OECD Local Development Forum: Practitioner of the Moment
Practitioner of the Moment
An interview with Jeanne McDonagh, CEO of The Open Doors Initiative
How has COVID-19 impacted your work and how have you responded?
We started as a standalone organisation on March 12 – the day Ireland was first locked down due to Covid. Ireland went from nearly full employment to 15% unemployment almost overnight. We work to create pathways to employment for marginalised people – and we knew they would suffer more in a downturn, so we redoubled our efforts.
We helped over 2,300 people last year and we were set up for success with companies that want to take our pledge (www.opendoorsinitiative.ie) and live it and have that ethos engrained. Once the initial shock passed, we moved online, created new training programmes and seminars, podcasts and toolkits, all aimed at helping our companies and participants through this time and encouraging them to persist with the work.
It paid off in that more companies came on board and have strived to help where they can.
We did find that some of our participants found the regular lockdowns very hard and it was difficult getting them to engage in work planning or that they might not have access to hardware to take part. We worked with some other organisations to source computers for those in Direct Provision, to ensure they had quality access to education, training and employment to overcome this.
Overall, we have grown the developed innovative ideas and programmes during this time. We have found it a source of inspiration and it has shaped our future plans in a very creative way.
What are the main lessons learnt from the Open Doors Initiative in terms of achieving local impact for the community?
We recognise everyone’s individuality – our participants are people coming from a wide range of backgrounds and abilities, with differing needs. We try to deal with everyone on a case by case basis and make our programmes work for them as opposed to shoe horning people into training or jobs that do not meet their skill sets.
We also see the potential in all that we work with. Just because someone comes from another country, a disadvantaged background or has a disability, it does not mean that they can only aspire to low paid work. We have people with Doctorates who we work with and we ensure that the companies see this potential and worth and place them accordingly. This also applies to giving people an education and getting them into courses to increase their skills and possibilities. We are very lucky in the organisations we work with, that they see this and work with us to achieve the best for everyone. We strive to create an equitable pathway for our participants into employment.
The importance of contacts with groups working with the people we also work with cannot be overstated. They have helped us start, grow and develop and it is a peculiarly Irish culture that benefits us in that everyone knows someone who can help. We learnt to be brave – reach out, ask for help and collaborate. If someone is doing something similar, join forces and increase impact – you have the same North Star so work towards that rather than dividing resources and people.
One of the best ways to ensure this happens is through mentoring. We have started a mentoring programme, which brings people from companies together with our participants to help both understand their differences and similarities and use these learnings to grow as people and as employees. I have first-hand experience of the benefits of mentoring both for myself and for a participant, who has flourished through our relationship. It is so impactful for both parties and opens your eyes and mind to the wider worlds. Make it your business to mentor someone. You will benefit in so many ways.
What would be your suggestions for someone wanting to start a similar programme somewhere else?
Published: January 2021