Beyond buzzwords

In international development, we place high value on equitable partnerships, locally led development, participation - and the list goes on.

But what do these concepts actually mean to you, and what do they mean to the people you work with?

When we don't have a deeper understanding of what lies behind our (good) intentions, we slip under the cover of buzzwords. Buzzwords make us feel safe – acting as passwords in the community development sectors and creating a sense of aspired belonging.

But such social behaviour lacks courage for deep knowledge. If we don't show up with our time, commitment and a seat at the table for all those involved in the conversation, we fail our responsibility as partners.

What we did

Let me set the scene for the project I’m currently working on – Growing Community Volunteering. I will use it to unpack some practices that helped me move beyond buzzwords and into more meaningful relationships with our partners.

The project aims at identifying ways in which the program can contribute to strengthening community volunteer management within our partner countries. In community development, we should know by now that people with lived experience, unsurprisingly, have the expertise of the issue, as well as the solutions, that only need a nudge to surface. Thus, we turned to our partners to better understand the need, which led to designing and testing the Community Volunteer Management learning module prototype.

When looking for participants, I approached our Country teams, who, with care, entrusted me to hold relationships with 15 organisations across Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Fiji and Cambodia. I knew that I was ‘piggybacking’ on existing trust that took time to build.

How we did it

I kicked off the project by naming some very important principles to guide the partner engagement:

’We will ensure transparency, build trust and respect, balance power and support agency, we will seek flexibility and adaptability!’ - me

My call was supported with no questions asked. But I know that silence does not necessarily mean clarity or agreement. I had a duty to embody my own buzzwords.


From the outset of the project, I was transparent with the exchange we were all committing to - partners were given an online volunteer management guide and a learning experience. In return, I asked for their time and expertise as well as most genuine feedback on the success of the learning module. Unexpectedly, through this process, I also learnt about participants’ dreams.

‘This learning built my confidence in achieving my dreams’ - participant


A big part of my work is to facilitate creativity to better understand problems and find solutions. In every session, I aimed to prioritise personal sharing, laughing and feeling comfortable to explore our creativity. Getting to know each other was also a path to trust and respect.

I would start each workshop by asking everyone: please draw and share ‘One thing outside your window. What would you like to have more in your life? Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?’

‘It was a very creative thinking for us… helped to start thinking of future plans’ - participant

The scheduled content was important, but more than anything else, I wanted conversations. This unstructured time allowed important topics to surface: about the national volunteering landscape, social and cultural realities, colonial baggage, personal sharing and dreaming. Each session took us closer to trusted relationships.

As the Australian-based training facilitator from the donor organisation, I may have appeared to be a technical expert in volunteer management… which I am not. This is where I strongly focused on agency and power balance as my key consideration.

I had a task to create safe-enough spaces for five groups of people in five different cultural settings to journey through reciprocal learning.

[It] felt like a genuine knowledge exchange’ - participant

To rebalance the relationship, we focused on sharing experiences and case studies by those with expertise: our partners - not me. With some prompting at the start, later we had an unwritten rule, fuelled with creativity and confidence, that whenever there was an opportunity to share a personal experience or observation, everyone welcomed it. Or I would simply ask ‘what do you think about it?’ No pause was too long to wait for someone to gather their thoughts and courage.

‘I thought I didn't know anything about the formal volunteering, until you bridged the gap… and showed that my experience is valid’ - participant


I took a structured approach to the participation and delivery of our learning experience. I believe that structure and clear roadmaps offer a sense of confidence and safety. I heard:

‘I felt fine about attending, it was structured, topics were clear’ - participant

However, as we progressed, other priorities would kick in unexpectedly, challenging people’s commitment to the project. I knew I had to progress, but I stopped to ask myself how I would like to be treated in times I struggled with competing priorities.

On the days when partners could not attend the session or complete an activity, I rescheduled or met with them individually. Sometimes that meant that we needed to wait for a couple of hours until a participant had the power back after a cyclone.

Being adaptive and allowing flexibility to meet people at where they were at, created accountability and gave us all permission to have busy lives.

So, what’s next

Through this process we validated the effectiveness of the learning module and discovered areas for improvement. However, my greatest learnings were not in merely achieving the project objectives, but in the outcomes that genuine relationships can bring.

‘It’s nice that you value our partnership - with other donors, we feel grateful, but never receive the same back’ - participant

As we were nearing the completion of our testing project, participants grew more confident to share their future visions for volunteering, comment on their project experience as well as have a good laugh at things that did not work as expected. Participants turned to each other for advice, acknowledging the volunteer management expertise in the room. They were no longer focused on me and the program being the source of truth.

I prioritise these meetings in the mornings, despite anything’ - participant

So, my challenge to all of us, is how can we better navigate our work to allow space for creativity and genuine relationships that need no buzzwords?

By Gabriele Rukas