I’m Marie – I support Birmingham Community Matters with blogging, social media and email marketing. If you’ve chatted with BCM via Twitter or Facebook or emailed us lately, the chances are you got me (hello).
When I saw the Media Trust had joined forces with Google to run a digital skills masterclass in Birmingham, I signed up straight away. I was keen to build on my knowledge, and see what information I could bring back to benefit the small community groups that BCM helps. As we all know, it is important to have a credible online presence when recruiting volunteers, promoting events or approaching funders, yet many groups (understandably) lack the time and resources to invest in digital activities.
It was an inspiring day, held canal-side at the Bond Company complex in Digbeth. Not only was the event free to attend, the organisers had allowed time for networking in the morning, at lunch, and during mentoring sessions in the afternoon. I was lucky to chat to representatives from Edward’s Trust, Emmaus UK and Wildgoose Rural Training, as well as putting faces to names of people I’d seen on Twitter. (Hi, Pauline Roche!)
Two masterclasses were led by Ian Thomas from Google Digital Garage, who focused on 1) writing for social media and 2) analytics. The content was logically delivered and useful, giving me new ideas about using data effectively, and refreshing my thinking around copywriting and branding.
Here are some resources and tools I gathered that might help you too:
Registered charities may qualify for grants towards Google ads. The Media Trust has created a guide to applying.
Branding and communications
3 Google My Business You can set up a free profile for your community group. This is especially useful if your organisation doesn’t yet have a website.
An app which helps you eliminate errors and redundant words when writing online.
A photo editing app which allows you to create consistency in colour tones, so that the pictures your organisation shares are recognisably yours.
A drag-and-drop design tool with a vast bank of images, fonts and photographs, allowing you to create good-looking flyers, banner images, social media posts and other graphics without needing to call on a designer.
An app that allows you to paste stylised text over your photos, creating shareable posts. I made this one to show what can be done by a non-designer in three minutes with the free version of Wordswag (you could do better!):
A keyword generator which allows you to research relevant niche keywords for your sector. This is useful when writing for the web because it helps you understand which words and terms have a stronger chance of being found in online searches. You get three enquiries a day with the free version; more when you sign up to the newsletter.
An email marketing tool offering design facilities, list management and email distribution. It’s free (you only pay when sending out larger volumes of email) and offers insightful analytics about who opens your newsletters and how they engage with your content.
A handy URL shortener for when you need to share an unwieldy web link neatly. Creating a shortened URL in Bitly has the added benefit of allowing you to track its use, including in spaces known by techies as ‘dark social’ such as direct messages (WhatsApp, SMS, and so on) which are otherwise hard to monitor.
A powerful tool that allows you to track your website traffic, giving deep analysis on how many people visit your website, how they found it, how long they stay, and what they look at, and more. Tracking this kind of data over time can help to inform and improve your online marketing efforts no end. It’s easy to set up: you simply place a piece of tracking code into your website.
For information on Google Analytics and privacy considerations, I think this Cookiebot article is useful.
FollowerWonk (“These tech companies are running out of names” said Google trainer Ian, earning much laughter) is a Twitter analysis tool, allowing you to get useful data about your followers – such as what times of day they tweet, and who are the biggest influencers.
Here are a couple of things I picked up while chatting to other delegates:
13 Brum Charity Hour
This Twitter hour is managed by BVSC (Birmingham Voluntary Service Council) and takes place on Thursdays from 12 to 1pm. Simply tweet about your organisation using the hashtag #BrumCharityHour and it’s likely to be retweeted for others to see. We’re going to try it – see you there?
The hosts of this website curate free tools and resources like those I’ve listed above. It’s a great place for picking up new ways to make your communications work more impactful.
15 Onlinequestionnaires SurveyMonkey and Google Forms were mentioned in our Introduction to Fundraising workshop with Get Grants recently. Both are useful for gathering people’s opinions and feedback which, in turn, can be used to create quantitative data in funding applications.
Birmingham Community Matters is a small charity and, as a team, we’re learning as we grow. One of several challenges we face is effectively communicating what we do.
When we commissioned a review of our pilot phase last year, one of the areas flagged up for improvement lay in helping people to understand our approach more easily. This was no surprise. We had long been grappling with the language we were using – particularly around our surgeries and the people who attend them.
Let us explain . . .
Surgery comes from the tradition of face-to-face consultation: seeing one’s GP or MP to raise an issue. We borrowed it from social media surgeries, upon which BCM’s approach is based. Maybe surgery sounds a little clinical, but we think it conveys the idea that people can drop in to get support, and that someone knowledgeable will be on hand to talk to them.
