Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services AGM – a report back


A significant improvement from the previous year, where one local and one national speaker drove home the message about the growing importance of social and digital media in an era of tight funding

It was almost as if someone had read my blogpost from a year ago (see here) and had responded to the points I had made. I’m not going to pretend that this was actually what had happened today, but it felt like the established voluntary sector for Cambridge and the surrounding areas made a significant breakthrough today.

Credible voices

Whether I like it or not, my lack of institutional backing means that for many people in Cambridge that do not know me, I’m not a credible voice on anything – let alone social media or public policy. This explains some of the challenges I’ve faced over the past couple of years. I’ve not been in a position to set out challenges, ideas and potential solutions from an institutional platform. This is important when your communities do not function in the way those inside the various social media bubbles in their sector function. The challenge for people like me is how to compensate for this.

The national picture

The policy director of the umbrella body, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), Karl Wilding was the first speaker. He gave a hard-hitting presentation to delegates about the present situation, and how it was unlikely to get much better based on existing models and structures. The key quotation from him was that if the cuts to public services continued through to 2020, local government may not be able to deliver much more than what they are statutorily required to do – and some may even struggle with that. Furthermore, he said that donors are now beginning to behave like investors. The days of ‘fire and forget’ donations are limited. People want to see evidence of impact and change. What difference are voluntary and community groups, and charities making in local communities?

The second theme was that of communication – in particular using digital and social media. In no uncertain terms, Karl spoke of the challenges as well as the benefits of social media use. What was important for me was that it was him posing the challenge to people in the audience, rather than me. This made my engagement in the workshop sessions later on a much easier task, because people had been put in the mindset of the importance of social media.

The local picture – Cambridge Newspapers

Chris Elliott, the chief reporter of the Cambridge Evening News (I still call it that because I used to deliver it on my paper rounds in the early-mid 1990s) also gave a very powerful and practical masterclass on how to engage a local newspaper with ‘community news stories’ – the ones that balance out the inevitable bad news stories that dominate todays news items. Practical, specific, authoritative and something that all of the organisations in the room represented could adopt (and potentially make journalists’ lives much easier!) His key pieces of advice when submitting news pieces to local newspapers were:

  • Keep your submissions short, sharp and to the point. (Think short sentences, words with few syllables for as wide an audience to understand)
  • Quote people who were there – who said what?
  • When taking photographs, use high resolution cameras where possible and send them on an easily-readable picture file
  • In your emails, make sure it’s clear either in your email address or subject heading that you are a local group – Cambridge News receives 6,000 emails ***per day*** – how will yours stand out from the crowd?
  • Ideally start up a working relationship (but not too time intensive) with the journalist specialising in your area
  • If the items you are submitting never get printed or published online, phone up the journalist concerned to ask for feedback – what can you do to improve the chances of being printed?
  • Even if you think your group’s activities may not be interesting to you, they may be interesting to other people – especially if there is a community event or meeting coming up. (Think of the small boxes/columns that newspapers have to fill. What item could go into a two-three sentence item?)
  • Newspapers now use social media analytics to decide what profile to give stories. The more popular the story (ie the more clicks it gets), the higher up the website it will go/the increased likelihood it might end up on the front page in the print editions.

How do we increase impact?

There was a really tense atmosphere in our group to start off with – not least because of the challenges set out by Karl early on. (The workshop was prior to Chris’s talk). There was also a sense of ‘who’s that strange bloke with the dragon?’ too. An occupational hazard at any gathering Puffles and I attend, but it was only when I started contributing, and contributing solutions to the problems people were raising that more of the group started to warm towards the two of us.

There was a general feeling amongst our group that membership organisations needed to improve what they did online and on social media. The challenge with the established voluntary and community services sector in Cambridge and surrounding areas is that many of them do not have enough staff or volunteers skilled enough to use the internet or social media. A number of them have no online presence at all. When faced with a significant social change in a very short space of time, the future outlook can feel bewildering. How do you provide people with reassurance, let alone solutions to the challenges set out by Karl? This was where I was more in my comfort zone.

‘We don’t do social media, we do social solutions!’ 

No, I didn’t say that!

