Learning from Cambridge Skillsfest – in more ways than one


The concept seems to work, and several environmental groups that had previously not heard of each other met for the first time. But the challenge of encouraging three quite distinctive communities in Cambridge to turn up in numbers to the same event remains.

Francesca Rust, President of Anglia Ruskin Students Union hosted the Cambridge Skillsfest at the university’s campus on East Road, co-organised with Anna McIvor or Transition Cambridge and Emily Dunning of the Cambridge Hub. In not much more than six weeks from the first coffee together (see the second half of this blogpost). That they were able to bring on board so many community groups and organisations to the event is testament to their hard work and talents. It’s certainly not something I could have done myself. So a ****big thank you**** from me to them and their teams of organisers – in particular Mollie and Liz.

We had about 40-50 of us there, splitting into a series of small but diverse workshops, culminating in a superb music/spoken work poetry workshop from Fay, Daisy and Laura. I went to the citizen journalism workshop by Ashley Whittaker of Shape Your Place, and followed it with my own one on social media for social action.

“What worked?”

The venue worked superbly as far as I am concerned. We also had nine society stalls as well as the eight workshops too – all of them interesting and colourful, with friendly and knowledgeable people on them. Several of the people there said that they found out about organisations with similar objectives that they had not heard of before – and more importantly made face-to-face contacts. Also, both the workshops I was at seemed to spark the imaginations of several people at them in terms of trying new things online. I always get a nice buzz when I see someone inspired by something they’ve been introduced to that helps them do whatever positive things they do, more effectively.

I also thought there were lots of really useful learning points for me to take away from the event in terms of future events. Having not organised events before I’ve got a much stronger understanding of just how much work is required to make something like this happen. In particular I learnt the importance of making use of people’s existing networks – especially with the diverse workshops. I felt that other than the lead-in time for the event and the targeting of publicity, I felt that we got most of the important things spot on – not least a friendly core organising group that worked brilliantly with each other.

“What didn’t work?”

I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed with the numbers. I would love to have seen significantly more people there. That wasn’t the fault of the organisers or those that helped publicise the event. But it got me thinking about longer planning and publicity timing, audience-specific advertising, the scheduling and sequencing of events and how to make use of existing networks.

“Why such haste to organise such an event?”

We wanted the afternoon to coincide with Student Volunteering Week and have it under the umbrella of all things green. Bringing student volunteering together with local groups and societies, making use of the existing publicity channels seemed to make sense. However, the time it took to confirm the workshops, stalls and the design of the publicity meant that we didn’t have enough time for the publicity – both on posters and on social media – to sink in. Also, on my part I don’t think I was as focussed as I could have been on where I targeted my publicity.

“In what sense?”

In a similar way to some of the posters I’ve been putting up in libraries and the like. I don’t know how much of an impact it’s having with other community groups and events. What I do know from advertising local council meetings is that it’s having an almost zero impact on additional attendance. Putting one or two posters up does not automatically mean they get read. For example at my school last week, we were showcasing to parents some ideas for new playground equipment which might need planning permission. I talked to them about going to council meetings and lobbying councillors. They responded that they did not know they were allowed to go to council meetings, let alone find out when and where they took place.

“Did the branding work?”

I thought we got the title right, and I thought we had a lovely poster that stood out from the crowd, was distinctive and bright. Feedback from social media indicated that non-residents were not clear as to whether they were allowed to come along because it was being hosted within a university. This chimes with a problem a number of students and residents have spoken to me about. Students have said they would love to have local residents joining them in a number of their campaigning societies. Residents on the other hand have said they assumed they were not allowed to go to student-union-branded events. The former is an issue I’ve been aware of for some time. The latter is something I’ve always assumed growing up, but this is the first time that I’ve heard it explicitly stated.

“What things would you do differently for next time?”

One very important thing for me is the relationships between the Cambridge Hub, Anglia Ruskin Students Union and Transition Cambridge have been made. Several people from both the Hub and Transition commented that they had never been inside Anglia Ruskin before, so for them to be pleasantly surprised at the quality of the venue was great to hear.

