interests.me

A member of the Surrey Faith Links, Local Community Tech, Guildford, Surrey and Woking communities

About interests.me

interests.me helps local communities build online networks that bring community groups and businesses together. We also provide a free email newsletter tool specially designed for community groups.

Sign up here to hear about our company's progress, or to get hints and tips for using interests.me for your local group.

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Latest posts

Empowered Communities - what's your view?

How can communities become more empowered and vibrant in the next ten years? That’s the question driving ‘Empowered Communities in the 2020s’, a research and public engagement project led by Local Trust.

Along with their research partner, IVAR, Local Trust wants to gather a wide range of views about the future of communities – including yours!

Individuals, organisations, public services and community groups can all take part via the project website localtrust.org.uk/Empowered2020s or join the conversation on Twitter using #Empowered2020s.

And of course, if you love interests.me, please do mention us when you give your views!

Building the spec for your Community Information Platform

So you’re interested in exploring whether a Community Information Platform could meet your needs at your local authority? If so, this post aims to help you consider what your spec needs to be, and what a Community Information Platform might do for you.

Every local authority’s needs will be different, but there’s a lot of common ground across the sector. Some of your needs might be met by interests.me’s solution,and some may not be. We aim to work only with local authorities whose needs align with our offering, so if that isn’t you, we’ll happily point you in a different direction.

Here are 16 questions you should be asking to build the spec for your community information platform:

WHAT KIND OF INFORMATION DO YOU WANT, AND WHERE WILL IT COME FROM?

1. Do you want a directory or more dynamic content?

Do you need a directory where local people can look up organisations and contact details, or do you need more dynamic content? Directories can be useful, but they can be very difficult to maintain with up-to-date information, if you are relying on organisations telling you when things change. They are also incredibly static in terms of their content. They do not lend themselves to you contacting your residents regularly and adding value to their lives. Dynamic content ensures that your residents are fully informed about the latest, greatest opportunities to get involved locally, and it ensures you always have something new to say, every week.

2. Is the information you want to share only about public services, or is it community-sourced?

Some community information platforms focus on public services, for instance providing a searchable directory of public services. These platforms tend to meet local authorities' needs but rarely meet residents' needs, and again don't lend themselves to you contacting residents regularly. Information platforms which feature events from the community (not just services from the council) are likely to be much more engaging. Information platforms which feature local culture, sport, and activities that go beyond what the council has to offer are likely to be much more engaging.

3. Do you want information collected from existing third party sources?

Collecting information from existing third party sources (eg Meetup.com, Eventbrite, Facebook groups, etc) is hugely beneficial as it ensures you are not asking local organisations to input data into multiple systems, and hence helps ensure that your information is as comprehensive as possible.

Local community groups simply don't have the time or energy to input their data in multiple places.

You may also want your to enable you to add new sources of information via RSS or XML feeds, eg from local websites which already contain a rich source of community information - eg the local theatre or cinema).

4. Do you want local organisations to input their own information?

This is probably essential unless you want to input a lot of data yourselves or rely only on third party sources. The tool or interface which your local organisations will use to add their own information needs to be extremely simple to use, ideally built with volunteers and the over-65s in mind.

Ideally, you might like to give local groups enhanced functionality so that they can ALSO use the platform to manage ALL their communications. For instance, you could encourage them to post more information by giving them free access to a useful email newsletter tool which is integrated with your information platform. Perhaps you'd also like to support them with training to do so, so they can communicate easily with their own members.

You might also like your solution to have built-in reminders to local organisations to add information. (For instance, we send weekly automated reminder emails ahead of sending out the weekly community email).

HOW WILL INFORMATION BE MANAGED?

5. How much control do you want over the information on your platform?

Do you have the appetite to edit and curate it on a daily basis, or not? If not, you need to ensure that there is an approval system for organisations using the platform, and that editing and curation are very light-touch and straightforward. For instance it needs to be easy to disconnect an organisation from your community if they are posting inappropriate content.

6. Do you need bespoke categorisation?

In order to ensure your information is as user-friendly as possible, it needs to be categorised on entry to your platform. What categories do you need - perhaps you need these to be bespoke to your community?

WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH THE INFORMATION?

7. Do you only need to broadcast information or do you also need discussion?

Do you need your information platform to spread information as far and wide as possible, or are you really looking for a discussion solution - for instance a local discussion forum? These two objectives can be in conflict. If you want discussion, such as that provided on local Facebook groups or local social networks such as Nextdoor, it's likely that the effectiveness of your broadcast messages will be diluted as the content will be hidden amongst local discussion. You'll also be competing against these existing platforms where residents are already talking. We think it's better to post and disseminate your information across these platforms (particularly Facebook) but not to try to replicate what Facebook does. We believe quality of information is more important than the quantity of discussion. Discussion can make it difficult for relevant information to be found.

8. Do you need automated social media distribution?

Do you want your community information platform to make it possible (even automated) to post content onto a designated Facebook page or Twitter account? If not, you will need to ensure your social media manager is on the case on a daily basis to make best use of your community information by selecting and posting information manually.

9. Do you want weekly automated community emails?

Email is so important as a communication method. Yet if you don't automate your email newsletters, this can take a huge amount of time. interests.me will help you send automated, perfectly formatted community email newsletters out to your residents, taking no more than 10 minutes per week. This needs to be an automated feature (with relevant editing privileges) in order to ensure that it takes as little time as possible to administer.

10. How important is search engine optimisation?

Do you want each item of community information to have its own well-designed web page which enables it to be independently findable on search engines?

