First appeared in THEXPAT Journal Autumn 2016 publication
Factors of Success – A Review of ACCESS 30 Years On
ACCESS turns 30 in 2016; August 11 to be specific. It is exciting to reflect on the fact that a volunteer-based, and run, organisation has managed to reach this age of maturity. Is it the formula, the people or the times, one wonders? Or is it perhaps, the combination of all three and more?
The formula at the origin of ACCESS’ operations was based on similar programmes in Egypt and the Philippines at the time, in the 1980s. It was composed of both curative and preventative elements.
The curative element was the on-call Counselling Network that expatriates could turn to in times of stress (personal or otherwise). The preventative element was the volunteer community ACCESS established, through which people could – in their own way – overcome some of the stresses of relocation. A Community Needs Assessment discovered that not only were there few resources for people to turn to for help, especially psychological support, but that in many cases, expatriates simply needed something to do; such as giving back, and meeting like-minded people. Herein lies the uniqueness of the ACCESS formula: by giving people a purpose, the organisation works as much for itself as it does for the community at large. In serving others, we serve ourselves.
Thousands of volunteers have passed through ACCESS since 1986; around 3,000, looking at our statistics. Even though the turnover may be higher now than say 10 years ago, the very nature of the people at ACCESS means there is great mobility as people arrive, find jobs or relocate. In the last five years alone, we have averaged about 120 active volunteers per month – with 10-15 leaving and being recruited each month. This of course challenges the organisational management of ACCESS – encouraging us to work with simple straightforward project management tools, etc. – however, the added gem of such a turnover is that we are constantly innovating, constantly in renewal. More importantly, we are continually made aware of what the new issues are, and which questions or challenges remain or arise. While we do of course gather such information from our Helpdesk, having people come through our doors with the issues of the day is extremely valuable to ACCESS’ continuity and allows us to serve the broader international community in the Netherlands on a daily basis.
The fact that new arrivals have questions has not changed since the late 1980s. What has changed dramatically, of course, is how the information they need is found. When ACCESS started, the telephone – tethered to a socket – was the way to obtain answers. Making a phone call to a person who spoke your language, or at least a language you were able to communicate in, and who had access to a ‘rolodex’ of information was a godsend. In the early days, phone calls, drop-ins and information sessions were the way to answer the most frequently asked questions. Today, the rolodex our Telephone Help Desk used to rely on has become a digital database, and the information we have been gathering, and continue to gather, can now be found on our website and in our Frequently Asked Questions Guides. The Telephone Help Desk has simply become the Helpdesk, and while calls reduce in number, e-mails grow every year.
What attracts people to ACCESS is the fact that we answer inquiries from experience, from having been in the shoes of the person doing the asking – allowing us to also pre-empt the questions that are not (yet) being asked, but which will, without a doubt, need answering.
Making It Personal
In a digital world there is still a need for personal contact and tactile information gathering. And so, our Helpdesks at the expat centres grow, our Magazine has seen a return to print and we are able to increasingly offer volunteering opportunities to internationals in other cities. Today, based on the success of our formula of working with the City of The Hague at The Hague International Centre, we are now active in Utrecht, Amsterdam and, as we go to press, we are about to announce our start in Leiden.
At the end of the day, and reflecting on the 30 years which have passed, it is the people who make the difference: the ones we serve, by providing the chance to give back and settle, and the ones who they in turn serve; you, the relocated individuals. The roots, though, lie in a formula which offered balance, sought to provide a solution, and aimed to prevent people from feeling lost in a new environment.