Setting up a community project: our experiences

As we have passed into our 3rd year running Heart & Parcel, we find ourselves looking back fondly at the work we have done, the women we have met and the hundreds of dumplings we have made (and eaten).

Over the years it has been really exciting to see that we have inspired so many others to create and set up their own ventures with cooking, dumplings or creative ESOL. In the past, we have had requests for how to embed English into cooking and how to set up a supperclub, which we have responded to by writing blogs and giving sample lesson plans here and here.

Recently however, we have had a large number of correspondences asking for advice on how to set up creative community projects like Heart & Parcel.

Seeing as we are not alone in wanting to reach out and connect with our communities around us to spend our time on something worthwhile, we have pulled together a post about our experience of setting up Heart & Parcel. Whilst we are by no means the experts in this, we hope those who are in the process of setting up, or have already done so will find the words below useful!

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Think about why you are doing it

While we really enjoy cooking and eating dumplings, there is a fine balance between doing a project purely for your own interests and one that benefits the wider community.

The community projects and provision that we have seen thriving around us are the ones who have dedicated their time, effort and lives to ensure that they are reaching their goals of their projects. We know community projects that have run for over 20 years, with little recognition, but for the sheer urgency to fill that gap of provision for their communities. For us, we were angry about a few issues (ESOL provision, the misuse of the word integration, the way migrant communities are viewed and treated in the UK, exclusive policies surrounding citizenship and immigration – how this then all directly impacts women from these communities) and wanted to explore this area in a little more depth, from an angle different to the others this topic has been viewed from. We have found the organisations around us that do it truly for the aims they set out in their mission statements are the ones that continue to serve their users effectively.

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Write out a plan – do a little bit of background research

The internet can be a wonderful place. Search for similar projects within the area of your idea. Go to the library, look up the key words you aim to have in your project. We read up about the current context of ESOL, of citizenship and migrant communities in the UK and specifically Manchester before we started. Getting inspired, we then wrote out an initial proposal that we sent off to managers in community centres and asked for their advice and experience in this area. This proposal also outlined our aims that we wanted from starting the project, which was a really important first step.

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Have experience – be knowledgeable within the area.

Jumping into a completely new area with little understanding of the context can do more harm than it can good. Our premise for Heart & Parcel is to celebrate women’s hidden skills and resources.  In setting up this project, we laid out our own existing skill sets we have accumulated between us over the past 10 years in community, social and ESOL work and tried to work out how we could combine them to create an effective project. There were still gaps in our understanding that we wanted to fill too, so not only tapping into your existing skills, but also existing projects and organisations has been a great boost to deepening our knowledge about the context surrounding Heart & Parcel.

Know your user group (continually…)

What do your users want? What would they benefit from? One mistake we made when we started was that we assumed certain perspectives of women ESOL learners. We thought we knew what ‘they’ would want. It was only through working closely with a wide demographic of women, viewing the complexities that we were able to delve past English language learning and realise further wants, needs and desires that wouldn’t normally be present in a classroom environment. It is an ongoing process that probably never ends for us. We tend to use our various projects as sites of research. That way, we can inform ourselves of how we can steer the sessions to best fit our needs and aims.

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Do test runs

Practically, we think that this is the most important one! We started off doing tests with a small group of women we already knew from our community work at the Welcome Centre in Cheetham Hill. This way we were able to ‘live’ the project out, to see how it worked in reality.

Reflect, Evaluate, Listen

Heart & Parcel wouldn’t be where it was today without regular reflection and critical evaluation from all of our stakeholders. Similar to the point above about using existing skills, we also looked at people who had made great headway with similar aims we wanted to achieve and asked them for advice. Make sure you really listen. Sometimes people have the answer that you needed all along!

Document, document, document

Following on from reflection: take records, make notes, write after every session, get feedback from everyone involved, take photos, draw pictures, anything that will help describe and relive the session at a later date should you need it. For example, after every session we religiously write about it on our social media platforms, using the space as a diary to act as a way of reflection. We speak with all the volunteers after every session to get their input from being in the session. We also document recipes from the women we meet and (soon to be formally documented in our cookbook!) After every project we carry out evaluation in the form of photos, interviews questionnaires and review our measurement, impact and outcomes. Take a look at some of our past reports.

Get support

We have used various funders and supporters to act like milestones, pushing us further a long each step of the way. Having someone to be accountable to, and to be there if you need support has been one of the key factors in our progression. If you have already done some test runs and collected some evaluation of your project, you are much more likely to be successful in funding bids. There are plenty of platforms out there to help you start up or run your business idea. GMCVO was a great support for us, as was the Lloyds SSE school and the mentoring was fantastic. Link up to organisations in your area and network!

Be willing to commit and muck in

It is so difficult explaining to people (and ourselves) what our job roles are. We are tutors, helpers, tea makers, supporters, advisors, waitresses, cooks, social media analysts, project leaders, researchers, business managers, supervisors, mentors, taxi drivers, babysitters, social workers – you name the job we have probably had some sort of experience doing it on Heart & Parcel. We know many other project workers like this too. Be prepared to take on all types of responsibilities when you first start out. However, it is definitely a good idea to ‘slimline’ your job roles as you progress to the projects or you can start to burn out a little.

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Be realistic – do not say yes all the time

It is unbelievably easy to start jumping ahead of yourself when you really care about something and you want to make as much of an impact as possible. We have seen quite a few projects around us expand fast, but not have the foundations in place to hold it altogether and burn out quite quickly. We also found ourselves in danger of this at points and had to be critical with certain aspects of our project. What worked, what didn’t. What strayed away from our original aims. We decided to bring on a team of advisors who we could run ideas past to keep in check with what we are doing. Ask a couple of people who share the same values and come from different backgrounds to help you keep your developments realistic and fitting in with your aims and values.

 

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