Connecting our global network during the COVID Response

by Heather Leson | May 28, 2020 | Insights and Inspirations, Trends and Transformations

How can there be a truly connected global Red Cross Red Crescent? Every day during the COVID 19 response we’ve heard people remark that this emergency has forced a very active conversation and rapid implementation on digital transformation. Several people reflected that in terms of digital transformation, we have achieved in 2 months what may have otherwise taken many years to build. 

As humanitarians, we ask ourselves: What if we lent a digital hand? How can we apply our fundamental principles in a digital age? What are some of the insights about the state of digital transformation in IFRC? How can we leverage the unique benefits of digital connectedness to improve our work? One example could not do justice to answering these questions, but we’ve learned much from hosting various Think Tank virtual meetings.

Many examples of good practices emerged during these meetings. The Italian Red Cross’s work with Kalerya SMS simultaneously extended the overrun call center capacity by connecting communities and volunteers. Virtual meetings became the norm with many experimenting with how to go beyond transferring face to face formats and design into virtual meetings and instead of trying to take advantage of the unique benefits of digital tools. Volunteer recruitment and management went online, and a host of services went digital or entirely new services were created. Social media activity and initiatives skyrocketed as National Societies rapidly sought to communicate reliable health messaging to communities overburdened by inaccurate messaging.  

In the past two months, we’ve convened over 2,000 people across the RCRC Movement for virtual Think Tanks conversations. The Think Tank series provided a unique experience convening a broad, global cross-section of volunteers, staff across National Societies and IFRC. We’ve been exploring innovations, insights, and network-building in digital spaces during a fast-paced emergency response. Digital transformation has become more mainstream and in front of mind. However, these lessons are small compared to the extensive pathways at hand to truly achieve the transformative potential as set out from Strategy 2030.

In 10+ global and unique events, we have some reflections on the way forward to build on the momentum on the potential of global digital collaboration within the Red Cross Red Crescent. The lessons from this emergency can build on examples throughout the movement on digital collaboration. The efforts of National Societies to prototype /expand their digital services to put communities at the center, the fantastic work of communications experts to build united response messaging, and the GO platform for operational data sharing, all provide valuable learnings.

National Societies and volunteers joined us from all locales to share experiences, lessons, and innovations. Rarely do we have opportunities across sectors, roles, and locations for shared dialogue and purpose to consider how we might collectively support communities in need and each other.


The Solferino Academy website offers a global snapshot of activities and opportunities.  We also asked volunteers to share their stories during the calls and via the COVID story section of the Solferino website. Many stories of response and resilience from volunteers are heartfelt and thoughtful. The collaborative Think Tank sessions convened Nationals Societies who shared, among other topics,  that they are enhancing existing digital services and shifting other services online. Other National Societies reflected on the complexity and struggled to best use digital methods for their work which lead to some mixed results. Here is some of what we noticed while connecting with all of these people across the globe: 

Community-driven, Participatory Design 

IFRC’s culture is very much a relationship-based network. The Think Tank’s space provided a virtual community centre (or local branch) to discuss, build collaborative notes in a real-time space, provide insights, conduct more in-depth follow-up and analysis, connect to peers, and as well as inform strategic and programmatic action. We were able to build dialogue across languages and continents – a critical need for a global movement. 

The informal participatory design model of the Think Tanks created an open community space. In turn, this model has been used and modified by various groups within the IFRC and National Societies. We frequently changed our delivery and session designs to tailor to the multiple audiences, event objectives, and to build on those lessons.

Across the RCRC and beyond, there are many online experiences to explore from networking, forums, mentoring, e-learning (workshops/training), chatbots, etc. We need to innovate in all the methods around participatory design and reflect on what works for various topics and locales. Assuming that one session design and or toolset can solve all online events and experiences will not work. The broadcast model of ‘talking’ and followed by a Q &A does not always capitalise on the opportunities of collective intelligence across complex systems. We are stronger and faster if we teamwork with new ways of working.

Distributed collaboration

Keeping with the participatory model, we attempted to change the power dynamic of ‘who speaks’ and ‘who is leading’. We asked small groups to share the microphone and take collaborative notes published in real-time without editing. By doing so, the insights and collective intelligence moved faster, plus we found it built solidarity and bonds within the global network. One example is how Kenyan and Colombian youth met online after to share their language and culture in a true volunteer exchange. 

Peer-to-peer sharing has always been a valued part of our in-person meetings that were only limited by physical and financial constraints. We aimed to increase both the reach and breadth of experience by using digital tools. For all our Think Tanks, we designed a collaborative, fast workflow – convene conversation spaces, share collaborative reflections, analyse insights/opportunities, and then follow-up with published content and action the innovation needs. By convenience, we also provide insights and informed programmatic activities in other areas of the RCRC. Innovation and global transformations are not stand-alone concepts; they nurture each other and are deeply embedded activities across all that we do.

