Running community events – massive learning curve

Many, many times this past week I’ve wished I’d never got involved in helping run community events, especially the one that took place on Wednesday.  Perhaps the fact that I was felled by a ferocious migraine on Friday was indicative of the stress it put me under.  

Now I’m asking what happened and didn’t happen that made it so difficult?  And, what have I/we learned for next time?  Yes, another event is scheduled and I am committed to going through with that one, now with bucketloads of apprehension and trepidation.  Depending on what happens I’ll  then decide whether I have the stamina and newly found skills to go any further with the organisation.

A bit of background.     Sometime in early January one of the ward councillors introduced me to a few people.  He said it would be a fun idea to do something to celebrate the community’s diversity and build a ‘local culture’.   We all five of us met and agreed this was workable and hatched the idea of running four events. One a month from March – June.

There is a community hub, a small physical building,  in the ward – with not much going on in it and mysterious opening hours, but when we approached the managers there, they were supportive of the proposal, and we have based the three events so far in that building.  The councillor then introduced us to an arts organisation in the borough who agreed to help us ‘capacity build’.

Community stuff has introduced me to a whole new world, and a new vocabulary.  I discover that ‘capacity building’  means ‘supporting and strengthening the skills and abilities of people and groups to develop their communities. The aim of community capacity building is participation and empowerment.’    We have a way to go but it’s early days.

This councillor is brilliantly enthusiastic, optimistic, and well connected.  He makes introduction after introduction and is tireless in his support.  He wields phrases like, ‘Money will be there,’  ‘We will find a web-designer/social media expert/graphic artist … from among our ranks’.   Unfortunately, ‘among our ranks’  is a total of four volunteer people (excluding the councillor) all of whom have significant other work/home commitments.

Pretty much the first thing the four of us asked ourselves was, ‘Who is going to pay for these events?’ The money may be there, but how do we access it?   Funding questions arose.   In order to get funding you have to be ‘real’ – an organisation with a name, a constitution, ‘officers’, and a bank account.  I took the lead on this one and, courtesy of The Resource Centre (a really useful place for community groups) I found we could be an unincorporated association and I wrote the constitution following the template example given. 

The next hurdle was getting a bank account.  This is not easy – first because some banks don’t accept unincorporated associations as customers, and second because the one who does was found, by some of the four, a little hard to stomach on grounds of being one of the biggest funders of the climate crisis.  Taking that on board and after a bit of research we found that it was the only option if we wanted to get going.

We knew nothing about writing and submitting funding applications – definitely something that needs capacity building.  Gamely, the arts organisation stepped in and showed us (me) how.   My first unaided application resulted in money!  I felt great.  The second one did too – even better.

With promised money in the bank account – we set off to organise the first event – not appreciating that promised money may not appear for months, and suppliers need to be paid immediately.   

Cracks in our collaboration started to show.  The four people, the capacity building organisation and the councillor all have somewhat competing views on how to go about things.  Thus, we tread on each other’s toes, we feel aggrieved, we take unilateral decisions, we duplicate work and effort,  we put noses out of joint, we make assumptions,  we miss meetings and we don’t read emails with significant information in.  Over the five months the list of rubs and irritations may have become an ulcerated sore requiring significant treatment.    

On the plus side (Ed:  there is a plus side?) we are all committed to getting the events off the ground and ensuring that the participants have a great time.   And they do.  The feedback is superb.  The most recent one included: ‘We all felt it was a really great event,’  and ‘The stall holders were very happy with the footfall, we managed to have loads of meaningful conversations.  We definitely achieved our purpose, we are truly happy and had a great time.’ And ‘I was there.  It felt like it was a huge success!!!’

 So,  we’ve three-times proved we can deliver a worth-while community event, each attracting around 200 participants, albeit with us collapsing into a limp heap after each one.   

The fourth event is going to be bigger – the councillor bigs it up – ‘we’ll get 5000 people’, ‘we’ll have a big stage’,  ‘we’ll invite all the schools to bring groups of children …. ‘  The four of us do our best to scale down his expectations.  We can’t handle anything big.   We are only partially successful.  BIG is good. But acknowledging our misgivings the councillor suggests hiring an experienced, professional events manager to project manage the whole BIG thing.   This meant rushing around searching for funding sources, putting in applications and making the embryonic event sound plausibly big and attractive enough to warrant funding both the event and the professional events manager.

Now we’re learning about event licences, permissions, requirements for a safeguarding policy, risk assessments, health and safety, accessibility, and the ever important toilet arrangements,  One portaloo (all we could afford) is not going to work for 5000 people. Our buoyant councillor assures us that all the local cafes (2) will be happy to let people use theirs.  Hmm.  Let’s hope he’s correct, but even so that’s a skimpy ratio of toilets to people. 

We also have to engage performers, craft activities, design marketing materials, do the marketing and so on.   But, thanks to the events project manager, we have a project plan, with interdependencies, with milestones, with critical paths.  Oh, my mind clicks back to my previous world,  it’s the waterfall method of project planning. Maybe it will work.   It’s worth a try –  our chaotic method of not project planning worked for the first three events but now it’s the BIG one we can’t rely on it. 

What would give it a good chance of working is if we got to the next stage of our team development.  I feel we are in the storming phase of Tuckman’s model of team development.  He talks of forming, storming, norming and performing,  As we have been experiencing,  ‘Behaviors during the Storming stage may be less polite than during the Forming stage, with frustration or disagreements about goals, expectations, roles and responsibilities being openly expressed.’   We’ve got to quickly get through this storming stage and into the norming and performing states in order to make the BIG event a BIG success – I wonder if we will.


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