Canada’s #WelcomeRefugees Campaign: Lessons in Community & Communications

Like many Canadians, I have been fascinated and inspired watching the remarkable efforts behind the #WelcomeRefugees campaign.

As a communicator, this landmark initiative represents an unusually significant case study in the importance of communications, and the challenges of getting it right.

On a national scale, the Government of Canada’s commitment to settling 25,000 Syrian refugees has become a lightning rod for criticism, however noble a commitment it may be. First, there were complaints that the original target deadline of December 2015 was not going to be met. More recently, many individuals and settlement organizations have voiced concern and frustration that the process isn’t moving as efficiently and quickly as possible.

CBC’s The Current ran a thought-provoking piece on the challenges of this Herculean effort, putting the spotlight on the particular frustration of specific sponsoring organizations. Case in point: while major cities such as Ottawa and Vancouver called for a “pause” in the flow of refugees so that they could catch up on meeting the urgent housing requirements, a local volunteer sponsoring group, Toronto Six, flagged what they saw as a significant disconnect in organization. As it happened, they had a fully furnished apartment ready for the family they were sponsoring sitting empty as their arrival was delayed. The leader of the wondered, quite reasonably, why the government couldn’t do a better job of coordinating so that this newly furnished apartment could be used as viable short-term housing for a government-sponsored family… a creative solution that might be multiplied, thereby eliminating the need to slow down the effort to welcome families in need.

Stories like this one, in which it’s clear that people with enormous energy, goodwill and resources can’t quite connect together to achieve the best results made me think of my own experience in contributing informally to an Ottawa-based private sponsorship group.

Ingenium provided fundraising and logistical support to an amazing group of Ottawa volunteers who are privately sponsoring a Syrian family. The experience of getting involved (even in a limited way), was a lesson in humility, and in the extraordinary complexity of community involvement on this scale.

For example, to contribute to the settlement process, I volunteered to put out a call for donated goods via social media. To be honest, that seemed simple enough … until very quickly the effort seemed to crumble under itself because of the incredible scope and scale of donated goods that were required, and of the overwhelming response that came flooding in.

Just consider: The group was looking to fully equip a family of 7 (a widow and her six children, ages 6 to 12, which included one disabled girl) from scratch. That means first finding a suitable, accessible house, organizing a major effort to clean and paint the whole place so that it was fresh for the new family, and then furnishing it. Then came the of gathering donations for everything from socks to toiletries, plates to a snow shovel, coats and mittens, closet hangers, bed linens and clothing. Knowing only the ages and not the sizes of the family members only added to the challenge.

It became evident that communication was the only way to achieve this massive task… I can tell you that even in playing my small part, I was amazed by what it took to try to coordinate all the required items, and all the kind people who wanted to contribute. Multiply that by 25,000 Syrian refugees, and you begin to get a glimpse of the very real on-the-ground heavy lifting required.

Most of us struggle with the logistics of organizing our kids’ activities for the weekend when invariably something gets forgotten or dropped. For an initiative of this scale, the level of project management and communication is mind-boggling.

You can imagine that from a government perspective, this degree of communication and coordination is unprecedented. My sense is that hard working bureaucrats and politicians full of good will and leadership are bumping up against the cold reality that their traditional forms of communication, based on top-down dissemination are not up to the task. A national program of this nature requires fluid, agile and responsive point to multi-point communication.

No press release or Ministerial briefing will solve the problems of coordinating available housing between government and privately or community sponsored families. Think instead of Facebook groups, GoogleDocs and church basement meetings.

While I am sure there are ways the federal communications and coordination effort could be improved, I am inclined to think we should cut them some slack. They are dealing with a challenge of a scope and scale that has never been seen, using tools that no longer serve the requirements of the day.

My hope is that the unprecedented challenges of the #WelcomeRefugees effort will not only signal a milestone for Canada as a caring country, but will also serve as a watershed for government communications to unleash its next level of performance.