In this month's Field Notes, we hear from the volunteer team at Absolutely Cultured about the shift required to move from a structured and formal volunteering programme to one with a more flexible and community focused approach. The insights from the team on pivoting their model after their successful year as Hull UK City of Culture 2017 serve as an interesting lesson for other organisations in the sector, especially those organising mass city-wide volunteering engagement.
Absolutely Cultured are a grantee on the Connected Communities Innovation Fund, part of Nesta's Government Innovation people power work.
As fireworks lit the sky across Hull on 1 January 2017, there was a palpable excitement in the air; this was going to be one ‘Hull’ of a year and a huge part of that was going to be the two thousand strong volunteers supporting each event.
Fast forward 365 days and the volunteer programme was without doubt a huge success. The people who had proudly worn the bright blue uniform and dedicated their time and skills had become the jewel in the crown of Hull 2017.
This was no ordinary type of volunteering - it was highly structured, formal and hyper-organised. With 350,000 hours of volunteering happening across hundreds of organisations and thousands of events, volunteering couldn’t be anything other than structured.
When the decision was taken to continue the volunteer programme, we knew that something had to change; the resource heavy processes that had worked previously were not sustainable.
We began to wonder… Could volunteers be more self-led? How would this work? Would people want to change the way that they volunteered?
Avoiding an ‘off the cliff feeling,’ we sought funding that would allow us to test this idea. Nesta and DCMS Connected Communities Innovation Fund has afforded us this opportunity.
Across the two years of the fund, we are testing the following model:
Example – Bikes and Beans
Bean Street was identified as an area with low engagement in past cultural activities even though it's close to the city centre and is an area in Hull with high levels of on street drug use and environmental challenges such as litter and fly-tipping.
Volunteers spent many hours walking the streets, knocking on doors and talking to people and they soon learnt that there was an appetite to make positive changes to the way the area looked and the way it was used. The residents were ready to reclaim the space as theirs.
We commissioned Hull-based artist Lydia Caprani to work alongside the volunteers and residents to create a site specific artwork along the cycle and footpath that runs along the end of Bean street. There were many hours of time spent on transforming the cycle path from a grey and litter filled space to an inviting, bright beacon that celebrated the richness of the eclectic community that live in the area. Being visible in the area ensured that volunteers could continue to build relationships with the residents and those passing by. The work was influenced by the Victorian tiles in the area but packed a punch with colours picked by the community.
It’s not always plain sailing, the artwork was tagged, repainted and it was tagged again then repainted. The volunteers have kept on top of this by being reactive and removing the graffiti, this serves as a reminder that the area is cared for and there is a commitment from residents and volunteers to uphold this.
This project provided the residents with an opportunity to celebrate their area and to build connections with neighbours. But what happened next is the really exciting part. With the support of the volunteers and Groundwork Hull, the residents have formed Bean Street Super Heroes – a group of people passionate about continuing the development of the area.
The artwork, volunteer involvement and engagement from residents has had a positive impact on the area. Hull Council have noted a significant reduction in needles being dropped and fly tipping in the area. And the community and volunteers have joined forces to organise a bike themed playing out day - a chance to close the street to cars and have a street party.
The next exciting development of this work will be Chatty Hull. Chatty Hull is an exciting new, citywide initiative, led by us, which has one simple aim – to get the people of Hull talking. Listening to residents’ feedback during projects across the city this past year, volunteers from Absolutely Cultured recognised that there was a clear theme emerging – people wanted to get to know their neighbours.
In addition to that desire to get to know people better, it is well established that social interactions help to build stronger, well-connected communities, creating bonds that can transform neighbourhoods and, in some cases, lives by helping to combat loneliness, isolation and depression.
In response to this, our volunteer team at Absolutely Cultured, working with partner organisations including The Hull We Want, Back to Ours, Believe in Hull, Hull City Council and the Police and Crime Commissioner, are driving forward Chatty Hull. The invite is extended to everyone across the city to get involved. Chatty Hull will culminate in a number of events across the city on 28 September 2019 to bring the project to life, including 100 volunteers taking to 100 seats across the city ready to get chatting!