George Gurescu uses communications to bridge otherwise disconnected islands
Do you know the role of a communications specialist also known as a community builder? Have you ever wondered what it's like to work in an NGO? George Gurescu is a journalist and communications specialist and he believes that the non-governmental environment is an incredible source of stories. Stories about the good done unconditionally, because that's how it is in the DNA of organizations. He works at ARC (Association for Community Relations), an environment where passion is the main engine. “All the NGOs I work with are driven by passion and their desire to make a change in their community or in their country. And this passion is quite contagious. I ‘joined’ the NGO/communication field without having a certain experience or know-how, but slowly, the passion I saw in the people around me, gave me that thirst to find out more and to explore. They inspire me. Knowing that there are so many people driven by a force of doing good, makes me go on. I want to find out why they do this and how they do this”, tells George.
But nowadays it means staying too much online for George. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, some of his habits or rituals have disappeared and he tried to find some “online replacements”. He feels a bit frustrated, but he is more afraid of the pandemic, he says, so he attempts to cope with it. This pandemic tested our capacity, for sure. ARC has decided to create an Emergency Fund in March, so that they could help communities in need. They worked with a network of local organizations and hospitals – to find out what their needs are, what other campaigns are present in that community, to ensure that they don’t double the effort.
From George’s stories, you can learn how to find meaning in your work, how to pursue your passion and curiosity, and, hopefully, his story will inspire you to give back by getting involved or taking your involvement to the next level.
What is the role of a communications specialist, a.k.a., a community builder, in discovering the stories of communities?
A communications specialist is a curious person. He/She is not smarter or more of a specialist than others are, he/she is a person that wants to see, to explore and to write about the fabric that keeps a community together. Therefore, my role here is to write about this fabric. This fabric is made up of people that decide to establish an NGO, because they want a better community or a better school for their children; is made up of other NGOs that want to empower informal leaders or individuals that want to change something in their hometown. In other words, what keeps a community together is trust. I am trying to find as many ways as possible to express and to show this trust.
There are countless examples in our communities, and one story leads to another, and so on. There is a huge treasury of stories that – through communication – can build or strengthen our community. All I need is time to write them down.
Why is your role indispensable in an organization like ARC (Association for Community Relations)?
I don’t think my role is indispensable, and nobody should think that. What I think is that ARC believes in the same things as me. We think that if we tell stories about people who do good in their community, more people will follow. More people will start trusting those around them, and with this trust, we can change our communities.
How did you and the ARC team go from communication to community?
I believe the two are intertwined. You can’t have a community without strong communication within. We can’t talk about resilient communities if people don’t talk about their fears and share their hopes. Communication is an indispensable tool in building a community.
The ARC team developed a network of Community Foundations Program. Why do you think we need it?
Yes, yes and yes. The Community Foundations Program was actually the program for which I was hired. I had countless occasions to see community foundations in action as well as see them do good for their communities, besides their role is vital in our cities. I mean, these organizations are a bit different than a regular NGO. They have the role of facilitator for good. They find resources for those that want to change something in the community. They create a local infrastructure for people to get involved and for NGOs to find the support they need.
I see them as local actors for change. I will put an emphasis on local, because in Romania, we have this tendency of believing that everything good or bad comes from the capital or from big cities. Well, these organizations show you that every community has its own resources for change. Community foundations create the perfect platform for people to believe in their city, to trust their neighbors and, most importantly, themselves.
Community foundations (CF) work on the very fabric I mentioned in the beginning. They work with trust.
Another thing that I see quite special here is that these organizations strengthen one’s feeling of pride in one’s community and reinforces the sense of belonging.
From your experience, what would you say are the main engines of sustainable social change? What is most valuable about it? And what is its main vulnerability at the moment?
Sustainable change can’t happen without the involvement of all parties/stakeholders. We talked about community foundations as local actors for change, these organizations do an amazing job, but this isn’t enough if we want sustainable change. For example, these organizations managed to raise 1,7 mil EURO from private donors and local companies. This is a huge amount of money, especially since these organizations are small (with 3-4 employees), and they’ve done an amazing job in the past three months.
