Some Non-Governmental Organizations are awarded grants to implement projects at community level where project continuity is highly expected. Identifying and selecting key community members to work with is crucial and very effective in ensuring the success of a project and its sustainability. At the African center for Trade and Development (ACTADE), we have worked with 80 community volunteers in Bunyoro region in two districts of Hoima and Kagadi, and 360 volunteers in Central region in eight districts of Bukomansimbi, Kalungu, Butambala, Mityana, Mubende, Kyankwanzi, Kiboga and Gomba on budget advocacy and accountability projects, with the support of the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF).
Who are community volunteers?
Different initiatives give community volunteers different names for various reasons. At ACTADE, we christened them Community Based Monitors in the Bunyoro region, and Community Based Civic Educators and Monitors in Buganda region, due to the nature of work.
Community volunteers are men and women living within a community with different education backgrounds, religious affiliations, attitudes, interests, age and other diversity, who offer their time for free in executing community initiatives. They are a valuable source of local knowledge.
How they are selected
How they are identified and selected depends on your familiarity of the area. While some approach it through likeminded organizations working in the same locality, others work with the district and sub county community development offices to identify the right people to work with. ACTADE has identified volunteers using both approaches. The ideal, however, should be that they are identified during community meetings by the people who know them very well and they are sure they are capable and willing to work.
The gains of working with community volunteers
The community volunteers act as a bridge between external project stakeholders, and the community beneficiaries. This bridge carries a lot of value including:
- Mobilizing and coordinating members of the community to attend meetings, a task they perform well because of the trust the people have in them.
- Easy identification of conducive venues for community meetings bearing in mind the distances the people have to walk. In addition, they know the service providers who are often very difficult to find in hard to reach areas.
- They add value to monitoring of projects, and for the project continuity.
- Communication is effective given that they speak in the local languages which the final beneficiaries understand. In other words, they are the ears and eyes on the ground.
- Because of the confidence built during different project engagements and self-discovery, the volunteers are empowered to become leaders. ACTADE has witnessed about 30 men and women aspire for political leadership positions at village, sub county, and district level. I believe that the bigger picture is that this model contributes to forming responsible and accountable leaders in different project areas.
Challenges of working with community volunteers
- There is often a misconception that organisations supporting human rights, governance and accountability, train people to become politicians in order to challenge those in power.
- Most of the volunteers recommended are also recommended to two or three other organisations which might compromise their commitment to the project.
- There is potential risk of community volunteers intentionally or unintentionally failing the project. They may decide to frustrate the project by distorting information and creating conflict within the community. Such intentions may not be noticed at the beginning of the project, but should be expected. Others die, for example, we lost 2 volunteers in Butambala and Gomba District to COVID-19. Some relocate or abandon the project especially when they have competing priorities. Project designers should therefore expect these developments, and build in incentives or alternative solutions.
- Growing expectations from the community volunteers, towards the project. While communication at the beginning of the project about the available incentives helps to minimize expectations, this does not stop them from developing more expectations. For example, expectations for salary have come up, demands for increment in transport allowance, and exceptional treatment by the organization from other community members.
Lessons: what to consider when choosing to work with community volunteers
- It is very important to have criteria for selecting the community volunteers depending on the project objectives. For example, consider the level of education, age, gender, knowledge of the area, respectability in the community, law abiding background, among others. The project should budget for adequate consultations towards selecting capable volunteers.
- A terms of reference stating their volunteerism should be drawn and a memorandum of understanding signed by both the community volunteers and the organization. This should clearly state the incentives such as regular communication budgets (airtime) and transport refund.
- It is very crucial to orient the volunteers before the project starts, this gives them adequate information about the project and enables them to confirm their interest to continue or drop off the project.
- Always ensure that they are updated on the project frequently, this means that they should be involved in the planning and implementation of activities. Organize and have monthly or quarterly reflection meetings to listen to their successes, challenges, and grievances. Sharing experiences provides an opportunity to learn from each other, find solutions to their or the community challenges, and bond over time.
- The organization should carefully select the staff to work with the community volunteers. Competencies such as good interpersonal skills, effective communication and the ability to train, mentor and coach others, are critical. One should be transparent and able to communicate effectively or else the messages may be distorted, leading to conflict. The supervisor should have problem solving and conflict resolution skills. In addition, the organization should be willing to carry out independent monitoring in the project areas in which some of the random questions to community members should be towards the performance of the volunteers in the communities. This helps in identifying those who are not doing well and solutions on how they can improve sought during reflections.
- Project holders need to expect the empowerment given to community volunteers, to graduate them into community leaders. Projects expose the leadership potential to many community members who trust them to represent them in political positions, church/mosques, among others. This comes at a cost to the non-partisan projects considering that they often have to part ways once partisan politics is chosen.
Empowering communities for project implementation is one sure way to cause transformational change. Building on the leadership capabilities already known to the communities and working with the identified community volunteers to plan and implement interventions while learning together, has been proven through our projects that it works.
By Winnie Muwanguzi