Did we Make a Difference?

“A really unique environment, which offers support and respect, in a variety of volunteer roles. An opportunity to get involved with the community and to forge new relationships…”

Between May 2012 and April 2015 we/Oblong ran a Big Lottery Reaching Communities funded project ‘Make a Difference. The project aimed to improve disadvantaged people’s chances in life, help them be active and healthy, improve urban environments, and strengthen communities. To do this, Oblong ran a volunteering scheme, supported volunteer-led projects, created community gardens, and provided community development training courses.

During the project we worked with over 170 volunteers. When our volunteers were asked what difference the project has made to them many talked about improved confidence and skills, “It has made me a stronger person; it has improved my communication skills; I have made more friends.” “It’s given me added confidence because I’ve been able to practice my skills”. Many volunteers gained specific job related skills that enabled them to move on training, education and employment. An unexpected result mentioned by many volunteers with English as a second language was the importance of being able to practice their English, especially on the phone, through doing reception work. Being able to put these various skills and experience on their CV and being able to talk confidently about their experiences in job interviews made a big difference to many volunteers.

Stella Darby in her evaluation of the project stated, “Oblong’s success at achieving the Make a Difference project’s intended outcomes derives not just from the activities provided but also the way these are facilitated and related — the openness and flexibility of the programme means that barriers to involvement are low, at the same time as the collective ethos and structure of the organisation fosters engagement and belonging. This combination draws volunteers into connection with each other and their community, creating an experience which is flexible and self-directed enough to feel safe yet challenging and engaging enough to be meaningful.”

The Evaluation report highlights several areas of how we work that are really helpful these include:

  • flexibility — of staff and the volunteering programme itself, e.g. the chance to “do things I enjoy”, “experiment and try things out”, and “be allowed room for error”;
  • an empowering work environment which “forces self-evaluation”, involves volunteers in strategic decisions and ensures volunteers see the results of their work — “This does make it feel very worthwhile”; and
  • a sense of inclusion, belonging and teamwork.

Was the project a success? The evaluation report identified 10 areas which it identified as successes.

1. The project engenders combined benefits on multiple levels.

Volunteers may come to Oblong with one particular goal, but for most, their experience benefits them in more ways than one, and these are worth more than the sum of their parts.

2. The opportunities available maximize benefit to the community and reward to the volunteer.

Working as a volunteer on projects which benefit others in the community constitutes meaningful work which is rewarding, motivational and confidence-building for volunteers.

3. Oblong provides unique and invaluable opportunities for learning life skills and employment skills.

Teamwork within a collective and the opportunity for joint responsibility and decision-making which

contributes to visible change add considerable value to volunteers’ experiences, over and above the role-specific skills and experience they gain.

4. The project’s low barriers to involvement respond to a significant need in the target group of people.

Oblong allows people to get involved by simply coming in for a chat; afterwards they are supported through the relevant paperwork and inducted in a personal, friendly manner. People from the hard-to-reach groups that the Make a Difference project was aimed at have repeatedly stated their appreciation of Oblong’s approachability, flexibility and welcoming atmosphere.

5. Oblong’s ethos, working environment and position as a community hub underpin project benefits.

These aspects of the organisation amplify the outcomes and impact of the Make a Difference project.

6. Volunteer involvement in decisions at all levels contributes to participants’ development.

Participation in decision-making increases feelings of empowerment and confidence in other areas as well, encouraging volunteers to further develop a range of different skills.

7. Staff’s approach is approachable, responsive and proactive.

Volunteers repeatedly state their appreciation of friendly staff.

8. Oblong’s values-based organisational approach provides the foundation of success.

The organisational focus on ensuring that actions taken reflect its core values of empowerment, equality, collectivism, sustainability, respect and care, and being community-led create a shared sense of purpose and vision which supports both staff and volunteers to develop confidence, motivation and commitment in their work.

9. Good relationships and a strong reputation with stakeholder organisations support the project.

Oblong’s position within the wider community helps it maximise opportunities for both the organisation and individual volunteers.

10. As an organisation, Oblong is holistically oriented towards helping volunteers reach their goals.

Oblong demonstrates a focus on people and their development throughout the organisation’s strategy, values, and day-to-day practices and procedures.

We’re really proud of the work we’ve done on this project. So much so that we’ve taken what we’ve learned and reapplied to the Lottery for more funding to develop our volunteer scheme. Hopefully we’ll hear from the Lottery on the success of our application before the end of the summer.

Our new project (Learn, Engage, Do) will take our learning and focus on three areas.

Increase the range of training provided

Volunteers will have a more intensive induction, learning not only about Oblong and it’s activities but also how the building works. They will then attend at least one of four training sessions — supporting other people learning (which could be as a tutor or a peer mentor), running a volunteer led project, a mental well being course or role specific training like becoming a receptionist.

Provide increased volunteer support by facilitating peer support mechanisms.

We are looking to develop a peer mentoring scheme so that volunteers can help support and develop each other in their roles.

Provide improved structure and clarity as volunteers progress through induction, volunteer roles, training, participation in collectives, project development, and moving on from Oblong.

The increased structure of our volunteer offer is aimed at providing a clear progression through the organisation, equipping volunteers with the skills, confidence and experience to enable them to move on to further training, education and employment.

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