11. How important is a place-focused website?

Do you want your community information to be aggregated together on community websites? Do you want as many community websites as you have suburbs or villages, so that residents can see the information that's the most relevant to them?

12. Do you want an online community calendar function?

interests.me offers this as standard. All community information which is event-related automatically goes into the community calendar.

13. Do you want to move towards a print version of your community information?

At interests.me we are moving in this direction as we see it as a highly complementary communications method.

14. Do you want to publish community information on your own council website?

If so, you need to ensure that a suitable feed is available and that there is a plug-in which allows you to do this, or that your own developers can work with the feed.

FINANCIAL SUSTAINABILITY

15. Do you want your community information platform to be financially sustainable?

Do you need or want your community information platform to be self-funding, rather than to be a money pit? If so, ensure that the running costs are low by choosing a solution which takes advantages of economies of scale with other local authorities. In addition, choose a solution which you can monetise. If a service has a highly engaged local audience you will be able to share in advertising revenue from local businesses. This will usually be difficult if you're only talking about council services.

16. Do you need to build from scratch or can you use a pre-built solution?

Building from scratch obviously has its advantages – you can (in theory) get whatever you want. But bear in mind that, not only is this likely to be expensive to build, it is also likely to be expensive to maintain and continue to develop. No solution stands still – you need continuous development. Pre-built solutions allow you to share the cost with other similar local authorities and to contribute towards the further development of the platform. It will almost certainly be cheaper, but it will involve losing some control.

We hope that these questions are helpful when you draw up your own wishlist for features and functionality for your community information platform. Looking for something else that goes beyond? If so, please get in touch with Helen at helen@interests.me to talk about what your requirements are.

Podcast interview with Surrey Residents' Network

The very enthusiastic Paul Deach of Surrey Residents Network interviewed Helen for his podcast here.

As you'll hear, Helen talked about the 'Generational Communication Breakdown', and why email is the best way of communicating for small community groups. Why it's essential to communicate digitally, to keep the group's membership informed and refresh the membership. And how interests.me works, with some examples of how it's being used today by groups in Surrey.

Paul Deach of Surrey Residents Network is such an enthusiastic supporter of ours, we feel very lucky to have had such a knowledgeable interviewer!

Good Neighbour Schemes - could they work better together?

I've been thinking a lot about Good Neighbour schemes lately. It seems to me that there's a big opportunity to make these small voluntary schemes work better, with a bit of shared technology and a large dose of local collaboration.

Good Neighbour schemes are the heroic all-year-round schemes that routinely help the less mobile members of our communities to get to hospital appointments, pick up prescriptions, and provide other useful neighbourly services. Some offer basic handyman services, some offer shopping, and others extend into befriending.

What qualifies me to talk about this?

Er, not much. I haven't run a Good Neighbour scheme of the sort I'm talking about.

I did start a pop-up version of a Good Neighbour scheme back in 2013 called Horsell Snow Angels and I still run it, but it operates only in winter, and does not have 'regular' clients. It does have 120 volunteers on its books (in name only, as there's hardly any call on their time!), and a 'committee' of 6 who are available to man the phones if needed. I've learnt a lot from getting it up and running and working out the technology and processes to make sure it's efficient.

I'm not qualified but I am concerned.

Some local Good Neighbour schemes are too small to support manning a phone line 5 days a week. Through the Surrey Group Leaders Network I was recently told about a local scheme that only has 6 volunteers, 2 of whom are leaving the area later this year. The organisation is on the verge of a crisis and urgently needs more volunteers. But it still needs to man the phones 5 days a week.

Last week I also heard about a scheme in another local village. Their scheme has 44 volunteers, but only about 8 volunteers are ever active.

Their common problem is usually expressed thus: "Our volunteers are pretty much all aged 60-75 as they're the only people who have time during the day to commit to volunteering. At some point they become unable to volunteer and some even need our help. New volunteers aren't easy to find".

Across the whole of Woking (a borough of 100,000 residents), I've counted 13 very similar Neighbourhood Care schemes - Horsell Care, Goldsworth Care, Byfleet Care, Pyrford & Wisley Helping Others, South Woking Help at Hand, Knaphill Care, New Haw & Woodham Good Neighbours, Brookwood Assisting Neighbours, Woking SECAM Care, Neighbourly Help around Mayford, Sheerwater Helping Hands, South-west Woking Assisting Neighbours, St John's Care. Perhaps there are some I've missed.

Here's the crazy thing. Each scheme operates its own phone line which is manned during weekdays (although some schemes only open the phone line for 2 hours a day). The person who mans the phone usually has possession of the paper details of volunteers and clients, and can then call round volunteers to get the jobs done. Anecdotally, volunteers who man the phones are called infrequently, but need to stay by the phone in case calls come through.

If the average scheme opens the phone lines for 4 hours a day, that's 13 schemes in one town x 4 hours a day x 5 days a week = 260 hours per week spent on the task of monitoring the phone and deploying volunteers on these schemes in Woking alone.

Some of these schemes are too small to support the heavy overhead of phone monitoring, which is nonetheless vital to the scheme.

What's the solution?

In public services, 'shared services' was all the rage about 10 years ago. This was when large organisations such as local councils got together with others to have a shared call centre. On a very micro-scale, perhaps that's our Good Neighbour schemes need.

I'm not suggesting that the different Good Neighbour schemes would merge their organisations and lose their names. It's important that the schemes continue to feel local, and that they do volunteer recruitment and management, and advertising of the service, locally.

However they could get together to have a single phone number across Woking, and a simple phone diversion system so that phone calls are diverted to whoever is on duty at a given time.