This Think Tank model of collaboration needs refreshing continuously. It is not about the tools or this emergency response, but about how we might be able to work across borders, roles, and sectors. How we might connect people to solve problems jointly and how we might accelerate the pace of learning and innovation?  In Strategy 2030, we cited that we need ‘new ways of working’ and to build on ‘distributed networks’. The power of the RCRC and our fundamental principles require us to advance these transformations in the digital age. It might be rocky, but the magic of having young people from Burundi, Nigeria, Mexico, Italy, and HongKong connecting to share their hopes and innovations, is worth the investment in asking: ‘how can we be a truly distributed network?’ How can we build on our collective strength and intelligence?

Rapid Digital Prototyping

In a matter of days, our small ad hoc digital services team within the Solferino Academy designed and embedded experiences to connect National Societies, Volunteers and IFRC. We called on ‘surge’/extra help from volunteers, colleagues, and other teams depending on the need. It happened with little bureaucracy, just a will to contribute and collaborate. 

Rapid prototyping and teaming during a large scale response is essential, especially when working with digital workflows, but also because in the early days many were floundering and wanted to connect with others to help them talk through their response, but they wanted this quickly. 

We are not the only organisation testing and delivering digital community engagement. We learned much from reviewing how organisations were responding and adapting, then adjusted for RCRC needs. (Thanks!) With the right skills and will, we were keen to make these experiences possible rapidly. We decided two days before to deliver the first Think Tank and connected over 250 people from around the world. People were delighted to try, and we were, in turn, delighted to make it possible. We simply delivered and were able to do so outside the more traditional forms of information flows and ‘convening consultation meetings’ for humanitarian response. 

While the call experiences were one level of ‘outcome’, the value also stemmed from the rich qualitative content. What is happening across RCRC for COVID response? There’s data and storytelling, but mixing these for additional insights became super helpful for many to learn and share more. Qualitative, collaborative engagement can augment official data flows and programmatic planning to support and inform the operations needs. It makes the ‘data’ and the reality of this emergency come alive with stories and activities to show how the global movement is collectively responding.  

The COVID Volunteer Stories shared during the Think Tank calls, and online were so very moving. It was a special time to give voice to all the change and needs. The spirit of using one’s voice and sometimes video during this time can add humanity in such an isolating time. 

Communities around the Movement can and should convene their own digital spaces to connect in their countries and across the movement. It is our responsibility to help make this possible and give space as an organisation to test digital responses to augment our core work rapidly. It already happens in some areas like health, information management and more. Some examples – The Community Based Health and First Aid (ecbhfa) network has many WhatsApp® channels by region and the Volunteers at RCRC have busy Facebook groups. 

Bridging the language divide

The global community is hard and beautiful. There was a significant need to host our online Think Tanks in multiple languages. Formal interpretation is often a vital and challenging skill. We asked for help from staff and volunteers to help translate the Think Tanks in the four official languages. We benefited from tremendous pro bono support to achieve this. By the time two months were up, we had hosted Virtual Think Tanks in Arabic, English, Spanish and French. Our Secretary-General spoke at each event. Participants were thankful and often super patient with the tools and processes to give them a shared experience. With the fast-moving pace of the COVID response, it was critical RCRC staff and volunteers learn from each other’s experiences. Language and location (time zones) are not going to be solved by one tool or process. There were some beautiful moments where an RCRC colleague from Iran shared with Colombian RCRC colleagues on what to prepare. We need to get better and invest in live simultaneous online events to help our participants be genuinely global. On that journey, we remain keen to learn as much as possible from other global networks – how can we better incorporate languages in a live, online event?

Digital divide, Inclusion and Digital literacy

The digital divide is real and present in every institution. We see it in many efforts to connect a global network. With this comes a power imbalance – how can we be diverse and inclusive given the digital disparity? We had countless conversations and interactions with volunteers and staff members who wanted to join and participate equally. For every person connecting and learning from others, there was another whose bandwidth couldn’t sustain their connection. 

We attempted workarounds, and some National Societies opened up their branches so that volunteers could come in to join the think tanks. While we are not alone in encountering digital issues on our calls, it became apparent that we, as a movement, want and need to learn and share digitally. Finding ways to address the necessary changes will take time, partners, and tenacity. Currently, We have no clear assessment (yet) of the width and breadth of the digital divide in the movement. It is our responsibility to find ways to make this possible. The Digital Pledge outlines this need to address the gap as a movement. Only by supporting the pledge with a precise, funded implementation, we will indeed be a global and digital humanitarian Movement. 

Closing questions:

  • How can we build on these lessons and not return to “business as usual”? And how can we capitalise on these lessons to be fit for the future? Not doing it would be to lose a tremendous opportunity.
  • How can we build on the spirit and culture of the Think Tank convening to indeed convene global collaboration and collective intelligence?
  • The digital divide has a potential impact on our ability to convene and respond as a movement. What will we truly invest and do to address these growing gaps
  • How might we be more proactive to address the real, complex needs to transform digitally?

1 Comment

  1. Johan Boddin




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