Professionals in connecting

Employees of the Finnish Red Cross were asked to evaluate how the organisation needs to change in the coming years. Surprisingly, digitalization was not seen as the key to the solution.


Noora Mattila



More than a million Finns do volunteer work on a regular basis. Although civil society in Finland is quite active, several organisations are preparing for change. It is said that the internet will bring an upheaval in volunteer work with activism increasingly moving into social media. Perhaps people do not want to commit to traditional organisations, preferring instead to drop in now and then to give their time. Perhaps values are being splintered and volunteer workers are looking for means of self-realisation.

Change of some kind is needed, but is it to the direction mentioned above or some other? The Finnish Red Cross presented a vision of the near future to their SenseMaker respondents. “We are in the year 2020. The number of people involved in activities of a local branch/activity group of the Finnish Red Cross has grown considerably. Describe the ways and means through which this has been achieved.”

“We assumed that the responses would reflect a belief that digitalization would be a solution to the change,” says Mimmu Piirto, Head of Development at the Finnish Red Cross.
However, the results came as a surprise. For instance, when the respondents were asked to imagine where the resources had been allocated to enable the change, almost no one thought the answer was digitalization. A greater proportion of respondents focused on changing the operating models.

The internet is a gateway to reach people

Accessible spaces and open doors. Inspiring young people (narrative 1: see the narratives below this article), including immigrants, and taking the needs of those with physical and developmental disabilities into consideration. Actively visiting schools, homes for the elderly and workplaces. Making a shared goal (narrative 2) out of attracting more volunteers, which can be seen at all levels, and which is strengthened through systematic communication. Bringing the internet and social media to this century.

The SenseMaker survey of the Finnish Red Cross was originally just a pilot for the employees of the organisation. The next phase would have been to open it up to everyone on the Finnish Red Cross website, but this never happened, owing to a lack of time.

This is why the responses were fairly similar to those in other surveys on the subject, Mimmu Piirto says. However, there were a few radical changes suggested, which do not excite people very much in ordinary surveys. One was to drop the structure of a centralised leadership, splitting people into networks (narrative 3) and volunteer committees. Another was to completely give up physical locations, making it possible to volunteer even from the moon, if necessary.

The dominant narrative was nevertheless one of humane voluntary work supported by values and the ethos. This was considered the ultimate goal of digitalization: in the opinion of many, the purpose of digitalization is simply to bring people together. In an ideal world, applications would work so easily that they would not even need to be noticed.

“The material actually confirmed my intuition that digitalization is merely a tool. The internet is a way to find people and as such it does not differ from meeting in a town square,” Piirto says. “Sometimes we may put a little too much faith in digitalization. People are searching for values.”

Many emphasised that new volunteers need to be celebrated and nurtured personally. The most important motivation turned out to be internal motivation and values.

Some saw community and digitalization as opposites: instead of fussing over the internet for its own sake, it is important to train to be the best at connecting (narrative 4) with people.

“It seems we could put even more emphasis on basic values and the significance of volunteer work and give people space to work together. That is also an answer, even though it is not very concrete,” Piirto surmises.

Complex triangles

For Piirto, the most enjoyable part of the SenseMaker experiment were the lectures shedding light on complexity. In her view, complexity is at the core of the activities of the Finnish Red Cross: in development co-operation and during natural disasters it is necessary to act in situations whose final outcomes are impossible to predict.

However, Piirto was left wondering if she fully understood how thinking about complexity should be applied in the SenseMaker survey.

“In this method, triangles are more significant than the narrative. It would have been nice to put more thought into them: why should these concepts be placed in the same triangle and what is the theoretical foundation behind it?”

There were only 41 respondents to the pilot questionnaire. Piirto believes that when the sample is small, it exposes the vagueness of the chosen concepts even more.

“I also think that it might be fairly coincidental which part of the triangle is touched by a person’s finger. It may be that a triangle is not a very familiar visualisation to people. We might have used more segments, which are easier to understand.”

However, she believes that with a larger number of respondents SenseMaker can produce valuable information. For that reason, it would have suited the strategic preparations of the Finnish Red Cross very well. A new strategy is drafted every three years.

However, now the timing of the questionnaire was just slightly wrong and there was not enough time.


Resources for recruiting young people

There has been success in inspiring young people to join activities by co-operating with various entities, such as the training centres of schools and with multicultural centres. Young people have a need to act according to their values and to make them visible, so they have been offered ways to participate, which they have chosen themselves, such as organising events, which has brought visibility to the activities and inspired more young people to join in. Because of this, the social media activity of the branches of the Finnish Red Cross has increased, which brings positive visibility to the entire organisation. Branches filled by young people have a cheerful feeling of getting things done, supported and guided by the central office.


Well-planned communications yield results that work

A new way of communicating has taken place in the country – in the past two years there has been an active and methodical trend of communicating in a top-down manner. All measures taken at a branch of the Red Cross are directed at bringing in more volunteers. The Finnish Red Cross made sure that the districts and the branches have understood the importance and role of volunteers in moving the organisation forward. Each district has a paid employee responsible for communications. In addition, support from the districts to the branches has been increased. The branches have planned how to involve new volunteers in the activities as soon as they have made their first contact. In the communications, the importance of volunteer work performed in Finland for Finnish society, as well as the varied nature of the activities, has been underscored. Electronic services have been upgraded. The web pages are modern and easy to use. The website project involved representatives taken from different types of branches, districts and the central office to ensure usability. Communications have brought ready social media communication materials to the different branches – feelings, quotations, pictures, etc. that can be easily downloaded by the branch from the internet. Final comment: The Scouts have a good model for increasing membership (which has also brought plenty of new volunteers).



1) Volunteers work on their own, forming their own committees2) Branches have turned into Networks – administrative units of adequate size3) A central office no longer exists The Board and the executive secretariat which convenes once a week for an executive meeting.4) There are no districts, they are local cells of the Network with the task of making sure that the Networks carry out the decisions of the general meeting5) The Finnish Red Cross has seven institutions left: The Blood Service Kontti, KV EA Friends Collections and the Vapepa (volunteer rescue service)


We have become experts in connecting

People have been personally asked to join in and we know how to accept newcomers by connecting with them in a way that makes them feel welcome.The chairs of the branches and other key volunteers have been given training and tools for taking on new people and asking them to join. Different situations for connecting with people have been practised in the training.Finnish Red Cross workers have received coaching that strengthens their skills in connecting with people. The ability to connect has been taken as a focal point of skills among both employees and volunteers. Skills have been developed at different types of encounters (organisation days, district meetings), because enough people have learned to train others, and shared materials are also in use.



The world is complicated, with different situations and complex problems calling for a variety of solutions. How can we identify the early signs of social change? Sitra training alumni tested out the SenseMaker tool and searched for answers.



Noora Mattila




What's this about?