How we worked with seven regional tech for good communities to establish a learning network
This blog is a continuation of Bex Rae-Evans’ piece, How place based communities can support digital leads in charities. That blog was based on research looking at how local grassroots tech for good communities helped charities with their digital development. It found that these communities play a key role in supporting charity digital development. They offered practical skills, emotional support and connections to experts and mentors.
It also found that these volunteer-run communities, while good at responding to local needs, need to collaborate, measure impact and consider sustainability of things like income and volunteering levels, in order to succeed.
Following Bex’s research, CAST, together with Ab Brightman, a freelance digital consultant, brought together seven regional community leads for a six-month project to test out the research findings in their local networks.
At the start of the project, most of the group didn't know each other. Some had met once or twice. Some weren't aware that the communities they'd been building were part of a larger movement.
We had originally planned to bring everyone physically together for some group bonding days but lockdown happened and we had to make do with a digital version.
Lockdown also meant that the communities who were part of this project were no longer able to run in-person events. In many ways it was a strange time to be running a place-based communities project, just as the importance of place dissolved and our group memberships blurred across borders. But this also made it the perfect time to share new ideas, techniques and challenges with each other. We were all learning how to use Zoom breakout rooms at a rate of knots! Some groups were also experimenting with different ways to respond to the COVID-19 crisis response. For example, setting up digital volunteer matching initiatives in their community with local nonprofits struggling to adapt to remote working or to move services online.
Fuelled by adrenaline, dopamine and the slight hysteria that comes from working too long hours with too little sleep, we were able to support each other through those intense weeks.
Creating a self-managing learning network
One of the key findings of the research had been the importance of communities of practice. At the first group session we reviewed the research and decided to form a community of practice.
We created a shared vision statement:
We are a group of community leads, representing regional groups that provide free digital support to social sector organisations through practical skills support, awareness-raising about what's possible, and cross-sector connections that help enable better tech for good.
And shared purpose:
We are coming together to share and learn from each other.
We came up with three main areas from the research to explore and test further:
Impact & needs: Mapping our place, how groups are currently measuring impact, most significant change/ theory of change
Sustainability: Onboarding volunteers, funding/fundraising, volunteer matching best practice
The group split into three self organising working groups focusing on one area each. Each group met roughly every two weeks and everyone was in at least two of the working groups so they got to spend time with different community leads working on at least two themes. We came together on a monthly basis to check-in on progress.
Some of the organisers’ reflections from the process, one month in:
“It's fuzzy and all a work in progress but that's fine, and we work really well together.”
“I’m sense-making about how it all fits together, is there a follow-up we could do with the reps from other groups who aren't part of this project?”
“How can we build in enough time to digest and think about the next steps? How are we taking this discovering and sharing forwards in our own communities?”
“I feel overwhelmed by the amount going on - how do we feed this back to our groups and get them involved? What can I do to take this forwards? There are links starting to come out, but keeping up with the sub-groups has been challenging!”
We all felt a tension between wanting to validate our assumptions around the focus areas we’d selected and test them out, with also wanting to engage more people in this process - namely our co-organisers and organisers of other similar communities.
Research and testing
Over the course of a couple of months, the group produced:
You can see our Miro project space here and the full playback of hypotheses and experiments here.
What we learned
What we set out to achieve collectively was very ambitious. We were running a number of design processes in parallel, while also figuring out how best to work together and how/when to engage more people in the learning process.
Added to that was the background context of COVID-19. There were moments when some of the group simply ran out of steam! As a result many of the experiments didn't quite reach the point of testing.
“The flip side of the flexibility was the requirement for self-direction of the group - given the craziness of all our day jobs that was hard to keep momentum going.”
More than anything though, the project helped establish a group of dedicated volunteers who understood, liked and respected each other. As a result, many of us have continued the experiments - for instance, by running some events together since the project ended.
“Might be the MOST important - this project made me feel that our opinion, and work is VALUED. Because you got us involved.... and paid for our time :D”
Here’s a snapshot of the more detailed learnings from our Miro board:
The relationships formed on this project are laying the foundations for a bigger, more far-reaching follow up: the Tech for Good UK Network. For this iteration, we have invited more organisers from across the UK to join us as we collaboratively work towards ‘launching’ a new, formalised national hub for community organisers across tech for good.
It happily coincides with changes to NetSquared, a global network of grassroots volunteer charity digital meetups sponsored by Techsoup. Many of our communities are NetSquared members, which in practice means that Techsoup kindly covers core costs like our Meetup.com subscriptions, and has organised occasional get-togethers for UK organisers, and a Slack space that isn’t very extensively used. Techsoup is now shifting to a more centralised structure for community groups, which surfaces the need for a more affiliated approach at a national UK level. It’s an opportunity for us to collectively design what that looks like.
If you’re a tech for good community organiser, or interested in becoming one, please join our Slack to get involved.
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