You may recall that a little while back, there was some hoopla over refugees. That story was about how much you suck. This story is about network effects and social capital.
It all started simply enough, with an article in the local newspaper saying the Syrians were coming here. There was a lot of interest in our church community in seeing how we could help out, and my wife and I had worked with that refugee agency in the past. It was a pretty clear case of God plunking something in my lap and saying, “do this thing.” So I did.
Anyway, I got back in touch with my contacts at the old agency to tell them help was on the way. And then I posted something on the church’s Facebook page asking for volunteers. And then the flood began. From this point forward, my role was one of trying to direct a current far more powerful than me down the right pathways.
We ended up assigned not to Syrians, but a Somali family of ten. Ten people with nothing but the clothes on their backs need a lot of stuff. Left to my own devices, I could have procured a few pieces of furniture and some food with a significant investment of time and money. But because I was connected to a church, I was able to put the word out to a few hundred people (already preselected to be inclined towards philanthropy), and sit back as the donations poured in. Spread out over so many people, no great sacrifice was required of anybody. One person had some chairs they didn’t need, another an old couch, another a lampstand, and every item was checked off the list in no time (which was good, because we had no time). Because the church had a building, I didn’t need to worry about finding a place to warehouse all of these items; people were able to drop them off at a central location at a time convenient to them.
As this was going on, our group of volunteers grew. The (real-life) social networks of everybody in the church became a recruitment tool. What before would have just been idle talk about how “somebody else should do something” was easily translated into action instead. Anybody in the church or who knew anybody in the church was now only a degree removed from the action. Signing up didn’t require any more than a quick chat with me on Sunday.
So we had a large group. Now what? Here the existence of the building again proved critical. The church had plenty of available classrooms where we could gather, meet with the agency coordinator, and plan our next steps.
When it came time to furnish the house, I found myself with the entire youth group at my disposal. Some 40-50 people and half a dozen vehicles descended on the house, cleaning and filling it in a few hours. It would have taken me days to do half as thorough a job on my own.
Our church network began linking into other networks. A local woman who, as near as I can determine, is the effective matriarch of our local Somali community, heard about our church’s involvement, and so drove up to talk to us and see where we might be interested in helping out. A few meetings took place, introductions were made, and soon our networks were enmeshed.
My involvement faded out at this point, but the work carried on without me. Churches regularly get random items donated; many of them are now getting funneled onward. One older couple who moved out of their house even donated its contents to the local refugees, who cleaned it out in short order. When the (largely Muslim) Somalians wanted French Bibles, they knew to turn to us, and we in turn used a connection to the Gideons to help with that. (He was able to provide 3 on short notice. They proceeded to fight over who would get them, so we promised to acquire more.) Last I heard, the aforementioned Matriarch was speaking to our women’s group, which I’m sure will result in even more connections.
I played no part and exerted no energy in any of that. But none of it would have happened if not for me. Because I acted as a group instead of alone, my small effort has been magnified many times beyond my own capabilities.