This is the story of a grass root organization that emerged within days at an Austrian Train Station. A group of young people took care of 200.000 refugees, coordinated more than 6000 volunteers, had 48.000 Fans on Facebook within days and provided 800 heath checks per day, just to quote a few numbers.
How did they manage, organize and fund that organization? And what can other organizations, longing for a higher level of self-organization, flexibility and spirit learn from this amazing case?
Most probably you are not working on, in or for a refugee organization, but most probably you are confronted with similar phenomena of unpredictability, instability and a high need for self-organization and motivation. Lets not look to experts, papers or external answers and models, but lets be informed by success stories and real-life examples.
Why it all started
Last year Austria was confronted with an overwhelming wave of refugees arriving in a very short period of time. Fleeing from war, danger and horrible conditions in their home countries, coming mainly from Syria and Afghanistan. Many of them arrived by train or walking, looking for shelter, food, water and safety. People were confronted with heart wrenching pictures and stories and many of them felt a desire and obligation to help those in need.
What started with a group of people distributing apples and bananas to refugees arriving at the Vienna Central Trainstation, developed in no time to a fully functioning Refugee Sanctuary.
With no money, no structures, no employees, no political support and no pre-experience in refugee work a group of young people, mainly from the film business, created a pop-up organization. Serving 200.000 refugees and coordinating sometimes more than 150 volunteers on site, over the course of weeks and months, starting September 2015.
The context and conditions are the worst possible to make an organization work: the resources are scarce, the human and logistic challenges huge, and the volatility and the complexity could not be higher. The situation changed and could change anytime, often with as good as no lead time to prepare for the next train arriving with hungry, exhausted, oftentimes sick and traumatized people. For some of the refugees, Vienna was the first friendly and welcoming and safe space in weeks.
I am talking about “Train of Hope“, well known to most Austrians and reviewed even by New York Times, as a phenomena of civil movements.
How and why did “Train of Hope” work and outperform legacy NPOs?
Apart from the wonderful work and the overarching level of humanity, these people showed to the world what is possible when a group of people is committed to create something together. But what I want to put the spot on in this post is the following question: how did this organization work? Why? While social media is full of articles of smart people, management gurus and organization theorists on “agile” organizations, these young guys created the most functional organization, perfectly equipped to deal with complexity and volatility, by using their intuition, common sense, enthusiasm and experience.
Meeting Julian Pöschl, initiator of Train of Hope
I was wondering, what we could learn from these guys and met with Julian Pöschl, initiator of Train of Hope. We went into a very long and fascinating conversation at my favorite Viennese place, Cafe Ansari. Nasser, the co-owner of the place is a long-year friend who joined us for an Espresso and stayed throughout the conversation, being as fascinated as I by what Julian told us.
The organic organization
Train of Hope was the most organic organizations I have ever heard-of and seen and felt into. “Organic organizations are comparatively more complex and harder to form, but are highly adaptable, flexible, and more suitable where external environment is rapidly changing and is unpredictable.” wikipedia says.
So why, how, what, who?
The start phase – from chaos to structure
When Julian first came to the Vienna Central Train Station he was one of many volunteers, that came to help. They wanted to do something about the unbearable situation and suffering these people were in. And it was really shocking. I myself have never seen this level of suffering and poverty in my own country – people reporting they have not eaten for days, some barefoot or sneakers falling off their feet. People crying and sitting on the bare floor, desperate. In a foreign country, with no language to communicate. Understandable, that helpers stayed longer than they should have, some of them 16-18 hours without a break.
They started a very basic structure around a clear purpose – helping people in need!
Julian saw that situation and felt that some level of structure could be beneficial to everyone. “We needed structures”. So he and some of his peers took immediate action – coming from the film and event business – they had some experience how to get organized on spot. But this time, there was no employer, not client and not budget. Just their own intention to make something happen, to help people in need, as good as they could.
They coordinated with ÖBB, the Austrian federal Rail Company, and were assigned the back-end of the Train Station and the “Fahrradgarage”, a bike garage, that became the central coordination space, some kind of headquarters.
Then they created “departments” that would bundle the different activities. These departments evolved by the hour, sometimes a new department was created while Julian was getting a few hours of sleep in a hotel nearby, providing some rooms for free for TrainofHopers. “Each day we had 4-5 iterations of our organization”
Each department was equipped with a basic purpose, 1 person with a Walkie Talkie as the communication and coordination interface. Then people could join.
They started with a mere table in a garage into 3 30-people tents in addition to the trainstation hall, with their own hospital.
Julian describes the organizational logic the following: “this was like Lego. We had a basic structure with an endless opportunities for add-ons to emerged and disappeared. In addition to the basic elements, like reception, food-distribution, clothes a lot of other services emerged self organized by engaged volunteers: legal advice, medical aid, equipped with doctors and even an ultrasound unit, psychological support for volunteers and a perfectly functional kindergarten”.
This was the organization chart that emerged, grew and developed organically over time:
Some of the groups were totally independent and self organized, Train of Hope basically provided them with the infrastructure like assigning a space and electricity.
The Core Team
A stable Core Team emerged, that met once a week. This was important to create some sense of social stability for the team and the people around them.
“We pieced together existing and known work practices and systems as we needed them”, Julian explains their very pragmatic approach. “We were setting the working parameters for others, without thinking about it too much” What clearly helped was to create very clear and simple structures, being extremely flexible within these structures.