A longer lead-up time from confirming the event is going ahead (with a full program) to the date of the event itself

The Cambridge University term ends quite soon – meaning that to start organising an event from scratch and to have it take place in a week when people are not trying to meet end-of-term deadlines inevitably means you have your work cut out. Hence the pressure we were under with this event. I’d like to have another skillsfest in November 2014 – similar to the one in November 2013 (see here) but one that takes the best bits from both this and the previous one. I get the feeling that one of the real ‘crowd pullers’ was the baking – something that we were not able to arrange facilities for at Anglia Ruskin.

Given that Francesca was organising and delivering a student union election campaign across two towns (Cambridge and Chelmsford) for her successors, Emily was tied up with Student Volunteering Week and Anna has a day job as well as her Transition Cambridge work, the need for longer lead-in times becomes all the more stark for me. None of the three of them had any more time to give on top of what they already gave.

Doing more than posters and social media for publicity

With the above paragraph in mind, I perhaps should and could have taken more of the publicity burden than I did – despite the hole in my wallet from poster printing and laminating! Hence a new printer being on my list of things to get so I’m not spending lots in the library all the time. At the same time, posters were our only printed materials for publicity. Maybe some double-sided A5 flyers for cafes and community centres with a more clear description of the event would have been useful to those not familiar with the concept. A lesson for a community action summit – managing expectations.

Setting aside specific time for planning the marketing and outreach

This stems from the longer lead-in time too. This is where I’m a bit of a hypocrite for not following my own teaching in my workshop. I talked about audience segmentation with social media for social action, but when it came to my own event, I failed to do this. In particular, I should have identified audiences that were outside the networks of Francesca, Emily and Anna much earlier on.

There were also a couple of events on close by in the morning which, had I been quick enough to respond to would have linked up with to encourage people to walk around the corner to our one. That said, we checked various online calendars when picking a date to find one that did not clash with other events.

“So…was the event a failure?”

I don’t think it was – although it wasn’t the success I hoped it was going to be. (Although the phrase from my civil service days: ‘Fail early, learn & move on quickly’ is ringing in my ears!) At the same time, there were a number of similar learning points from the Future Cambridge event a week earlier (see here). For me, both the short lead-in times and not identifying wider interested communities earlier on were important things to learn from.

At the same time, I’ve become more aware of the gaps in all things community action in Cambridge – in particular the outlook of public institutions. For example, when looking at Cambridge City Council’s existing Community Development Strategy Refresh 2013-2016 (<– click on that link to a PDF document), you’ll see that while they have identified city-wide issues, their responses – perhaps understandably – have been restricted to what it can deliver directly rather than as an influencing and convening organisation within the city. It’s one of the reasons I’ve asked what a city-wide (ie geographical rather than administrative) community development strategy would look like – one where other organisations are invited to contribute towards not just its development, but its delivery: Can Cambridge produce one that is greater than the sum of the parts of the organisations and people that create it?

“Is this where the community action summit for the summer comes in?”

It is – and I’m hoping to have further conversations with Anglia Ruskin Student Union to see if they want to play a leading role as hosts again – not least because it matches their aims of getting more student volunteers in the local community.

That’s not to say the final output for all of this is a document that gathers dust on a shelf or electronic bugs on a hard drive. The journey is more important than the destination in this case. Cambridge as a city has an international brand with the administrative infrastructure of a market town. It’s all too easy for those that live and work in Cambridge to be brushed aside to make way for the wishes of Westminister, Whitehall, the City of London and international property/finance bubbles. Whatever the longer term future vision is for Cambridge & the surrounding areas, what is the role of the people that make up the city? How can we shape that vision, help identify and pinpoint specific problems/issues, and how can we be part of the solution rather than having something imposed on us top-down – whether by central government, Cambridge University or international finance?

And finally?

This also shows why the common linking and sequencing of events is important. For example the Skillsfest wasn’t linked to the Future Cambridge event. Furthermore, organisations and networks such as the Greater Cambridgeshire LEP seem to separate the economic issues from the community issues. Economies would be dead without people, and people living lives unwillingly separated from a supportive community doesn’t feel anything like fulfilling. Remember loneliness is now a public policy issue.

Next steps?

On my part, more in-depth analysis on the recent events I’ve been to and the meetings I’ve had with various groups and people over the past couple of weeks. Then to feed that into the next set of research – online & out and about, and then feed all of that into the plans for the community action summit. Oh. And book the venue asap!

Our skillsfest poster
Our skillsfest poster



2 thoughts on “Learning from Cambridge Skillsfest – in more ways than one

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