This is the story of a grassroots organization that emerged within days at a main Austrian train station. A group of young people taing care of 200,000 refugees, coordinating more than 6,000 volunteers, enrolling 48,000 fans on Facebook within days and providing 800 health 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. Let’s not look to much on experts, papers or external answers but rather be informed by success stories and real-life examples.
Why it all started
2015 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, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan. Many of them arrived by train or foot, looking for shelter, food, water and safety. People were confronted with heartwrenching pictures and stories, and many 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 Vienna Central Railway Station quickly developed into 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 were the worst possible to make an organization work: the resources were scarce, the human and logistical challenges huge, and volatility and complexity could not have been 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, welcoming and safe space in weeks of horror.
I am talking about „Train of Hope,“ well known to most Austrians and reviewed even by the New York Times as a phenomenon of civil movements.
How and why did „Train of Hope“ work and outperform legacy NPOs?
Apart from their wonderful work and overarching level of humanity, these people showed the world what is possible when a group is committed to creating something together. But let’s focus on the following question: How did this organization work and why? While social media is full of articles of smart people, management gurus and organization theorists discussing „agile“ organizations, these young people created the most functional organization in the middst of a social turmoil, 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 people, and so I met with Julian Pöschl, initiator of Train of Hope. We had a long and fascinating conversation at my favorite Viennese coffe place, Cafe Ansari. Nasser, a long time friend and co-owner of the place, joined us for an espresso and stayed throughout the conversation, being as fascinated as I was by what Julian told us.
The organic organization
Train of Hope was the most organic organization I have ever heard of, seen of that crossed my way. According to Wikipedia: „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.“
So why, how, what, who?
The start phase – from chaos to structure
When Julian first arrived at the Vienna Central Railway Station, he was one of many volunteers who had come to help. They wanted to do something about these people’s unbearable situation and suffering. And it was really shocking. I myself had never seen this level of suffering and poverty in my own country – people reporting they have not eaten for days, some barefoot or with sneakers falling literally off their feet. People traumatized, crying, sitting on the bare floor, desperate. In a foreign country, with no language left to communicate but their physical appearance. Understandable that many of the 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 with how to get organized on the spot. But this time there was no employer, no client and no budget. Just their own intention to make something happen, to help people in need, as well as they could.
They coordinated with ÖBB, Austrian Federal Railways, 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, which provided some rooms for free for Train of Hopers. „Each day we had four to five iterations of our organization.“
Each department was equipped with a basic purpose, one person with a Walkie Talkie as the communication and coordination interface. Then people could join.
They started with a mere table in a garage and developed into three 30-people tents in addition to the train station hall, with a hospital of their own.
Julian describes the organizational logic the following: „This was like playing Lego. We had a basic structure with endless opportunities for add-ons to emerge and disappear. In addition to the basic elements, like reception, food-distribution and 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.“
Some of the groups were totally independent and self-organized. Train of Hope basically provided them with the infrastructure, such as 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 said, explaining 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 far more important was how and with what those structures were filled. Here are some of the most important ones:
- Each person knew what happened and why
- People got appreciation for their contribution
- Everyone had the freedom to contribute in his/her way, in a clear and given frame
- People felt welcome and immediately integrated, wherever they joined.
- Trust of what people knew and were able to do
Some helpers got hooked on being thanked for everything they did. They exhausted themselves near to their own breakdown, for 20 hours and more, up to 50 hours without a break. The psyche team was there to help them go home and process those overwhelming and shocking experiences which were new for so many people. „We need to provide a sense of stability and safety for the „Travellers“, (this was how we started to call the refugees, giving back some dignity and adding normality to the collective narrative). 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 his/her 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 mainstream media supported: regularly local radio reported on what was happening and what was needed.
Logo and Branding
Julian soon realized that 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 a communication means. Everyone knew that these were the young people from the Vienna Central Railway Station.
The 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 process 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 one 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, many oft hem even quitting 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 strictly enforcing rules and structures, but by honoring what people want and need. Leadership consisting of providing basic orientation, talking to people. „I did not need a meeting to understand how the organization evolved.“ His job consisted of reconciling the different feedback and finding solutions.
As the structures were based on the logic of film and events, „there was a clear goal and purpose – there were plans plus a lot of chaos, unforeseen challenges and changes.“ The leadership role resembled that of a movie director, with two different approaches: the „my film“ approach and the „our film“ approach. The latter was Julian’s approach.
Volunteers decided for themselves where they worked, based on the current needs and their own skills. Whether their contribution was in social media, carrying boxes, organizing infrastructure or leading (coordinating) a department, it was up to them.
Everyone could bring in what she/he could
All of a sudden people could unfold their talents, they could work at their own pace, without being rushed and blocked. Many of the volunteers showed a lot of self-drive and ideas by starting new services, such as 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 to be bossed around.“
Volatility and plans
„Oftentimes we had only 20 minutes of lead time before a next event, such as a new train arriving with thousands of new travellers on board.“ The strategic horizon was about two days max. „We had a sense of direction and a sense of purpose; we were optimistic dreamers, without getting attached too much.“
What NPOs learned from Train of Hope
One of the reasons some volunteers preferred Train of Hope to other organizations was the fact that their ideas were not considered an irritation or a disturbance, but rather a resource.
The big organizations learned from the out-of-nowhere emerged organization that „you have to integrate volunteers much better, appreciating their ideas“ and not having „the old white man showing up and commanding people.“ They also saw that their people were not cross-connected enough and having more difficulties dealing with unexpected situations.
Some principles and success factors:
- People always need to know Why they are doing What. For example, just telling someone to move a table to an assigned space doesn’t work. The person needs to know why that table is needed, what its 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/clearer solution.
- Rule of six eyes: I discuss my idea with two to three people around me. If they find this is a good idea, do it (instead of asking a boss).
- People fit the structures according to themselves, instead of having to fit into the structures.
- Meetings were not organized around a fixed set of meetings, 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 proven first; they started with trusting people from the beginning, so they had to prove that they were not trustwothy instead – just the other way round.
- If you have a question, use the „telegram“ group where you will find Q&A
e.g. How to deal with homeless Austrians coming in? Answer: We help them like everyone else in need.
- People feel responsible
- The organization evolves organic and intuitively
- A clear frame allows for a lot of freedom and flexibility, without chaos
- Never make 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 on if we assume that people are doing their paid jobs by choice and not by force, one could say, „no.“ Julian thinks about his own experience: „It makes hardly any difference. What really matters is to be 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.
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