Where we feel we didn’t find the right words was in surgeons and patients, describing the people who attend our surgeries to give help and those who attend our surgeries to get help. Not only do the two words have medical connotations, they also imply an unequal relationship between the two groups of people. This conflicts with the idea that BCM nurtures peer-to-peer relationships; that everyone who attends a BCM surgery, in whatever capacity, will benefit.
We believe everyone has something to learn and everyone has something to teach.
Nevertheless we’ve always needed, for practical reasons, a way to distinguish between our more experienced volunteers who are offering their expertise, and people seeking support as they start out on their community journeys. So surgeons and patients stuck for a while, although – believe us – we have really wracked our brains for better alternatives. Suggestions included peers and helpeers; helpers and helpees; even wizards and muggles.
We still haven’t struck upon the perfect pair of words (your ideas will always be welcomed) so for now we’re talking about people who come along to give help and people who come along to get help. Not very catchy, perhaps, but it’s working.
We’d love to know: what are your thoughts around terminology in your community group? Have you, like BCM, been finding your way as you go, or did you set out formal guidelines from the outset? Are you bogged down in acronyms and jargon? Tell us your thoughts – join in at Twitter or on Facebook.
In September 2017 Birmingham Community Matters was awarded a grant from Birmingham City Council’s Local Innovation Fund.
Now closed for proposals, LIF was a city-wide initiative which aimed to devolve decision-making to neighbourhood level, encouraging groups and projects to do things “differently in neighbourhoods to make better places to live”.
LIF’s awarding officers were looking for projects which supported the city’s four main priorities: children, jobs and skills, housing and health. The initiative encouraged new approaches to investment, active citizenship, projects that contributed towards clean streets, and the improvement of local centres. We thought BCM could meet all of those aims by nurturing the skills, resilience and sustainability of community projects and groups through collaboration and peer-to-peer support.
LIF money was allocated by ward. In our application we put forward our ideas to hold Community Matters surgeries in Bournville, facilitated by a paid surgery manager, delivered by volunteers, and with specific support on fundraising from bid writing experts Get Grants. BCM was started by volunteers living in this area, and our registered address is Stirchley Baths, so it seemed the logical place to start.
BCM’s ideas around peer-to-peer collaboration and support were found to be innovative – and we were delighted to be awarded a LIF grant.
We set to work building partnerships with local community hubs that included Bournville Hub, Cotteridge Church, Stirchley Baths and Masefield Community Hub, where we could hold surgeries and homework sessions.
Thanks to a further grant from the National Lottery’s Awards for All we were able to run surgeries more widely across the city, creating opportunities for people from different areas to meet.
With just our LIF grant we were able to hold 12 surgeries (September 2017 to September 2018), supporting 44 unique attendees. The Awards for All money and some ‘mini surgeries’ we held at funding fairs took the number of surgeries (up to 17 November 2018) to 25 and the number of unique attendees to 67.
We are a learning organisation. One of our early realisations was that we would need a critical mass of people engaged in the surgeries prior to holding homework sessions, in order to make the latter an equal success.
In the future we may run initial engagement events in new-to-BCM areas of the city to determine who is interested in surgeries, and then run surgeries (and possibly homework sessions) in response. Indeed, an Introduction to Fundraising workshop we held with Get Grants in September 2018 was fully booked and hugely successful, so this kind of event would be valuable in engaging new people.
One of our proudest moments came from supporting an exciting project in its infancy. ROAM facilitates children’s access to ‘unsupervised’ and unstructured play in the natural environment. Through a BCM surgery we were able to introduce ROAM’s founders to Business in the Community who put them in touch with a lawyer to help with their disclaimer form. They also met Emma Woolf, BCM’s chair, who was able to facilitate a special partnership between ROAM and Cotteridge Park.
Naomi Fisher, ROAM co-founder, said in a tweet after attending a BCM event in October: “Walking into [a BCM] surgery was a watershed moment for our @Roam_kids project. Thank you and keep it up”.
We have learned so much from our engagement with local community groups, active citizens and volunteers, and from our collaborations with host venues. We have seen partnerships form and flourish – and we are just at the beginning.
Thank you to Birmingham City Council’s Neighbourhood Development and Support Unit which managed the LIF programme. Many thanks also to Awards for All, and to everyone who accessed our surgeries either as a surgeon or patient (or both). Together we have developed an innovative, informal approach to supporting community groups, that is easily replicable anywhere.
As we neared the end of BCM’s pilot phase we wanted to find out how well our approach is working. With funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, we commissioned the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC) at the University of Birmingham to review our work, asking:
What support is available for micro community organisations? How does it sit within a political and policy context?
