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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Handing over the reins

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.

Group of volunteers in the shape of the word Hull

Hull was UK City of Culture 2017

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:

  1. Volunteers wear a highly recognisable uniform, agenda free and trusted by residents and form a team to go into an area of the city that may have not engaged with the City of Culture, or is recognised by service providers such as the council or the police as having specific challenges.
  2. Volunteers penetrate deep into the community, form connections and learn about the challenges and opportunities in that area. They build these connections by engaging with the residents through door-to-door conversations and hyper local events.
  3. Staff work alongside the volunteers and the community to come up with solutions to problems and create something special in response. This may take the form of an event, a gardening scheme or even the creation of a piece of public art - all of that is decided in collaboration with the community.
  4. At project completion, the staff step away but where possible volunteers remain in the medium term to support the community. Building capacity and connections for volunteers and community members is an integral part of the project from the outset.

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.


A volunteer and community member paint the mural

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.

Key learnings so far

  • We expected it to be harder to get people interested and this has not been the case. Do not underestimate how much communities will want to engage and take control of their own area. Often they have not been asked that question ‘do you want to make a difference to where you live?’ Usually they are only asked ‘what’s wrong with where you live?’ .
  • MAGIC! This should be the key ingredient of any community project, why not take a step away from normality? To us this means doing things creatively and in unique ways. A beautiful Bedouin tent popped up overnight on a street in Hull and was transformed into a winter wonderland for a community breakfast. By having a beautiful location to host the event in, it made the community feel valued, special and they ‘couldn’t believe the volunteers had created this for us’. We have woven creativity into every project and we believe that this impacts an individual more, as it's invariably a step away from the day to day and can allow a resident to see their area through different eyes and witness its potential.
  • Hand in hand with magic should be quality – whatever you do should be of high quality – if you are having food why not spend a little more and make it feel like a little bit of luxury.
  • The 80-20 Rule. In the bookRules for Revolutionaries by Becky Bond and Zack Exley, they cite that 80 per cent of what you do has to be good or great, and then be okay with it if 20 per cent turns out to be not so good. Meaning that there may be times when the volunteers get it wrong, but it doesn’t matter! And really what we find is the rule is more 95 – 5 per cent. Volunteers do embrace the projects and fly with them.
  • Build relationships but not at the expense of your vision - it's important to work closely with other organisations/ stakeholders but keep a firm hold on your work and goals.

The lights attract a woman and child's attention at the community breakfast

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!

To find out more about our work go to Absolutely Cultured or follow Chatty Hull on social media on Twitter & Facebook

This blog is part of Nesta's Field Notes series, where we showcase insights and lessons from the field of social innovation from a different innovator each month, in their own words. To find more innovation Field Notes, click here.


Harriet Johnson, Volunteer Programme Manager

Harriet has worked in the third sector across a number of different organisations for over a decade and is passionate about empowering individuals to make a difference at a local level.

Katie Atkins, Community Projects Coordinator, Volunteering

Katie was a secondary school teacher for a decade before moving into the charity sector and is fascinated by how the physical regeneration of spaces can impact on problems with anti-s…