When’s the best time to fix the roof? In the summer, when the sun is shining, or in the winter, when it’s pouring with rain?
Now, you might argue that the winter is the best time – after all, if it’s raining, you can see where the problems are while in the summer, when there’s no indication of any problems, you just want to relax and enjoy the good times.
In some ways, this analogy is akin to the coronavirus epidemic. Before it hit, we were all getting on with our lives and not really thinking about storm clouds on the horizon. But then the virus emerged and life, as we knew it, changed for everyone, and suddenly we had to start fixing the roof.
My point here is that events can overtake any of us, unexpected and unbidden at any time. Some events will be relatively minor – no more than a slipped slate or roof tile – but others will be much more serious and have huge consequences – more akin to the whole roof coming off. Coronavirus definitely falls into the latter category.
So, how prepared were you for the calamity that has beset us? I’m talking here about how equipped your civic society was to manage its way through the situation. How agile and resilient is your society to keep going through the current emergency?
As some readers will know, I’ve been ‘involved’ in the civic society movement for over 30 years and I’ve seen a lot of changes over that time. Some societies have been on the front foot (and I’d like to count my own society among that number) while others have been much more hesitant and, indeed, resistant to change.
I became a member of Wakefield Civic Society in 1989 having already enjoyed some of their outings and events prior to taking out membership. In April 1990, I agreed to join the Society’s Executive Committee and then, in 2002, I became its president. When I first joined the committee, minutes and newsletters were printed using a typewriter and copied using an old-fashioned duplicator. They were then assembled, put in envelopes and hand delivered or posted to members, a time-consuming and costly process. Electric typewriters and eventually computers were introduced but ‘modern technology’ was still a minority sport.
When I became president, I decided to ‘modernise’ by getting everyone on the committee to use email. It took some effort to convince people that this was the future and some people never made it on-line; they either retired or passed away without ever using a computer. But we pushed forward, extending email distribution of our newsletters and other information to our wider membership. Over the years, we have moved from having just a handful of members on email to the position we are in today, where we have over 95% of our membership now receiving their news from us by email. On top of that, we have a website and make full use of social media – yes, we are on Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram.
These channels allow us to communicate not just with our members, but with a much wider audience – stakeholders, partners and the general public. We do, of course, still keep in touch with members who are not on email. This is usually by post (and sometimes telephone) but occurs less frequently than for those on email.
The coronavirus epidemic changed everything. We have had to cancel all our events for the time being which is a considerable blow and will affect our ability to fundraise and attract new members. However, we have not stopped working. We continue to talk to our members, mostly by email of course, but we are using social media too. Oh, and we have just opened a Zoom video conferencing account which has enabled the committee to see and speak to each other at our monthly committee meetings. Once you get used to the technology, it’s actually good fun to ‘see’ people in this way. On 23rd April, we even held the Society’s Annual General Meeting using Zoom. It was a much-slimmed down version of our usual AGM and we asked for volunteers from the membership to take part. The important thing is that we did it and that enabled us to do the legal stuff we have to do to comply with the requirements of our constitution and also the Charity Commission.
One benefit from the experiment is that it has given us confidence to start experimenting with more on-line communication, possibly even putting short videos on-line. It’s early days yet, so we are not sure exactly what we are going to be doing, but it clearly won’t be business as usual. We need to be innovative if we are going to stay relevant. We certainly don’t want people to forget we are here!
So, by fixing the roof while the sun shone – by which I mean moving on-line early on and then, over the years, building up communication lines with members and others through a variety of channels, we were reasonably well-placed for when the weather turned bad. Who knows, even after lockdown ends and the need for social distancing is reduced, we may continue to apply some of the new methods we are adopting now.
Video conferencing might not always be the way we would prefer to work, but it’s a really useful facility. In fact, so many people are using it that I now find myself taking part in meetings with people across the country to the point where my diary is once again filling up – and the real beauty of it is the convenience and low cost. I no longer need to do a two-to-three-hour commute to get to a meeting in London, say, and then repeat the journey to get home, taking a whole day out of my calendar and a wodge of cash out of my wallet.
I’d like to think that the civic society movement has cottoned on to the benefits of technology and that civic societies are firing on all cylinders still. Sadly, though, I know that’s not always true and I have heard from a few people who don’t know how they will keep things going over the next few months. Well, now is the time to start experimenting. Open that Twitter account, think about video conferencing and try to get email addresses for as many of your members as you can.
Don’t worry too much about getting things wrong to begin with; we all make mistakes in the early days, and you can always ask others for help if you get stuck. One useful tip is that you can often find on-line tutorials on YouTube for almost anything you need help with (some better than others!). They have certainly helped me on a number of occasions!
Now, I know that some of you will say ‘most of our members aren’t on-line, so there’s no point’ and you’ll shrug your shoulders and do nothing. I’ve encountered that reaction so many times over the years! But you have to start at some point and now is as good a time as any – it’s not as if you’ll be going anywhere, is it? Take the plunge – start a tweeting, ask your committee to join you in a video conference, start broadcasting to the world about what you are doing!
And while I am not advocating that you abandon your members who are not on-line, think about the future of your society. Is the future of the civic society movement going to be based on an outdated model of printing and posting newsletters to a predominantly older membership group, or is it going to be based on attracting lots of new members who are geared up and wired for both sound – and video?