Perhaps, to be safe, Woking might need as many as 3 volunteers on duty at any given time to man the phones for all its 13 Good Neighbour schemes, to cope with phone calls from across the whole town. Let's say the service runs from 9am-5pm on weekdays.

Result!

We've just saved 140 hours of volunteering per week, which are now freed up to do something else. That's 7,280 volunteering hours per year which could be spent on something else. (That's about the equivalent of 4 full-time staff!)

We've also made the service better in each local area, as the phone is now manned for twice as long each day.

With a single phone number across town, we've made it easier for residents to know what phone number to call.

We've also added to the resilience of each of the local groups, as our phone-answering volunteers don't need to be from any particular part of Woking, so those struggling areas without many volunteers have a weight off their shoulders.

Why isn't this happening already?

Maybe someone's already doing this? If they are, it definitely hasn't reached Woking and no-one I've talked to about this has heard of it. If you know of a technology-led solution addressing this problem, please point me in the right direction as I have no desire to reinvent the wheel!

Why might it not exist?

Data sharing is an issue. Phone-answering volunteers need access to volunteer lists, and probably client lists, of all the local participating schemes, in order to match a client with a volunteer. This means not only do records have to be digitised, but also protocols have to be established for the sharing of data across organisations or volunteers, and data security needs to be top priority.

Perhaps the smaller core of volunteers who man the phones might need to be more carefully trained and vetted, because they'd need to be working across a bigger set of data and the opportunity for errors might increase. I don't know.

Perhaps an obstacle might be the lack of digital confidence on the part of many volunteers who currently man the phones, or their unwillingness to change.

I suspect the biggest problem of all might be persuading individual local groups to be part of a shared scheme. It's a chicken-and-egg problem. If they see something working already or elsewhere, they might be willing to join it, but until it's proven, their attitude might be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". For most schemes, it ain't totally broke. But from the conversations I've had, it's only a matter of time before client demand exceeds supply of volunteers.

Is it possible?

My feeling is that all these obstacles to collaboration are not insurmountable.

At Horsell Snow Angels we have worked out how to patch together various out-of-the-box technology solutions. Admittedly we aren't operating across multiple organisations, and our CMS (contact management system) is nothing more than a shared spreadsheet. But there are plenty of cloud-based CMS providers that I'm sure might help us solve this problem, or of course we could build or customise something ourselves.

I am optimistic about the capacity of local Good Neighbour schemes to change the way they do things. Psychological barriers to using technology are coming down all the time, and there's a lot of support available to volunteering organisations to help them use digital technology (eg Social Media Surgeries, One Digital).

Is it worth it?

What do you think?

Even if there's a bit of investment (and work) required to get there, I'm convinced that the benefits would pay back quite quickly. This sort of 'shared services' approach would enable local voluntary groups to do 'more with less' and maximise the value which their own communities get from the community's volunteers. Volunteers should be supportive of this too. Spending their time more efficiently means that more good can be done, and more time can be spent face-to-face with clients helping them. Councils should also be supportive of the increased resilience and the single-point-of-contact.

Shall we try?

I've decided to see if I can gather together some key local people to start an informal working party to look at how we could make this happen in a place like Woking (but we could pilot it anywhere, so don't let location be a barrier to getting involved). We'll invest a bit of time to think through how we could use technology to get Good Neighbour schemes working together, to improve their efficiency and free up more volunteering hours.

If you'd like to join this informal working party (perhaps talking shop might be a better phrase, at least initially!), email me at helen@interests.me. I'd love to have anyone interested on board, whatever you've got to offer.

20 things I learnt at LocalGovCamp

Last Saturday I experienced my first 'unconference' - LocalGovCamp 2016 in Birmingham, where over 100 local government people (and hangers-on such as me) came together to discuss whatever was uppermost on their/our collective minds.

I wrote a list of what I learnt, and here's the list!

Before I start, I just want to say a massive THANK YOU to the organisers who volunteered to make this possible. I had a great time and it wouldn't have been possible without you.

1. An unconference is not a conference. It's a conference without an agenda, and built around discussions rather than presentations. The agenda is built by the participants on the day who "pitch" a session. Sessions are allocated rooms and the participants have to choose between multiple sessions happening at once (the difficult bit is choosing!). Each session is essentially a conversation, some larger than others.

2. An unconference works! I had discussions that I would never have had, and despite my own lack of expertise in most of the areas I discussed, I found I had a surprising amount to say. (This was aided by the friendliness, and lack of ego, that I found among the participants, that made me feel comfortable coming out with questions, and tentative views in areas where I lacked experience). I also made better connections with people than I ever have done at a normal conference.

3. Twitter + unconference = effective connection-building. For the very first time ever at an event, I spent time the night before researching who was going on Twitter. Virtually everyone at the event was on Twitter, not only on Twitter but active on Twitter. The @localgovcamp list of the Twitter accounts of who was attending was particularly useful. I had already been following some people for a while, but most were completely new to me. Following the 'Twitter trail' took me to some great blog posts and helped me work out what people knew and cared about before meeting them.

4. Maybe we could help community groups find spaces. Nick Maxwell pitched a session about creating / finding space for communities / community groups. There isn't perfect information about what's available. We talked about AirBnB or Lastminute.com models, but this is probably using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The Minimum Viable Product is just a community-sourced list of assets, hosted on a well-frequented hyperlocal blog or website. Perhaps interests.me in a future iteration might enable communities to create this list.