I spent the first five-ten minutes listening to what people had to say – mainly about what they are currently doing, what they would like to change about it and the barriers they faced. There was some discussion about digital video and digital audio – especially in a ‘Shape Your Place’ website context. This is where I mentioned what the National Citizen Service in East Anglia had achieved – citing this video below (but not having anything to play it on at the conference!)

As passionately as I could, I said that it was this sort of digital media that can communicate powerfully what an organisation does. Not least because it covers the actions of the service users but also contains comments from them and their experiences of using the service. While this is more about ‘communicating with impact’, if you want to inspire people, investing in short digital video clips is a way to go – even if it means commissioning some film makers to work with you. Cambridge is fortunate to have a thriving local film making community – see their Facebook group here.

Measuring impact – the numbers and the data

This is one of the difficult challenges for organisations that run on a casework-based model. In particular those that work perhaps with vulnerable individuals. At a recent talk, I stumbled across this Impact Assessment App. Basically it’s a tool that caseworkers can use when out and about to fill in the details of their service users as and when they have appointments. The way the data is collected means that it is far less bureaucratic and gives organisations some hard data on the difference they are making.

Training up your staff

I have a vested interest as a trainer. Yet what I was offering was not something I charge for. I spread the word about Cambridge Online and its free training sessions on basic computing skills as well as the Net-Squared social media surgeries that I’m a volunteer for. (See here). People also mentioned a couple of free resources – Karl in particular in his talk, though the resources he pointed people to were from the USA.

Learning the basics with digital videos

Some of you may know already, but I commissioned some under-employed (they were at the time – most are now fortunately in work) friends of mine to make some digital video training guides.

>>>>Click here for my digital video social media guides<<<<

I commissioned these because I wanted to see if a group of us could actually make them in the first place, as well as having some resources that I could use in training workshops for people to come back to in their own time.

These actually deal with one of the concerns from the group about one-off training sessions, and the need for continued support. This is one of the reasons why people come back to the social media surgeries with Net-squared. Sometimes it takes longer than one session to pick things up. That’s fine with us.

Finally, there is also the monthly gathering of people interested in public sector social media activities in Cambridgeshire – Teacambs, that I co-host with Liz Stephenson of Cambridgeshire County Council for which voluntary groups are welcome to come along too.

A community action summit – a cure for all your problems?

Not quite, but given the number and nature of the challenges that people were raising, the idea of a community action summit seemed to be an ideal event to allow people to share their problems (and allow us to get a feel for the collective challenges we face) as well as running workshops to help tackle those problems.

>>>>Click here for details of my proposed community action summit<<<<

Now, the ideas in the link above are nothing more than that: ideas. I’m pleased – well, delighted actually, that the proposals have had a broadly positive response. Yes, there are huge challenges in putting on such an event, which is why I’ve been brutally honest about my own shortcomings as well as the sort of people and resources we might need for such an event. Better to be honest and up front now than to lead people down a path to disappointment.

In a nutshell, we need willing people and organisations to work together to make such an event happen. We’ll need a variety of skills sets, and given the nature of Cambridge, someone within an institution/constituted organisation for the logistics, and a high profile holder of public office to be the ‘champion’ so as to persuade sceptical groups and organisations to get on board.

Next steps?

For me, obviously I’d love to see the community action summit going ahead.

>>>If interested in helping organise and/or run this, please email antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com<<<

I’d also like to see a series of spin-off projects emerging from it including but not limited to:

  • A Cambridge societies’ fair
  • A Cambridge hack day (eg to help improve Cambridgeshire.Net which some delegates said they are having trouble with)
  • A Community Development Strategy for Cambridge and the surrounding area – ensuring that the villages and towns are not excluded

For Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services, there are significant challenges that it faces too – of which social media is just one of them. These were set out in one of the later sessions, not least the impact of reduced grant funding from statutory organisations. I noted that around 10 members of the CCVS had closed and ceased operating. Will we see more groups and organisations fold?

Training, support and publicity are three of the core functions of the CCVS. Part of me wonders whether one of the workshops at a community action summit could include really fleshing out what the training and support needs for community groups are. What learning and information could the CCVS and other community groups both bring and take away from such a gathering?

Food for thought?

An example an agenda that  delegates at a previous gathering produced on the day of an event
An example an agenda delegates produced at a previous social media gathering. Can we do similar?

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