Will remote communities thrive as a result of an uptake in technology?
The opportunities presented by adopting new virtual technologies right now are significant for remote not-for-profits.
Words by Samantha Morris

For way too long, Australia’s remote communities have suffered the tyranny of distance. Associations and other not-for-profit groups operating outside the coastal strip, where 80% of Australia’s population occurs have less access to resources, skills, political processes and opportunities for engagement. Small population numbers and the huge cost of travel from the Outback to coastal cities means that these organisation simply do not have the same opportunities as their city counterparts. 

But the fast uptake of virtual technology as a result of COVID-19 – both inside and outside of these towns – could change all of that. And the timing couldn’t be more perfect. 

Until COVID hit, the uptake of virtual technology in these remote parts of Australia was sub-optimal and not due to any lack of willingness from the communities in question. Slow internet speeds (and sometimes no internet access at all), patchy phone reception and lack of training all had an impact. So too the willingness of city counterparts to allow full virtual participation by those who are geographically remote. 

The opportunities presented by adopting new virtual technologies right now are significant.

Recruiting volunteers + committee members

I’ve been delivering training for grassroots not-for-profit groups in these remote parts of Australia for decades and one thing always strikes me as unique to the Outback. When you ask people to introduce themselves and the groups they represent, the lists are very long. There are so few people in these towns that people who do volunteer – in all manner of roles – tend to do so for many many groups. 

Access to technology that allows people to participate as volunteers or committee members remotely should mean that associations and other not-for-profit groups in remote Australia can access a new cohort of volunteers – both from neighbouring communities that are also remote as well as from coastal cities with much larger populations. 

Video conferencing, instant messaging, cloud-based file-sharing, collaborative work tools such as GoogleSheets, work-flow management software and the ability to sign documents electronically are transforming how these groups engage new volunteers and board members.

Accessing training and mentoring opportunities

The cost and time associated with travel in Australia is a huge barrier to the equitable participation of people located in the Outback. A course or training opportunity in the nearest capital city might already have a hefty price-tag attached to it. But once you add the cost of travel, accommodation and time away from home, the true cost is often completely prohibitive. As training providers twig to the opportunity to engage remote associations and community groups via hybrid opportunities, they’ll see an increase in participation. This benefits ALL participants.

I’m not taking straight virtual delivery here, we’ve been attending webinars for decades. Instead, I’m talking about a mix of face-to-face and virtual delivery where people still have the opportunity to interact with eachother through proper facilitation. Those who can travel, do. Those who cannot still get an exceptional virtual experience feeding off the in-person interactions happening many miles away. 

What does this mean for association workers?

  • Associations everywhere can benefit from this uptake of virtual tools but only if they’re consciously and pro-actively thinking outside of the square when it comes to engagement. 
  • Remote organisations should ensure they have policies and procedures that mean they’re constantly experimenting with and implementing solutions which capitalise on new technology and an increased willingness of others to use virtual communication and organisation tools. 
  • Ensure your teams are pro-actively seeking opportunities outside of the town in which you’re based. Virtual participation means we’re no longer bound by driving distance or tight travel budgets. 
  • There are tonnes of grants around to assist small businesses (which in Australia always includes not-for-profit businesses) to adapt to a ‘new way of doing business’ in the post-COVID world. But you don’t know what you don’t know. If you’re going down this path, make sure you get external advice about what options are available to you, or include costs for consultants in your project plans
  • Consider new technology and virtual tools in the context of your mission and vision. These tools should help you do a better job of achieving your mission. That means you need to be clear about what you’re using new technology for. Choose technology and tools that make life easier. Invest in training staff and volunteers so that they’re confident making the transition. 
  • Learn, review and adapt as you go. Digital tools usually mean we can do a better job of analysing data. We no longer need to guess if our people are using technology or how, or what impact it’s happening. These technologies come with built-in analytics. If something doesn’t work for you, try another option.

This story was first published in the Associations Evolve magazine, published by SMSOnline. Forty-six association experts from around the world have collaborated to produce a collection of articles showcasing contemporary thinking on governance, membership, revenue, events, and much more.