5. "Sometimes the network itself can solve the problem". Nick Booth (@podnosh) said this in our session about creating space for communities. I liked it so much that I wrote it down. I may be misinterpreting it, but what I think he meant was "Don't let's build a fancy tech solution to this problem that connects individuals to information - concentrate on building the local network and the network will already have the knowledge to solve the problem". Anyway, I liked it.

6. (Some) CVS organisations are in jeopardy. I heard 3 anecdotes about CVSs being shut down, contracts not being renewed or their future being in doubt. If CVSs don't survive, there's not always the infrastructure to fill the gaps left behind. Councils may be left without a way of efficiently connecting with the voluntary sector. More optimistically, it made me wonder how we at interests.me might help to fill that gap in the long-term.

7. VCSSCamp is going to be fantastic! VCSSCamp in a couple of weeks will be my second ever unconference. Can't wait! It's a similar event but for local infrastructure organisations (CVSs & volunteer centres etc) to talk about digital tools and technology. Hope to get some great insights, ideas and feedback on how we can continue to improve our interests.me community networks for CVSs.

8. CommsCamp needs to be on my list for next year. I'm gutted there are no more tickets for 2016. CommsCamp looks like it's going to be a similarly great event for local government comms people, and there's quite a bit of overlap between attendees.

9. Unmentoring looks like a timely idea. Unmentoring is a project recently launched by LocalGovDigital (the folks behind LocalGovCamp) looks like a fantastic idea, generating random one-to-one conversations (one per month) between people with something in common, just to find out about each other, share what's going on, and have a chat. I have signed up.

10. Local democracy and local elections need improving. Fortunately Joe Mitchell (@j0e_m) and Sym Roe (@symroe) of Democracy Club (@democlub) are the idealists changing local democracy one small step at a time. More power to them. Demsoc were also represented by Beth Wiltshire (@egwiltshire), one of their newest recruits. As one of the original founders of Demsoc, I feel a (completely unfounded) sense of pride to see them everywhere.

11. There's a huge amount going on around local government data. Lucy Knight (@jargonautical) blogs beautifully about making data make sense, and is also an artist (see her visual notes on LocalGovCamp), as well as being one of the friendliest new people I met.

12. The Natteron podcast is well worth a listen. If you're into all things digital and local government, that is.

13. Email is not dead for local government. GovDelivery sends billions of local government emails, and everyone seems to use it. They sponsored the event.

14. Local government love to reinvent the wheel. Read this excellent blog post Joshua Mouldey (@desire_line). I'm annoyed I didn't get to meet him after reading his blog post, but I know a good discussion was had on this topic.

15. Some local authorities are building innovative shareable digital products. Kirklees are building their own 'sharing economy' platform Comoodle. It will be funded until December 2017 and extended to other locations. Seems fitting that a sharing platform should be shareable with other councils and cities.

16. "Standards" gets the data folk going. There seems to be a big push among local government digital & data types to create / improve digital standards. I can see it's important but can't quite share their passion about it.

17. Local gov folk don't want to talk about why they hate the voluntary sector. Pauline Roche (@paulineroche) and Ted Ryan (@TedRyan22) held a session entitled 'Why we hate the voluntary sector', and hardly anyone came. Clearly we all don't hate the voluntary sector but it was interesting for our small group to talk about the voluntary sector's shortcomings and our frustrations working within it.

18. There are big questions about the value and pricing of public sector data. Jonathan Flowers (@jonathanflowers) led a session on 'dark value' of public services and has a fascinating blog very much on my wavelength featuring recent posts on the pricing of data and the 'dark value' question. As a former Head of Pricing I love discussion about pricing and value. I didn't meet Jonathan but will follow his thoughts closely.

19. The PSTA (Public Service Transformation Academy) has just been launched. It is a collaborative social enterprise aiming to be the leading provider of capacity building programmes in areas covering agile & lean approaches, data analytics, citizen-led design, social enterprise and social investment. Big ambitions!

20. Nothing beats meeting online friends face-to-face. It was wonderful to meet Lorna Prescott (@dosticen) who is just as great in person as she is online. And so delightful to join the dots and realise that Ben Cheetham (@_BforBen), one of LocalGovCamp's organisers, is partner to one of my fellow Scout leaders in my village.

What makes Surrey worry?

I recently met up with Surrey County Council's Liz Fowler who is in charge of community resilience for Surrey, and she told me some amazing facts about what Surrey is most worried about when it comes to community resilience, and why her objective to get communities planning for the worst is so important.

In Surrey, I had thought that the main worries for communities would be flooding, and severe weather (eg wind, or snow and ice). Flooding is at number 2, and severe weather's at number 4. Can you guess what's at number 3 and number 1?

According to Surrey's own analysis, the top ten community resilience risks (in reverse order) are:

10. Utilities failure - the loss of essential services can put vulnerable people in danger, and can cause increased demand on the emergency services, and even civil unrest in extreme cases. A lack of access to clean water is particularly scary.

9. Fuel shortages - this could cause travel disruption, financial impact on local businesses, and perhaps even disruption to food supplies and services.

8. Animal health emergencies - this covers a wide range of possibilities, but those of us who remember Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in 2000 will remember the disruption to the countryside, in terms of access, and health risks.

7. Transport accidents - serious accidents on major routes can cause delays in the emergency services reaching people.

6. Heathland fires - these are an environmental tragedy but can also lead to road and rail closures and disruption to access and even housing in neighbouring communities.

5. Industrial accidents - the impact of an industrial accident could be serious on the immediate local neighbourhood, in terms of pollution and contamination.