The factors that mattered most
The structures formed the frame to funnel and bundle energy. But what was more important was the stuff it was filled in and the most important factors were the following:
- Each person new what happens and why
- People got appreciation for their contribution
- Everyone had the freedom to contribute in his her way, in a clear frame
- People felt welcome and immediately integrated, wherever they joined.
- Trust into what people know and are able to do
Some helpers got hooked on being thanked for everything they did. They exhausted themselves near to their own breakdown, for 20 hrs and more, up to 50 hours without a break. The psyche Team was there to help them go home and process for many people new and shocking experiences. “We need to provide a sense of stability and safety for the travellers, (how we called the refugees). When you are exhausted and grumpy, you are not being useful, this is counter-productive.” Julian explained. Every volunteer who registered got a badge with a name and the time of arrival, to keep track of the time present.
Media and Social Media played a key role
.. from the very start. Facebook and Twitter were used to communicate internally and with volunteers helping on site or providing goods and supplies needed. Just one post was published with a listing that was refreshed upon need.
Also public Media supported: regularly they reported on what happened and what was needed.
Logo and Branding
Soon Julian realized they needed to create a brand and identity, so over night a friend created the Train of Hope Logo, that from now on was used as communication means. Everyone knew, these were the young guys from the Vienna Central Train Station.
Logo: copyright Riebenbauer Design
Core Purpose was clear
“we want to give humanitarian help, in the best possible way”
Julian’s Role: communicator and coordinator
“My role was basically to communicate with people and processing the feedback I am getting from talking to people, all the time. I was the info channel in the center, and people got orientation from me and I oriented myself to the people. Sometimes they asked my opinion. I was the face to the media, the speaker of Train of Hope. This was important for Marketing and PR, to have 1 person, that people recognize and that can be clearly identified. Train of Hope became the epitome of civil activism.”
He encouraged like-minded people and friends to join in and some stayed for months, may quit their jobs to continue their work at the train station.
“I was completely part of the system”
It doesn’t work without Leadership
Leadership not in a sense of enforcing rules and structures strictly, but by honoring what people want and need. A Leadership consisting in providing basic orientation, walking and talking to people. “I did not need a meeting to understand how the organization evolved..” His job consisted in reconciling the different Feedbacks and to find solutions.
Like the structures were based on the logic of film and events “there is a clear goal and purpose and plans and a lot of chaos and unforeseen challenges and changes” the Leadership role resembled the one of the movie director, with two different approaches: the “my film” approach and the “our film” approach. The latter was Julian’s approach.
Volunteers decided themselves where they worked, based on the current need and their own skills. Whether it was social media, carrying boxes, infrastructure or leading (coordinating) a department, was up to them.
Everyone could bring in what she/he could
People could unfold their talents, People can work at their own pace, without being rushed and blocked. Many of the volunteers showed a lot of self-drivenness and ideas, by starting new services, like the “missing persons” desk. A group of students convinced McDonalds to act as sponsor. Others were experts in warehouse logicistics, and another team started the kindergarten. When it became too hierarchical, there was immediate feedback: “we are here to help and not be bossed around”.
Volatility & Plans
“Oftentimes we had only 20 minutes lead-time before a next event”. The strategic horizon was about 2 days. “We had a sense of direction and a sense of purpose, we were optimistic dreamers, without getting attached too much..”
What legacy NPOs learned from Train of Hope
One of the reason some people preferred Train of Hope to other organizations was the fact, that their ideas were not considered an irritation or a disturbance, but a resource.
The big organizations learned from the out of nowhere emerged organizations, that “you have to integrate volunteers better, appreciating their ideas” and not having “the old white man showing up and commanding people”. They also saw that their people were not as well cross connected and had more difficulties dealign with unexpected situations.
Some Principles and success factors:
- People always need to know why they are doing what. E.g. just telling someone to put a table to an assigned space, doesn’t work. The person needs to know why that table is needed, what is purpose is. If the situation changes, the table can be moved accordingly.
- If something is not clear, look for someone with a Walkie Talkie and ask.
- If you have an idea you are not sure about, find two other people and discuss with them, 99% of the time you will come up with a better/clear solution.
- Rule of 6 eyes: I discuss my idea with 2-3 people around me: if they find this is a good idea, do it (instead of asking a boss).
- People could fit the structures according to themselves, instead of having to fit into the structures
- Meetings were not organized around a fixed set of meeting, but around a set of agenda items. People were invited to participate, when they thought they could contribute to any of these topics.
- Trust does not need to be proved first, everybody is being trusted.
- If you have a question, use the “telegram” group, there you will find Q&A
- e.g. How to deal with the Homeless Austrians? Answer: we help them like everyone else in need.
- People feel responsible
- The organization evolves organic and intuitively
- The clear frame allows for a lot of freedom and flexibility, without chaos
- Never take decisions without involving people concerned. (Whenever that happened, it caused a lot of stress and hassle)
Does it make a difference for people if they are paid or volunteering?
I think it depends: if we assume, that people are also doing their paid jobs by choice and not be force, one could say, no. Julian thinks about his own experience: “It makes hardly any difference, what really matters is to appreciated and to contribute to something that is important and feels like the right thing to do.
Today Train of Hope is a registered association, with a lot of still active subgroups. There are some visions and ideas waiting to be realized in the near future.
Related own posts: