someone to take over. Yet others hope to scale or grow their initiative into a social enterprise or a formal charity or NGO, with paid staff and longer-term funding streams or grants.

The top goal for each initiative tends to vary depending on the stage they are in. For initiatives that have just started, they have a relatively greater emphasis on networking opportunities for like-minded people (18%) as compared to initiatives in other stages of development; whereas initiatives that are growing overwhelmingly say that their top goal is to create a long-term strategy to sustain their initiative (73%). Only 13% of initiatives that describe themselves as being ‘matured’, on the other hand, stated this was their top goal, opting instead of increase the number of members who participate in their initiative (38%) and have fun (25%).

Goals for community groupsJust started (n=11)Operating,
growing (n=27)
Operating,
matured (n=9)
Creating a long-term strategy to sustain our initiative45%73%13%
Creating networking opportunities for like-minded people18%12%0%
Fundraising9%0%0%
Having fun9%8%25%
Increasing the number of events or activities we host0%4%13%
Increasing the number of members who participate in our initiative9%4%38%
Supporting personal or professional growth amongst our members9%0%13%

Reasons that were cited in the survey for stopping an initiative included finishing the project, loss of members, loss of enthusiasm, lack of time, lack of funding, internal conflicts and burn out. These responses mimic the qualitative data from the research. Burn out was frequently cited as an issue, together with challenges finding someone to carry on the initiative (or letting go of control and allowing others to take over and do more). Other challenges that were raised included difficulty in maintaining relevance, momentum and interest amongst the key members and volunteers. One initiative spoke about diversifying their activities not because it helped them meet their goals, but because the volunteers enjoyed doing something new. Thus, despite the important and socially impactful work that these initiatives strive to achieve, it’s important to remember that sometimes, it’s also about having fun.

The most difficult thing for me personally is to find the motivation to keep going… When things get busy and tough and there is no one there to remind you, you leave your initiative hanging and it’s hard to remember why you are doing it in the first place.

28%

of initiative leaders said that they feel obligated to sustain their initiative, but would prefer not to if someone else could do it – speaking to some of the inherent challenges of relying on voluntary initiatives to conduct vital work in the community.

At this stage, many initiatives also make critical choices regarding how they want to operate in the future.

This can be tricky, and 58% of initiative leaders said they sometimes had difficulty in gaining consensus on the best way to achieve their mission. In addition to highlighting the challenges of collaboration, this insight also surfaced an underlying, related issue – many initiatives do not have clear ways to meaningfully assess their impact. Absent this understanding, it can be difficult to define how to move forward.

It’s not just what they do, but how they organise.

Many initiatives test out different modes of operating – from loose collectives to structured organisations with defined roles and responsibilities. While a more informal approach allows initiatives to stay lean, agile and minimises pressure on the participants; some struggle with how to maintain accountability in a flat hierarchy.

Similarly, initiatives struggled with deciding whether or not to grow. While it was a natural progression for some, one initiative leader said they were worried about the impact that growth would have on the “cosiness,” fun and familiarity that the initiative members had with one another. This speaks to the unique character of community initiatives – as volunteer-driven efforts, they may have few incentives to expand, for fear of more work, more expectations, and more pressure.

Thus, efforts to support and engage with community initiatives should be wary of focusing on growth and scaling as the dominant narrative and goal. Instead, they should consider that each initiative has a different role to play. If they are meaningful or effective, the act of sustaining their activities or extracting the lessons learned to influence broader practices might be better suited for more stable, longer-term institutions and agencies.

Page photo credits: Julienne Chen, Eden Project Communities, A Packet of Rice, Be Kind SG, Hoa Nguyen, Kodrah Kristang, Gomez Paz, srmpbi