4. Severe weather - Very low temperatures, heavy snow and ice can cause travel disruption and risks to health especially of vulnerable people, and these can affect the ability of organisations to deliver essential services. Equally, high winds and heatwaves can have a health impact.

3. Terrorism - this covers a wide range of potential scenarios, but some would put public health and safety at serious risk, while others would disrupt services and travel.

2. Flooding - Surrey has seen serious flooding damage in recent years. It can lead to knock-on effects on utilities (access to clean water and electricity) and health impacts, with a need for mass evacuations and rehousing.

....So what's at number 1?....

1. The zombie apocalypse? Nearly.... Pandemic Flu. Perhaps surprisingly, this is Surrey's number one emergency risk. Pandemic flu would increase the demand on health services and social care, and lead to huge disruption of those services as it would create staff shortages by affecting the working population as well as the more vulnerable. Staff shortages could endanger the food supply.

How should communities prepare for the worst?

Resilience is all in the preparation. That's why Surrey's new programme is called "Surrey Prepared". A community can prepare in some of these ways:

  • Put a loose organizational structure in place, so that there are a few people who could be "in charge" of things like communication to a list of volunteers, and deployment of community resources, and make sure these people have access to the right lists and technology

  • Build a list of volunteers who might be called upon to help (ideally with their home addresses, phone numbers and email addresses), and community venues that might be used in a crisis, and who has 4x4 vehicles that might be used in an emergency

  • Put simple technology in place to ensure that volunteers can be contacted (eg by text message, if internet services are down)

  • Vet some local volunteers to give the community confidence that they can be used to deal with vulnerable people (for instance it's great to know who's DBS-checked in your community)

  • Train some local volunteers in such things as first aid, or flood safety

  • Buy some important shared resources such as high-visibility jackets, grit, and shovels (and know where these are stored)

  • Fix and prepare housing to better withstand flooding (eg with sandbags or modern equivalents), extreme heat or extreme cold (eg with insulation), or doing fire safety checks. A lot of these services are offered free to those who are most likely to require assistance.

  • Let residents know about plans and measures that are in place, and any specific contact numbers (eg emergency hotlines) to those who might need them, via all methods available (eg making presentations at local churches, using district nurses or carers to spread the word, leafleting, posters, fridge magnets, local radio etc).

  • Encourage all residents to sign up to email and text alerts about resilience.

  • Get vulnerable people onto priority lists. This doesn't necessarily mean creating your own list of vulnerable people (with all the data protection concerns this raises). Encourage vulnerable people to sign up to third party lists which offer extra help - eg the utility companies' Priority Lists (PSR Lists). This means they'll be first in line for help getting power switched back on.

  • Connect with neighbouring areas' resilience teams. Knowing who to contact in neighbouring areas can help you call for back-up, or offer your volunteers' help when needed to other areas.
A great way to start is to create a community resilience plan. This will provide a structure for you to identify your current community resources, skills and capacity, and any gaps.

We offer free tools for community groups which help you to build an email list of volunteers. Start an email newsletter at interests.me for your resilience group, and you can also connect up in a local network with other resilience groups doing the same thing.

What local voluntary infrastructure organisations fantasise about

I pitched and ran a session at the wonderful VCSSCamp yesterday. It was my second ever 'unconference' (read about my first here), and in case you don't know what an unconference is, it's a conference without an agenda, at least initially. The participants 'pitch' sessions and other participants hopefully come along. VCSSCamp is organised (or should that be unorganised) primarily for voluntary sector infrastructure organisations such as CVSs and Volunteer Centres, and all of the 40-50 who attended were interested in using digital technology to improve what they do.

I pitched a session for the final slot of the day with a pitch that went something like "Let's all have a chat about our fantasies - what tech solutions we would love to bring to life, if we had unlimited resources. For instance if we had a roomful of developers waiting to develop anything we wanted, what would we get them to develop?"

Here's what happened.

Our fantasies started small, but grew throughout the session as participants really got into it! We ended up not talking about the tech, but about the underlying problems we would love to solve and how the sector might be better. Which of course is the correct approach: Always start with the user needs rather than the tech solution!

Fantasy #1 - I wish the Do-It website was better!

What started as essentially a popular moan about current frustrations with the existing Do-It website (too fiddly) turned later into a more creative riff.

"Why can't websites like Do-It which try to get people interested in volunteering be much more interactive and engaging?", one of the participants asked. On the current Do-It website someone has to engage with their search function to find volunteering opportunities, and then it brings up lots and they just get overwhelmed, and leave it to another time.

What if you could chat with Do-It with a chatbot (using natural speech rather than typing) and what if it guided you to the best suggestions for you? Getting even more inventive, Pottermore, the Harry Potter website, was mentioned. It takes you through a fun "Sorting Hat" quiz to sort you into your Hogwarts House (and if you haven't tried it, I thoroughly recommend it - I'm in Ravenclaw!). Why couldn't something similar (and fun) sort you into your "volunteering type" and present tailored suggestions based on that? I love this idea, and it wouldn't be too difficult.

Fantasy #2 - All services could be mapped

What if location-based postcode searches could drive users' discovery of services? There are loads of local directories but most of them don't map in a visual way (although some do). What if this was achievable on a national basis?

A couple of us had heard about Ododow.org, a project encouraging charitable projects to literally "put themselves on the map", but we weren't sure exactly what that achieved beyond a nice map with a small amount of proprietary metadata.

Ideally, data standards are needed for the voluntary sector in order to collect consistent (and open) data about each organisation and allow multiple apps to be developed on top of the data to really add value. We thought that perhaps data could be crowdsourced nationally rather than sourced directly from the organisations, but that it was important that the resulting data needed to be open, rather than building up a database of proprietary data.

Fantasy #3 - Develop the Uber disruptive model for the voluntary sector

One of the participants asked, What would it mean to be really disruptive in this sector - like Uber or AirBnB for instance?.

What these companies have in common is that they're stripping away all the intermediate infrastructure that sits between individuals simply helping individuals. Uber allows a driver to provide a service to someone who wants to get somewhere, and AirBnB enables individuals to rent out their homes to other individuals. Both operate on a lean model, with hardly any infrastructure, just technology enabling a direct connection between individuals.

What if the voluntary sector was more like this? What if we got rid of a lot of the inefficient and expensive "organisations" that get in between individuals simply giving help and support to individuals? What if the infrastructure we provided was lean and facilitative, and simply connected people?

Wow - there's a lot to think about here.

Fantasy #4 - Design services for end users, not for us and our egos

This relates closely to the previous point. Too many voluntary sector organisations are designed around what works for the founders, the trustees, the organisers, rather than what works best for their end users.

I shared an example (which I've previously blogged about) of how there are 13 good neighbour schemes in Woking alone, all of which run a phone line which is manned to some extent every weekday. Quite apart from being incredibly inefficient, this is also bad for the service users. How do they know which number to ring to get help and support? There are 13 different numbers and they are not well advertised.

If we were designing this service from the end user's point of view, one would start with an easy-to-remember phone number which everyone knew about and which could be easily advertised.

I'm not accusing these Woking-based services of being ego-driven, but the idea of "little empires" driven by egos was certainly cited by participants as a reason why sub-scale organisations continue to exist, when it might make so much sense to merge with other organisations to provide a better service, if the end user came first.

Fantasy #5 - A VCS Forum where everyone can talk to each other and share learnings

Participants agreed that infrastructure organisations simply don't talk enough to each other and share their learnings. Why? Partly because of "the ego problem", or because of fear of being shown up to be lacking, or just "being precious". As a result there is variable quality in the services provided by organisations, and much time wasted "reinventing the wheel".

A forum for discussion and information sharing should be a quick technology win for the sector. Indeed the Slack channel being set up by VCSSCamp will provide one form of solution to this. The question is perhaps not a tech question, but a human question of whether the right people will use it!

Fantasy #6 - Everyone should avoid duplication!

Following on from previous points about not wanting to "reinvent the wheel", there were strong suggestions about how new projects should be forced to check whether something similar already exists (someone should build HasAnyoneDoneThisBefore.com), before they get funded. Particularly when public money is being used to fund a project, if something identical exists, the project should be forced to consider collaboration or explain why it is necessary or different. In fact, perhaps funders should have a duty to do their research and check this out.

There was some discussion about whether identical projects really should be allowed to exist. In my view sometimes this is OK since no two projects are ever completely identical (they'll always be in different places and run by different people), and therefore could get different results, but I could feel the frustration in the room at too many similar projects or ventures overlapping with each other when collaboration would be more likely to lead to success, and precious funding could be spent much more effectively.

Fantasy #7 - Improve the information flow between groups

Participants reported that there's often a serious lack of knowledge among the organisations they support about "what else is out there", even in the same neighbourhood. Often it is a revelation to discover that two similar organisations less than a mile away from each other have never heard of each other!

There's a tendency towards groups having a blinkered approach to just delivering a service, or doing what they do, without a wider awareness of what else is going on even in their own neighbourhood. This could be solved by more networking (something that doesn't happen enough between local groups), or perhaps facilitated by technology if it could improve the information flow.

This is something I'm personally passionate about - and I hope interests.me will help use email to improve the information flow between groups so that they share information across a community and can spot opportunities to work together, avoid clashing with each other and too much overlap, and help each other to promote themselves.

Could the local voluntary sector use email better?

At VCSSCamp (the recent unconference I attended), I led a session on email. Attendees were from Voluntary Sector infrastructure organisations from around the UK. Email is a topic I'm very interested in, because I am one of the founders of interests.me, an email newsletter network tool for the voluntary sector. It turned out that others wanted to talk about email too. We shared our experiences of using email, and how we might support our local voluntary organisations to use email better.

I shared this diagram, which visualises the UK adult population's use of digital communications.

It's based on amalgamating sources of information from Ofcom, eMarketer and other good sources. Roughly 25% of the UK adult population are difficult to reach as they aren't online or don't use email much. Yet the other 75% of the UK adult population checks an email account at least weekly.

Only two thirds of these people (50% of UK adults) regularly check any social media, and for half of these, they're only using Facebook. Only about a quarter of the population uses a wide range of social media on a weekly basis.

Email is often overlooked when we talk about digital

My point in showing the diagram is how important email still is. If we want to reach the greatest number of people who are online, we need to be using email! Yet when we talk about digital, so often we are focusing on social media.

We discussed whether voluntary organisations realised the importance of email, and whether CVSs are doing enough to help them with email.

Email is not only widely used, it's also powerful. Businesses often report that it's their most effective marketing method, for the time and money spent.

How do CVSs use email today?

Several CVSs reported that they sent out a weekly email newsletter, and one reported sending one fortnightly.

Sandwell reported that they had over 2,000 subscribers, comprising organisations, residents and council officers, and that sign-ups were rising. They use Tribulant instead of Mailchimp, because it posts content straight to their Wordpress website as well as emailing it.

Other CVSs used their CRM system to email (segmenting their audience according to interests), or used Mailchimp. One such CVS using their CRM reported problems with email addresses becoming blocked, so they now only send 20 emails at a time (!).

Several CVSs reported that groups or organisations they support will often request their news and events is shared in the CVS email newsletter. This suggests they see inclusion in an email as a valuable way of promoting what they're doing.

I reported that CVSs in Surrey using interests.me for emailing, find it useful to streamline the process of sharing groups' news. Groups submit it to interests.me and the CVS then just picks the items it wants to include in its newsletter.

What's a good open rate?

We discussed open rates, although no-one had data on open rates to hand. Maybe this is something that CVSs could share (in the spirit of improving!) in future? We have seen open rates for community groups on our platform of over 50%, which some found high. But the open rate depends on the quality of your list and your content's relevance. Small organisations using interests.me tend to score well on these because they are small and local.

What makes people open an email?

We discussed what makes a good subject line.

I suggested that it's good to think about the combination of 'from' address and subject line. The recipient sees both before he or she opens the email.

Using an individual's name in the 'from' address can be good if they are known, but a mistake if the organisation is better known than the person.

Organisations which use their organisation's name in the 'from' address free up the subject line so it can be more interesting.

It's important to mix it up a bit with the subject line, rather than using 'E-newsletter June 2016' (which is awful!). For instance a subject line like 3 new ways for Sandwell groups to get funding' is likely to maximise the open rate.

Hubspot have written some good material on writing email subject lines.



How to write a great email


Becky from Salford CVS recommended the Hemingway Editor app to help with writing style. It points out when sentences are too long, too complicated, or when there are too many adverbs. I've used it to write this blog post and I think it has helped, so thanks Becky!

What are our favourite email newsletters?

We talked about email newsletters which we subscribed to, which we thought were good. The following got a mention:



  • "Content-ment"


  • "Five Links on a Friday"


  • Convince and Convert (if you hang about on the website for long enough, a popup will come up inviting you to join their email list) - all about digital marketing, content marketing etc.
Unfortunately, in the case of the first two, I can't find them anywhere online, so if anyone recommended them, can they send a link? (or tell me on twitter @helencammack).

How can voluntary organisations use email better?

But enough about us! How could we support our local voluntary sector to make the most of email and use it better?

No-one ever asks us how they can communicate better was one comment. They ask us about funding, and maybe how to get volunteers, but never how to communicate better. Yet others felt that perhaps this was a missed opportunity, and voluntary organisations could get a lot out of using email better. It's also more accessible to the less digitally confident groups than social media.

I told how I had previously run training sessions at Woking Association of Voluntary Service, and how the one about how to use email was fully subscribed. We have another one coming up. This suggests there's some appetite among local groups for learning about email. I offered to share the training material I used for Woking with any CVSs who wanted to run a training workshop. If you'd like it, or if you'd like me to run a webinar for you, get in touch at helen@interests.me.

About interests.me

For those not familiar with interests.me it's an email newsletter network tool designed for small voluntary groups. As an email newsletter tool, it's easy to use and doesn't have all the features of more complex products.

Because it's a network, it also makes email into more of a promotional tool that helps groups to get the word out beyond their own mailing list.



Groups can make any stories created for their email newsletter public, and share them with other local groups (including the CVS). Other local groups can use their stories in their own email newsletters. Stories can be published on a community webpage bringing groups news, events and activities together in one place.

Uber for Volunteering

There are loads of apps and software platforms out there to help potential volunteers find opportunities, or to help voluntary organisations recruit volunteers.

But no-one (so far) seems to have seized the opportunity to create an "Uber for Volunteering" - an on-demand person-to-person (or person-to-group) local help marketplace that enables people to offer and receive local help, directly, casually, without commitment. Just like on Uber, volunteers could be rated by those who directly use them, and could earn verification and trust over time.

At every voluntary sector conference I've been to, people in the sector talk about this mythical "Uber for Volunteering" as if it's inevitably going to happen, yet no-one appears to be working on it. Maybe that's because it would be very disruptive to the sector. Ultimately it might dispense of the need for organisations (except for the app itself of course) to sit in between individuals volunteering and individuals needing help, so maybe that's why no-one in the sector seems to be pushing this.

Even the current Nesta ShareLab competition, which has attracted over 150 video applications, has not (as far as I can see) attracted any entries which are well on the way to creating an "Uber for Volunteering".

Even though I didn't find what I thought should exist, I thought I'd make a list of interesting platforms, apps and ideas in this space, to pick out some interesting approaches and ideas. Let me know of any others I've missed.

  • JoeVolunteer.com - American website, and the closest we've found to the "Uber for volunteering" model, but still connecting people with organisations rather than people directly with people. Still in development, it would seem, but they raised some money on Indiegogo in 2015.

  • Ami - Oxford-based aggregator of person-to-person volunteering opportunities from a few different voluntary organisations, but linking volunteers to the local organisations rather than individuals, and not allowing people to sign up directly requesting help.

  • Good Company - London-based befriending app, focused on getting relatives to put forward their elderly relatives for a befriending service, but also asking volunteers. Not very open or searchable, as you have to register your interest to volunteer before seeing any opportunities. Not an aggregator of other organisations' volunteering opportunities.

  • Do-It - The largest volunteering opportunities platform, featuring opportunities from multiple organisations. Mostly 'traditional' volunteering roles which require commitment, as opposed to casual or micro-volunteering. Certainly not an "Uber for Volunteering" the way it stands.

  • Vinspired - helps young people find volunteering opportunities locally, not just directly helping individuals - submitted a Nesta Sharelab application to develop their central digital hub for volunteering, still focused on young people, still connecting them with organisations, but adding functionality such as rating of volunteer experiences.

  • GoodHQ- Wide-ranging volunteering matching platform which aggregates data (including volunteering opportunities, but also other web-based content) and presents itself more as a social network for people who want to do good, and voluntary organisations. Currently only available in Scotland. They are bidding to "shake up" volunteering and get more people volunteering, by creating "smarter matches" based on skills needed and time available.

  • MadeOpen - an existing "social network for social good" based in Bristol, who have put in a Nesta application to build a community exchange and volunteer bank.

  • BeyondMe - Currently a network, targeted at professionals who want to do good, encouraging them to form teams for skilled volunteering or fundraising for projects. They submitted a Nesta Sharelab application to create a professional micro-volunteering platform.
Timebanking and similar concepts get some of the way towards an "Uber for Volunteering" but in my opinion their technology isn't up to the job, and they don't fulfil on the promise, as they are too focused on the time-based credit economy model.

  • Spice - a platform focused on encouraging the individual to volunteer in lots of small ways, in return for time credits. Funded quite extensively by Nesta in the past. Very very difficult to actually sign up online, and not really encouraging person-to-person volunteering.

  • Timebanking - a platform similar to Spice, giving volunteers opportunities to volunteer in return for timebank credits. An open source software project was funded by Nesta in the past, but their platform solution is not very strong or easy to engage with.

  • Streetbank - Neighbourhood sharing of things, skills, time, funded by Nesta.

  • Echo - Also known as Economy of Hours, another time bank network, focused on business exchange as well as volunteering, also funded by Nesta.
The following ventures are also worth a mention:

  • Local Help - Just an idea submitted to Nesta Sharelab by Ella Wiggans for the creation of a local market for low-level help in the community. Although this is just an idea I think it hits the nail on the head about the need and opportunity for on-demand local people-to-people matching in the voluntary sector.

  • Comoodle - The team from YooMee have been working on a sharing platform for local individuals and organisations, allowing them to share time and skills as well as things, currently only available in Kirklees (Huddersfield). They are bidding to expand this to enable direct organisational co-operation and sharing of volunteers and volunteers' skills.

  • Norwich City Council's team submitted a Nesta bid about a platform they'd like to build to help VCSE organisations to share resources/skills etc, which sounds like they should get together with Comoodle.

  • Woof Woof Walkies - an idea submitted to Nesta for a dog-walking based local casual volunteering platform matching those who want to walk their dog with those who'd just like to accompany them on the walk, to combat loneliness and isolation. Certainly not a full-blown "Uber for Volunteering" but using some of the principles.

  • Happy CT - A rather nice Nesta funding proposal for a Community Transport sharing economy solution to aggregate community transport need and capacity (perhaps it could serve to allow individuals to volunteer on the platform) and to act as a marketplace for community transport.

  • MyLocalHelper - On-demand platform for local help, focusing on flexible and emergency childcare, but also other local services (mostly paid, rather than volunteering). Focuses on verified helpers and rating of helpers (very much like Uber) but not so focused on volunteering.

  • Royal Voluntary Service - Worth a mention because they have a lot of befriending/volunteering opportunities available but they are all their own opportunities (they are not an aggregator of opportunities from other organisations) and they make it (relatively) straightforward to volunteer, albeit not to pick out individual people to help.
So, why is no-one developing the "Uber for Volunteering"? Are you developing it? What am I missing?

----

Postscript: To avoid confusion, at interests.me we are NOT building an "Uber for Volunteering", nor are we intending to. However as a software builder in the sector we are interested in whether anyone is, and we'd be interested in collaborating or helping.

We've also been contacted by some of the ventures mentioned above, so wish to clarify:

  • MadeOpen got in touch to say they are definitely working on this and that this is in their Nesta bid.

  • The Way Ahead Data theme group are interested in this, and I believe hoping to be an enabler through data - See their blog. You can sign up to hear more.
Ellie Hale from Cast also told me about the following initiatives:

  • Helpful Peeps - a Bristol-based social network where members can exchange items, time and skills with each other

  • Richard Barton is working on a beta app proof of concept to move towards open-source volunteering opportunities.
We at interests.me are building a super-useful online tool for community groups, and a linked open platform for community information. Information that our platform collates and distributes will include volunteering opportunities, usually sourced from third parties online, but this doesn't make us an "Uber for Volunteering". Get in touch at helen@interests.me or @helencammack to find out more.

#NotWestminster Workshop: Upskilling and Equipping Local Councillors

Helen from interests.me is running a Workshop at the #NotWestminster event, as follows:

Some local councillors can be good at meeting people but terrible at social media and other digital communications. I would very much like to give councillors the tools they need to improve communication with their constituents.

What would the ideal tool or toolkit look like for local councillors (who may not have advanced digital skills) to use to communicate with their community? What kind of tools can help councillors reach a diverse local audience, rather than just focusing on one specific channel? What features would these tools need and what options are already out there for local councillors? How can we give councillors the advice and skills they need to use these tools effectively and time-efficiently?

In this workshop we will:

  • Share ideas and good examples of what councillors could be doing to connect with citizens – including the use of email, social media, print media, discussion forums and public meetings.
  • Evaluate these ideas, looking at inclusiveness, audience size and ease of use.
  • Do some “Blue sky” thinking on what could perhaps exist. If we were building one tool for councillors to use, what would it look like?
  • When
    11 Feb 2017 at 12:00am
    Where
    Media Centre
    Huddersfield