Developing relationships and connection

The work of social innovation is inherently about people: having conversations with people, trying to understand people, forging trusted relationships with people, convincing people, collaborating with people – and creating impact for people, with people. Nothing happens without relationships and connections.


The time spent forging relationships with people, building new connections and maintaining existing connections is front and centre in the work of social innovation, and especially in regional areas where communities are smaller. In this module, we discuss what it takes to build relationships and connections.


“We often think business or work isn’t personal. But it is – because we are relational beings. That’s the core of who we are. And we are dependent on other people for our success.” – Sharon Tomas, Dubbo Community Connector and CAPP Coordinator


The ideas and stories captured here were shared by members of the Regional Innovators Network (RIN) during a peer learning session on 13 November 2018.



Quick Summary


What does it mean

  •     Take the time to build trust
  •     Making contact and keeping in contact


What helps

  •     Common ground
  •     Making allies
  •     Being open, candid and curious – vulnerability
  •     Boundaries


What hinders

  •     Losing motivation after conflict



What does it mean?


Take the time to build trust


Working in social innovation generally means that you will need to develop relationships with many different people within and outside of your community. Building relationships with people means building trust with people. Trust takes time. It may be freely given but hard to win back if broken.


It’s not going to happen in five minutes. It’s a relationship that will take time to build.” – Annette Ohlsen, Condobolin Community Connector



Making contact and keeping in contact


Every relationship is an opportunity. The more you get to know about a person, their skills, their motivations, their needs and their personality, the more information you have to build lasting connections with them naturally, and in a mutually beneficial way. Regardless of who makes the initial connection, be confident enough to continue connecting and checking in with the person to build the momentum.


Your role may also be to play ‘match-maker’ – to set up connections between other people (for example a land owner who needs reliable staff and a young person looking to develop skills in agriculture to gain employment). The video below explores the importance of taking things step by step and being consistent and reliable while a relationship develops.

What Helps?


Common ground


Finding a common ground when first meeting someone new can really help to spark conversations and establish trust more quickly. This might be by identifying:

  •     A shared professional goal
  •     A personal shared interest
  •     A common shared experience
  •     A mutual friend or colleague

Once some common ground has been established, you might find it easier to move onto more serious conversations about the work you’re doing and how you’d like them to be involved.


Participants mentioned how often genuine new relationships and connections are formed over a drink or some food at the pub or a cafe. When you meet people in a place where they feel relaxed and social, they may have more time to talk and feel more comfortable being candid with you. When a conversation has no pressure on it to lead to ‘outcomes’ it is often much richer.



Making allies


“If you can’t get people around you to support your idea or your purpose, then your strategy won’t succeed.” – Sharon Tomas, Dubbo Community Connector and CAPP Coordinator


You can turn people you know (or people you don’t YET know) into allies, one conversation at a time. Have honest and generous conversations with people and show them that you are serious about your cause, serious about them being involved and keen to find ways that they can also benefit from collaboration.


Being open, candid and curious – vulnerability


Honesty breeds trust. Being confident enough to own your weaknesses and acknowledge your vulnerability can also help to deepen the trust within your relationships. Refer to ‘Continuous learning and curiosity’ for more tips on how to ask for help and how to be vulnerable.





In small communities, it’s often necessary to have both a personal and a professional relationship with people. Managing this can be challenging.


Not all relationships we have with people are the same, and so they have different dynamics and behaviours. Think of all the different types of relationships you have with people in your life and think about the different ‘hats’ you might wear as you shift your role in each relationship. Below are some examples. How many of these roles would be relevant with different relationships? 


Personal roles

  • Social relationships

  Close friend


  Adversarial acquaintance (!)

  • Culturally connected relationships
  • Spiritual fellowships
  • Family relationships (spouse, parent, child, sibling)
  • Extended family relationships and in-laws
  • Kinship / clan / tribe and hierarchies
  • Intimate/romantic relationship variations
  • Carer / Being cared for
  • Neighbour – member of a neighbourhood.
  •     Community member – member of a group defined by place

Professional roles

  •     Authority figure
  •     Mentor / mentee
  •     Employer / Employee
  •     Colleague
  •     Competitor
  •     Peer
  •     Formal partnership
  •     Service provider / service receiver


(List adapted from


When thinking about key relationships in your work, how many of these roles overlapped for you? Are you working with the same people in different contexts sometimes? How do you manage the shift between the personal and the professional?


Participants offer their methods for setting boundaries in the video below including:

  •     Wearing different hats
  •     Having conversations to acknowledge the boundaries of the relationship
  •     Protecting your time
  •     Establishing rules around confidential information
  •     Saying no to inappropriate conversations and inappropriate times



What hinders?



Losing motivation after conflict


Relationships can be hard work sometimes. How do you stay at the table when relationships are challenged or things become tense? It helps to keep your higher purpose and goal in mind to stay focused. If you run into conflict with someone and it seems like a bridge has been burned, take a step back and revisit the big picture. If it helps you gain perspective, look back at your Theory of Change or strategic plan and remember the overall outcomes you are striving to reach. Have a chat to a trusted friend or colleague. Check out Self awarenessand Communicating effectivelymodules for approaches you might take to mend the damaged relationship.


If you need to dig deep to maintain your resilience, check out the Maintaining energy and passionmodule – and try not to take the conflict personally.