The Alumni Development Journey

Doing the Journey Together

Over the last three years, a group of the Vodafone NZ Foundations World of Difference Alumni have been gathering in locations all over Aotearoa New Zealand, spending weekends deep in conversation, everywhere from a from a bach in Central Otago, to a boxing ring in Naenae and a marae near Te Kaha.

These gatherings have been a place of reflection and renewal, a place to share the challenges and opportunities of leadership. Because, no matter how rewarding it is, no matter how passionate we are, running a community organisation is hard work. Making decisions, holding responsibility, caring for staff, managing stakeholders, reporting on outcomes – all while striving to provide solutions to the greatest social and environmental issues of our times: the roles we take on are practically, emotionally and psychologically challenging.

We come together, share problems and opportunities, build relationships and connect on a personal and professional level. Vu Le (from Non-Profit AF) likens these type of events and relationships to mycelium – the invisible underground threads that fungi use to transport nourishment, create symbiosis, recycle nutrients and connect mushrooms to one another: incredibly valuable, but difficult to see and difficult to describe.

“How do you articulate the value of these spaces? You can’t distill something that’s based on relationship, dialogue and time, you can’t articulate it’s value in terms of transactional immediate and tangible outcomes.”

But as a collective, we do think it’s worth trying to describe what we do, to share our learnings and process in case this model of gathering is useful to you.

What We’ve Learnt

Commit the time: The first challenge is to create the space to step away for 48 hours and to truly be present. We found that gathering on weekends made this easier, and gathering in each others spaces helped us to value and respect the work of organising. Being hosted in sacred spaces, as defined by alumni, provided us with us much deeper understanding and connection to one another, insight into character, history and whakapapa. Each weekend is hosted by one of the participants and the kaupapa of their work sets the context for the gathering.

  • Based on the korero of the Alumni Development Crew – myself, Joshua Briggs, Haimona Waititi, Bailey Perryman, Annette Culpan, Sarah Longbottom, James Widgery, Marcus Powell, Bridget Roche, Cristina Serrano Rueda and David Graham
  • The World of Difference programme was a funding programme supporting dedicated and passionate individuals working in the youth development sector. The programme (now discontinued) was run by the Vodafone Foundation for 15 years. More information can be found here.

Build trust and confidentiality: It’s important to create a safe space where we are able to be brutally honest – to verbalise our own insecurities and failures and hear them reflected and echoed by peers who we trust and deeply know. To be able to talk about your flaws and know that those flaws don’t define who you are is incredibly valuable and allows us to be brave when we return to the office.

This isn’t a holiday. Sometimes it’s incredibly hard – being vulnerable and openly talking about the thing that you’re f**king up – that requires a deep breath and some bravery.”

Check in: We start and end each gathering with a check-in. What’s been happening personally and professionally for each person, and what are you showing up with – exhaustion? Excitement? How can we make sure the weekend meets the collective needs of the group?

Share challenges: Each participant has the opportunity to throw something on the table – a challenge, an opportunity or just a conversation that feels important, and the rest of the group can focus attention on listening, responding and helping to re-frame or dig deeper.

“We don’t share each other’s spaces. We don’t work in the same places or in the same way, but the common threads are leadership and young people. That’s been valuable, because we’re not competing with each other as experts, we don’t “know” the solutions to each others challenges, which makes it easier to listen and reflect and ask questions instead of jumping straight into savior mode.”

Spend time relaxing: Downtime is an important part of these retreats, and the places where some of the unexpectedly useful conversations happen – a walk on the beach, cooking together, looking at the stars from a spa.

Action Doesn’t Equal Impact: We walked away from our first retreat with an action list – all the things we were going to do and create together. And we did none of those things (except for the Alumni Development Grants – more on those in a later blog post). Why? Because we’re busy creating the impact out there already. The effect of these gatherings doesn’t come from another collaboration, another piece of work. It comes from responding to challenges and remapping mental models through conversations,

We had to give ourselves permission to walk away without ‘action’ and instead give ourselves permission to deepen relationships, invest in the network and the magic follows – it’s different somehow, deeper and lasting. This group will be connected for life! Like whānau or family. What we’re doing together isn’t new social technology, but somehow, over time, we’ve forgotten how important it is to meet like this, to challenge ourselves and our leadership in ways that are focused on thinking and vulnerability, and not on action. These gatherings have been a reminder that, regardless of our work the key to success is to listen. The better we can listen and share in our leadership groups, the deeper we can go in our practice and support for one another.

We’d like to shout out to the Vodafone Foundation, who’ve funded the last three years of gatherings. Having this process funded and facilitated by the Vodafone Foundation has allowed us the freedom to show up without expectations and agendas. It has allowed us to focus on the ‘invisible’ mahi and the power of networks with freedom – it builds deeper relationships that lead to long term support and collaboration. We’d also like to tautoko Annette Culpan, who started this korero in 2015 and gave this group of humans the opportunity to grow and develop together. And finally, huge aroha to Haimona Waititi, whose facilitation helped us to build relationship, vulnerability and trust in ways that none of us could have imagined.

Lani Evans