But will this effort bring an irreversible change within the community? Not likely, because they can’t replace all the stakeholders therein. The good news is that CFs are seen as a model and other stakeholders are looking at their actions and good practices and replicate it in their micro communities. More and more companies are seeing their CSR budget as a resource for sustainable change, and not as a band-aid for urgent causes. Private donors see the impact of long term commitment towards charitable causes, and are more inclined to submit to a monthly contribution, rather than a one-time aid.
As I said, CF’s are actors of change, but we need more than actors to produce a movie, right? (isn’t this a funny comparison?)
I’m truly optimistic, and I’m sure that our society, in the long run, will evolve towards a more equitable and safe place. People start to realize that politicians are important, and turnout has been increasing in recent years; civic involvement is quite strong, we see a lot of grassroot initiatives appearing in small cities or rural regions, so there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic.
From what you have learned listening to and observing communities of practice, what is the role of technology in creating and supporting sustainable social change?
I don’t want to enter a field I am not really familiar with, but from what I saw at the NGO level, we are working with technology that is seen as an engine for change. We are using social media platforms to connect with our communities and to disseminate our messages; we have created instruments that help us reach vulnerable regions and improve our transparency. Moreover, we have instruments that make it easier for people to get involved and to help/donate. We use technology to increase our transparency and we put pressure on public authorities to do the same.
Plenty of organizations are talking about social technology and they are working on using technology for the most vulnerable ones, but what is striking for me are these huge gaps in our society. Although we have the fastest internet in Europe, we are the country where a third of our households are not connected to the sewerage system. Although we have access to the internet almost everywhere in Romania, a third of Romanian pupils are functionally illiterate. It’s like we skipped some stages on our way towards a modern society, and we realize it only now. Many of us are digitally savvy, but older generations are likely to become victims of disinformation, cybercrime and so on. Moreover, we need to work on our school curriculum to include some digital literacy classes so that all our future adults have equal opportunities.
At ARC, you have been in the midst of societal mobilization for aid during the Covid-19 lockdown period. What have you learned about crisis management, voluntary mobilization and donation flows during this period? How have they impacted the stories we hear from local communities? Can we speak of a particular social aid framework being formed in Romania, following these networks, one that we can soon start to use as a recurrent model for crisis management, long term?
This pandemic tested our capacity, that is for sure. ARC decided to create an Emergency Fund in March, so that we could help communities in need. We worked with a network of local organizations and hospitals – to find out what their needs are, and what other campaigns are present in that community, so that we don’t double the effort.
The impact of the Emergency Fund
We managed to raise 5,7 mil RON and we provided PPE or medical equipment to hospitals and medical units in almost 60 cities. It was a tremendous effort for the organization; nobody had experience in medical procurement or health infrastructure, and the markets were so unstable and volatile at that time. The team involved in procurement and fundraising did an amazing job and they kept their calm, motivated us. We were all stressed, not only because of this Fund, but because of the pandemic, and they managed to establish routines that kept us going.
There were many cases where the non-governmental sector acted faster than the state. In the first weeks, the NGOs were the first to bring masks, gloves or overalls to the doctors. While the public authorities were trying to figure out what to order, we were delivering testing machines in vulnerable communities. This pandemic showed us what a huge impact the private/NGO sector has in our society. We made calculations in April, seven weeks after everything started, and 80 organizations managed to buy equipment and PPEs worth more than 13.95 million Euros.
The pandemic revealed the impact that the private/NGO sector has, as well as the desire to get involved within the community that individuals have (based on their donations). Donors trust our ability to find solutions and companies see us as partners that can drive change both at local and national level.
Now, many NGOs think an emergency mechanism is a must-have. They realized that if they had the money two days earlier, for example, they might have bought masks two times cheaper. I can’t tell you for sure if there are plans for creating something at national level, and to be fair, we can’t always replace public institutions. We understand this was an unusual time, that is why we mobilized, but at the same time, the state has the moral and legal responsibility to protect our community. Imagine that the Infectious diseases Hospital in Iasi had a testing machine that could process only 60 tests per day, and tests from neighboring counties were sent to the same hospital. How can one contain a pandemic when the testing capacity is so slow? An NGO bought a new testing machine from South Korea, which increased the capacity by 700 tests/day. This happened in March, when the pandemic started.
