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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, governments and civil society organisations have been wanting to meaningfully connect with the communities they serve and represent. So how can organisations do this most effectively? 

Over the course of the pandemic, researchers at the Sydney Policy Lab engaged civil society leaders in a series of reflective conversations to understand how Australian civil society could be further strengthened. From their insights, we have identified civil society is strongest when it is firmly oriented towards the community. 

As we transition to the conditions of a post-pandemic world, government and non-government organisations having a vested interest in strengthening connections after they saw systems fail during the pandemic, with people and communities falling through the cracks.  

Reflecting on community connection, Can Yasmut from the Local Community Services Association said,  

“One of the most important parts of community development is how you connect with isolated people and engage the most disengaged.” 

Our research revealed three key strategies for civil society organisations wanting to renew and strengthen community relationships:  

1. Valuing lived experience 

The idea of privileging the perspectives of people with lived experience has become increasingly popular across the spheres of policy and advocacy development in recent years. Unfortunately, efforts towards community connection can become token consultations or efforts. To ensure this doesn’t occur, some civil society leaders we spoke to talked about embedding lived experience in key leadership and advisory structures within their organisations. For other organisations, this was providing remuneration for people with lived experience to act as spokespeople.  

2. Supporting community leadership 

Numerous civil society leaders who spoke with researchers at the Sydney Policy Lab emphasised the need to do more to back community leadership and capability building. This can require a reorientation away from activities where organisations position themselves as the experts who know what’s best for people and communities. Our research demonstrated that government and non-government organisations need to start thinking about, supporting and funding community leadership before crisis hits, not after.  

3. Flexibility and adaptation 

Civil society organisations must be flexible and be able to adapt to situations as they emerge.  During the pandemic, we saw organisations and their leaders engage with communities through digital means when in-person engagements weren’t feasible. Time and time again, we heard that the strongest and most resilient organisations during the COVID-19 pandemic were those who had the deepest ties to those they were set up to serve or represent. 

As Michele Goldman from Asthma Australia reflected,  

“This year has been a striking example of the need sometimes for putting down tools for what we had planned and instead responding to the people.”  

To read more about what we learned, you can download the full report here, or just the section on community connection here. 

Three ways you can engage with our work on community connection and other areas of civil society capability:

  1. Invite us to come and chat to your team or group about how these ideas relate to what you’re trying to do.
  2. Get in touch with us via email and let us know what you think.
  3. Share this page or the report with people you think might be interested.
Amy Tong

Amy Tong

Amy is a research assistant at the Sydney Policy Lab.