Winning the battle for hearts and minds

Working with local communities is different to dealing with other types of customers or stakeholders. However the ability to engage with them and win their support is a valuable skill that offers opportunities to generate both profit and social value, says social entrepreneurship expert Dr Lance Newey.

Even the best laid plans sometimes go awry. I recall sitting on the roof of the community hall in the Aboriginal settlement of Dajarra. I was with a team of engineering students and we had just installed two water purification tanks on the building to give the 230 inhabitants access to clean water for the first time.Communities - eDM

We had undertaken all the textbook preparation before we arrived – engaging the elders, learning tribal customs and matching the products to local conditions – but here in Dajarra I could feel the community turning against us. Their old defences had resurfaced – to them, we were another bunch of outsiders with ulterior motives.

We had come with lots of business knowledge and experience, I remember thinking, but none of it mattered if we couldn’t forge a connection with the community at a more fundamental level.

Our mission was a voluntary one but the experience will be familiar to many business leaders who work with communities or need to win their support.

In situations like this, traditional business skills are not enough. We can see this in the conflicts that arise between resources companies and indigenous communities. We even saw it in the recent military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the real battle was for hearts and minds.

To engage with communities – and deal with all the politics, and different social and cultural dynamics that entails – a completely different skillset is required. If we are to make a real impact, leaders need to learn these skills, particularly now that business is increasingly being expected to be a force for good in the world.

Several years ago I asked a class of third year business students how many had learnt anything about ‘community’ during their degree. Not one hand went up. It means we are not equipping people to recognise and work with community opportunities. Our business graduates don’t come to see how social issues can be business issues.

Projects like the one in Dajarra aim to help students develop these skills. In this case they had been asked to identify a community need and find a way to resolve it using minimal resources. They had chosen to tackle the problems of fresh water supply in remote areas.

It’s astounding to think that there are still communities in Australia without clean water but in places like Dajarra, 150km south of Mount Isa, residents rely solely on bore water which is foul to drink, stains their clothes and damages their air conditioning systems.

The students persuaded a company offering purification systems to donate two units and we travelled to Dajarra to install them. These machines use solar panels to heat water and turn it into steam which then condenses and runs off as pure water.

But while the elders backed our mission all along, the community were not so supportive. The real challenge was, how do we engage them to work with us?

Fortunately we had taken some footballs along which we presented to the local school, where we explained to the children the purpose of our mission. It proved to be a turning point. The children in turn explained it to their parents, and one of the departing teachers invited us to her farewell party at the local pub.

Over a drink with the locals, the barriers were broken down. They had assumed we were there to exploit them in some way while we explained that ours was a mission to bring together technology, culture and need.

Turning the tide requires what I call ‘moments of truth’ – the genuineness in our communication, small acts of unselfish giving, being a human rather than a business person, accepting social invitations. It’s about restoring faith that not all people are out for themselves. They had to see that we were genuine people. The social came before the business.

There is a simple three-part formula for working with communities – they’ve got to like you, trust you and respect you. However this can only be accomplished with time and be prepared to pass a series of tests.

Here are some other factors to bear in mind when working with communities:

  • Consider the wider impact of your project. To be effective, economic development needs to take account of the environmental, social and cultural impacts. Otherwise you may set up new and profitable businesses but damage the society in the process. Big companies often believe they can benefit the local economy through the development of a single industry but the danger is that the community’s long-term interests are left vulnerable to the ups and downs of this industry.
  • Be aware of the messages you are giving out – through your mannerisms, words and actions, you can choose to display either self-interest or genuine motives for wanting to be there.
  • Aim for a relationship of equals – it’s about sharing, not about one side doing all the giving. There is the risk that giving too much enforces dependency.
  • Don’t be patronising – indigenous communities, for example, have a long history of being treated in an imperial manner. Don’t try to tell people how they should live. Suspend any pre-conceived ideas – don’t regard them as poor as they may not see themselves that way and don’t assume they want to be just like you.
  • Build on strengths – often outsiders see only the problems but taking this negative perspective is depressing for all concerned and drags everyone down still further. All communities have assets – identify them and try to use them to resolve the problems.
  • Learn from others – consult those who have been working in community for a long time and learned what works and what doesn’t.

Business can change the world, but to have real impact business leaders need to expand their skillsets. Working with local communities is different to the usual customer groups.

Being able to work with communities can be a powerful vehicle for change. In many ways it’s about learning to be human again – the small acts of relationships which drop defences and make it possible to win the hearts and minds of communities.

Last updated:
27 February 2019