At local level the organizations are working on a new Emergency Fund, but I think some of these discussions are still a bit too early, the crisis is still here, we are still buying medical devices for our hospitals, and although we try to go back to normal, the virus hasn’t been contained.
The entire sector was under pressure. While some NGOs were raising money for PPEs, others were trying to feed the vulnerable ones in the communities. Although our normal life was on hold, our needs weren’t, and thousands of people were in dire need of food, water, medicines. The NGOs did an amazing job at managing the crisis, and now our biggest fear is that after this effort our capacity has been weakened. Many donors have used their sponsorship funds on the pandemic, companies reduced their budgets and other events that might have brought some income to NGOs are delayed or no longer organized.
We must find some financial mechanisms that can help us increase our sector’s capacity. We can’t say we have a strong civil society when organizations don’t know if they will have the cash flow to pay salaries in November.
Can you give us an example that shows the powerful impact organizations have reached by engaging technologies in the right way?
One way NGOs have used technology was to attract new partners and donors. We have numerous organizations that are using digital platforms and virtual reality to tell a story and to present their cause to possible donors. An organization recreates the two-hour road a girl has to make every day to get water, another organization has recreated the room of a child and invited people to listen to his story. The act of giving has been simplified and popularized all over the world, and we can see the huge impact Facebook had after launching its Fundraiser option.
Technology can help NGOs in accomplishing their mission. There have been startups that developed solutions to create clean water, others that helped patients with dementia, or artificial intelligence was used to assist visually impaired people, and virtual reality has been used to help children cope with anxiety.
This is something natural; people have always tried to use the latest innovations to do good.
What are the obstacles that you learned to overcome easily and what is the thing that you hate most in what you do, because you have not yet found appropriate ways to smooth them over?
I can’t remember an obstacle that I recently overcame, but I can say I still have a problem with talking in front of a crowd. If there are more than five people in front of me, I suddenly mumble (I might be exaggerating a bit). Ironic for someone that works in this field, right?
I stress out a lot when it comes to working with Excel files. Anything that has to do with numbers that will appear in my articles gives me a ridiculously huge amount of stress.
Independent of where you work now or have worked in the past, what would you say your mission is, as a communications professional?
As a communications professional, my mission is to carry on the message as clear and as truthful as I can. My job is not to show how savvy I am, but to help the others to share their story. We are builders of infrastructure.
What is the added value you, George, think you bring to any employment opportunity?
My added value? According to my colleagues I can write nice stories with a small amount of adjectives, and I am pretty calm. I guess we should ask my current and former employers here.
What have you learned, from your professional career so far, as a journalist, as a communications specialist, about people and organizations that do good?
They are passionate. I know it sounds a bit bland, but their passion is palpable, you see it in their gestures, in the way they talk. They prefer to talk more about what other needs have to be taken care of, instead of talking about their accomplishments. Because they know that their work isn’t done and there is plenty of stuff that they will want to do for that community/cause.
Last but not least, please share with us the digital tools that make your life, creativity, inspiration and work easier on a daily basis.
For infographics and other visual products I use Canva, it has great customizable templates for any platform.
For planning I sometimes use TeamGantt – because it does your job in coloring the cells and arranging them nicely.
For writing I use dexonline and Thesaurus. Every time I write, I have these sites opened in my browser because I am in a constant search for the perfect word. Sometimes that perfect word might be a synonym of the word already written, other times, it might be the Romanian version of an English word.
I’m not necessarily the type of person that is struck by inspiration. I need a certain mood, but for example, I see the act of writing, as hard work, a constant struggle to find the good words, that perfect amount of adjectives that doesn’t make your text cheesy. When I write, I have this fear of not portraying my character accurately, and until I finish, I am stressed and nervous.