Monday, 23 March 2015

Light the touchpaper and run . . .

Someone approached me to ask for advice about an outing they run.  They’ve run the same outing several times a year for as long as they can remember, and there was a time when it got a good turnout, but the enthusiasm has been waning for many years, and the turnouts are now so low that it is hardly worth the Leaders giving up their time to staff it.  I asked her if she had any thoughts on why it is no longer popular.
It’s not straightforward for some of the current Leaders, she said – nowadays they have commitments elsewhere at the same time as it is scheduled, or are working, or there are other issues which mean they don’t feel able to come.  We regularly struggle to get enough adults to run the outing, and some of those who do turn out are only there out of a sense of duty, not because they are enthused about it.
And the number of girls attending has dropped quite a bit over the years – partly because the girls aren’t that keen on the outing, partly because some have commitments elsewhere at the same time, which mean they are not free to go.  Combine those two and we might get 10% of the girls going, 20% on a good day.
So she wanted to know how she could improve the numbers at the outing. 

Well, I explained to her that there were a few options.  If the day/time was the big barrier to attendance, then was there scope to alter that?  Maybe find a time that doesn’t clash with other commitments, maybe look at venue location, maybe look at whether there are other dates that would work better for the Leaders or girls, maybe consider transport arrangements - whatever would help to make it more accessible?  She said that wasn’t really feasible.  It had to be on that day, and at that time, the only flexibility was which week it happened to be held on.

I then suggested looking at the frequency – for even the most thrilling of outings can start to become dull if repeated too often, and we should be seeking balance and variety in the programme.  So how often was this outing held, and would it be worth giving it a miss for a year or two then bringing it back when it would be fresh again?  She said that would be tricky, as they are currently committed to holding this particular outing four times a year, every year.  I’ll admit I was surprised that a unit would repeat any outing that often, even if popular and well supported - but especially if it wasn’t?

I then suggested she look at the activity itself – if it has become dull, or samey, then it might be time to look at doing something different during the outing, not just the same old thing in the same old way.  Change the venue, or the activities, or the duration, mix in other elements perhaps?  Whenever you have a regular event you need to ring the changes, in order to keep it interesting for the girls and Leaders alike.  She explained that that wasn’t easy either, as very little of that was really in their hands, so only relatively minor tweaks could be made.

So I was forced to ask – what sort of outing is this, that you have to hold several times a year regardless of whether more than a handful of girls and Leaders want to go on it, and where you don’t have any real choice of day, time, or venue?

It was then she let the cat out of the bag – this problem outing, the one they have to hold several times a year every year regardless of the turnout – was Church Parade.  I was confused.  Sure, if some of the girls want to wear their uniforms when attending their own place of worship they should be free to do so.  If they want to meet up beforehand and go into the same building together, and perhaps sit beside each other once inside, then that would be absolutely fine too.  And actually, that’s all ‘Church Parade’ originally was – a bunch of friends from a unit who chose to meet up and go to a place of worship together in their Guide uniforms, rather than go, in plain clothes, with their families or on their own.  It was only later that some units started making it into some kind of organised unit outing, with things like parading through the street, Unit and Union Flags being carried by colour parties, and whatever other extras people chose to add in according to taste. 

I was forced to ask, what difference did it make whether an outing was to the church, the museum, the beach or the public park – if it wasn’t popular with the members, and it wasn’t convenient for the Leaders – then that’s a lot of negatives, so what was the positive reason for running this unit outing?  Why not just let those who want to go make their own private arrangements to meet up, like in the old days, unrelated to the unit?  If a Leader wanted to be one of those meeting then they could, or the parents could have the option of going with them or letting them go by themselves, whichever they wished.

We are an educational charity, so we have to keep offering new and varied educational experiences to the girls, not just keep repeating experiences time and again.  We need to be girl-led, and if they are voting with their feet by staying away from an activity then we need to make changes to it, the only question that arises is what sort of changes they should be. 

Often, the reason given for holding a Church Parade is units who receive discounted rent for the use of a hall (or even free use), who then feel obliged to ‘give something back’ to that church.  Laying aside for a moment the question of whether there is a justification for Guiding to receive a discounted rent that other hirers don’t, there are a range of things a unit could do to ‘give something back’ and it may be that a one-off turnout of 4 girls and a Leader a few times a year - is among the less effective ones we could offer.  After all, even if they put a pound each into the collection bag, that would barely cover an hour’s hall rent at cost price, and most of us meet for longer than that!

So if you feel the need to give something back to your landlord, what could you offer instead?

Covering/repairing books.
Folding hymn sheets
Helping decorate the building for festivals.
Making resources for the crèche/Sunday School/disabled children’s club
Making and sending cards to lonely people in the community
Collecting and donating non-perishable food to the parish poor-box
Looking after the local war memorial
Creating a record of the wording on old gravestones for the parish records
Visiting/helping at the pensioners’ day-care club or the church toddler crèche
Helping at/running a stall at Church fundraising events
Helping with the setting up beforehand/clearing up after Church events.

I suspect that many of these would be at least as beneficial (and some could be significantly more beneficial) to the church than a token turnout a few times a year.  Or – you could pay the same rent rate as other hall users, which in these difficult financial times, is perhaps something we should be considering anyway?  Either instead of or as well as giving service?

“But the congregation would be upset if we didn’t go”.  Would they really?  Even if they knew how difficult it is for Leaders to take time off work unpaid, or girls to skip rugby practice when a big match is coming up?  It’s easy to assume that changing a custom, especially one which appears to have been of long standing, will be bound to cause upset.  Maybe it will.  Or maybe most people won’t even notice.  Or maybe the very people you think will be upset – have longed to make such a change for years, but didn’t dare suggest it!  You’ll never know unless someone dares to risk rocking the boat.  I know that in my area, there are quite a few regular churchgoers who deliberately don’t go on the weeks when there is a children’s service scheduled, so I don’t suppose they’d mind fewer of them . . .

Our programmes are meant to be girl-led.  So what do the girls feel about it?  Do they think they should be doing something as a thank-you for use of the hall, and do they have any ideas of what form that could take?  Or do they think they ought to be paying a more realistic rent, and thus making themselves a contributor to the Church funds instead of potentially a drain?

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