What have been the benefits and value of BCM’s approach, and how effective is it?
What else is needed to achieve BCM’s aims and intended impact?
Power of Little event In October 2018 we held a workshop at Stirchley Baths to launch the report and gather ideas for BCM’s future.
Keen for insight from a broad range of people, we invited our trustees, volunteer surgeons and other representatives of community groups and funding organisations from around Birmingham.
It was a rainy afternoon, so we were delighted to welcome a full house of attendees to Stirchley for the ‘Power of Little’. People’s energy and enthusiasm were palpable, and many valuable conversations took place between sessions, which is exactly what BCM is about.
Our chair, Emma Woolf, thanked our funders and gave a brief introduction to the beginnings of BCM, our ethos, and our figures to date (42 surgeries held since January 2017, in 26 venues, with 133 patients supported by 65 surgeons: “Quite an achievement from a standing start!” said Emma).
BCM in a policy context Angus McCabe, Senior Research Fellow at TSRC, gave a presentation on BCM in a policy context. He included points about:
Government cuts and their uneven impact on the voluntary and community sector – with increasing income gaps between larger players and smaller organisations
The loss of infrastructure support for this sector
The change in focus from capacity building (organisations doing more) to building capabilities (organisations doing better)
Hyperlocalism: driving policy delivery down to local level and asking communities to find solutions to problems.
In small group discussions, our Power of Little delegates generally agreed that Angus’s presentation gave an accurate reflection of what is happening. We talked about the opportunities and threats created by the current political landscape, and how we could use these to refine BCM’s approach:
– For local groups to work on solving community problems
– For collaborations between local groups and bigger organisations
– To centralise information and resources to maximise their value
– For companies to use corporate social responsibility programmes to support the voluntary and community sector
– To rework the relationships between councils and communities.
– Increased stress on individuals
– Knowledge being lost due to cuts and individual burnout
– Communities being forced to squeeze more out of resources
– Groups and causes competing for funding
– Without support, groups are further disadvantaged by paperwork.
BCM could …
– Give ongoing support with funding applications
– Offer themed surgeries – eg: around funding or legal structure
– Facilitate further networking opportunities
– Use social media to help people make connections.
In brief, it shows that BCM is reaching its intended audience of small and emerging community groups, and individual active citizens, in the areas where we provide surgeries. It shows that we have achieved this, to date, on limited short-term funding.
It suggests that the informality of our approach at surgeries is valued, as is the absence of a pre-determined agenda in the support we give.
One recommendation for improvement lies in refining our terminology and helping people to better understand our model.
BCM: what next? We asked our Power of Little delegates to respond to the evaluation and share their ideas for developing BCM’s approach. This was wonderfully insightful. We will consider the ideas generated as we consolidate or grow BCM’s offering.
Thank you to everyone who attended our Introduction to Fundraising workshop at Stirchley Baths on Wednesday 19 September. We hope you found it useful and that it will inspire you onward with your plans.
“The surgery cleared up a lot of things in my mind around the structure of what I want to do. It’s been amazing” – Samina, Serenity Housing.
As you may know, Birmingham Community Matters helps people who want to start or develop small community and voluntary groups in Birmingham, operating for the benefit of people in our wonderful city.
We call it a peer-to-peer learning network, and most of what we do involves face-to-face support.
At our Community Matters Surgeries, held in various venues around Birmingham, volunteer ‘surgeons’ are on hand to answer questions from people who are interested in starting or developing a community group or project.
BCM surgeons are people with relevant experience and expertise, which they may have acquired through running community groups themselves, or in a professional capacity.
Our surgeries are free to attend, and informal. To say we sit around eating cake and drinking tea would belie the valuable conversations and exciting ideas we hear at each surgery. But a smiley greeting and refreshments are very much part of our welcoming ethos.
People – ‘patients’ – are welcome to drop in and talk about the kind of support they need. Perhaps it’s related to setting up a group, buying equipment, working with volunteers, or accessing grants and other funding. It doesn’t matter where they are in the process: mere acorns of ideas are as valued as the plans of fully formed organisations looking to branch out.
We will listen to patients’ initial queries and aim to match them with the surgeon who is best placed to help. Then patient and surgeon can work through questions and ideas together. There are no formal talks, agenda or presentations.
We’ll aim to keep in touch with patients afterwards, so we can follow up with further support, and hear the outcomes of their ventures. BCM patients may even be able to use their experience and knowledge to become future BCM surgeons – and help others on their way to success.