Any community project, however big or small, is about bringing people together. So everyone involved in community work will have come across this one question: Where do we meet? Where do we set this up? For some, this is the biggest challenge of all, for others just a quick chat with a colleague and it’s all sorted. So this post will hopefully help those of you who haven’t answered the venue question yet. If you’ve already successfully solved this challenge, please share your experiences with us in the comments below and help us learn from each other.
Talking to three social entrepreneurs who have a lot of experience advising local changemakers on their journey setting up community projects, Pete O’Shea (CoderDojo Foundation), Ariana Ball (Fàilte Isteach) and John Evoy (Men’s Shed Association), we’ve pulled together some advice for you. Let’s start with this one:
What seems challenging in the beginning, in experience turns out to be a task with nearly 100% success.
“I couldn’t think of five Sheds that didn’t happen because they couldn’t find premises, sometimes it just needs some creativity.”
– John Evoy
“I don’t know of any group that didn’t manage to find a good venue. It’s not down to that. It can sometimes take some time but it’s just about being brave about approaching different groups and people.”
– Ariana Ball
Phew, that’s a good start, so how do you go about it, what should you put on your checklist to find a venue and where are the biggest opportunities for success?
Getting started – Bring people together and be flexible
As is the case with with all successful community projects, it’s all about collaboration.
“Don’t just go about it yourself!”, is John’s biggest piece of advice. “It’s a community project, so go and work on it together from the beginning instead of taking all the pressure. Bring people together who you know in the area and start brainstorming.”
“In a small community, just take a walk around, make a list of options, rank them and reach out to your first choice first” is Arianas advice. But most importantly, doing so: “Stay flexible! Don’t be discouraged if your first choice isn’t available and consider changing the date and time you planned for your meetups to take place in case you just need the venue for a couple of hours a week.”
What’s a suitable venue?
The criteria for the perfect venue obviously depends on the project. How big do you want to go. Is this about a weekly 2-hour meetup or do you want your own place. One thing that all venues have in common: A kettle. We haven’t come across any group that doesn’t value having a good cup of tea together.
Also it’s important to look for a place that people can reach easily by public transport or just walking depending on the size of your community.
Ariana & Pete emphasise another aspect that we might sometimes forget: Accessiblity
“We would like our groups to be inclusive, welcoming everyone, so bear in mind that your venue should be accessible to all”, says Ariana.
“Besides being cool, being inclusive is one of the basic rules of CoderDojo. All Dojos should aim to to cater for youths with special needs. We recognised that not everyone has the necessary experience for this, so we provide good documentation that we worked with our community members to create and we provide it to everyone.”, Pete adds.
Also don’t forget to check if the venue is already covered with insurance or if your group will have to take care of that. Pete mentions, in some schools for example, youths may not be covered by the venues insurance if the meetup takes place over the weekend or it the youths attending do not attend the school.
Pete came across another barrier with running CoderDojos: “With some organisations hosting Dojos, we’ve come across the issue that, depending on the business, young people may not be allowed into the building due to a age restriction on the content of their product, for example you have to be at least 13 years old to enter the Facebook building in Dublin”.
How to cover the costs
Talking about insurance, heating, light, internet connections. Who pays for all of this? This depends on the space you choose again, but in our experience these things don’t require extra costs. Often it’s about finding someone who sponsors the venue and covers those costs.
An option to reduce costs that’s mainly relevant for anyone who’s looking for full-time venues is to apply for exemption of taxes: “There is a Commercial property rate you have to pay for but if you’re using a space for community purposes you can get an exemption from that rate.”, John tells us this is a common step for anyone who sets up a Men’s Shed. “It’s not a staight forward process but it’s worth trying!”
Whether you put up a donation box at your meetups, organise fundraising events every now and then or find a sponsor (see for example Carol’s CoderDojo in Wexford), there are always ways to cover those costs.
What are the top venues?
Ok now, where do communities meet? Here are the top venues mentioned by our experts (in totally un-ranked order) that you can try to get and some unusual places that might inspire your creativity to do things differently.
How to get it: Just go and ask. Your best chance is if there’s an extra room in the library so that there is no disturbance in the quiet spaces but they might also be open to giving you a dedicated couple of hours for your project. For some Fàilte Isteach groups this is the perfect place as there is not just room but also lots of books to do the English classes with.
Office spaces – weekends and evenings
This Dojo in Dublin is run in the Dogpatch Labs, a tech hub for startups inside the CHQ Building.
How to get it: Think about businesses that are related to your project. For CoderDojo it’s best to ask a tech company, in case of a Grow It Yourself group you might want to ask the Garden Centre. Some businesses also have empty spaces in the community, so get in touch with as many people as possible in the community to spread the word and you’ll gather the insights.
Community Centres/ Community Organisations
How to get it: Research for contacts at your local Community Centre, Family Resource Centre or Area Partnership and just give them a call. They might be able to help you with many more questions than just the venue.
How to get it: Pull together a list of schools in your area, primary or secondary schools and send a mail to the principal. Schools are obviously most suitable for projects that include children.
Getting a bit more creative – What else does your community have to offer?
Start thinking outside the box. Are there any unused places in your community? Here are a few examples to inspire you and get you thinking.
Unused houses are always a great opportunity. This old house was given to the Carrick on Shannon Men’s Shed for the use of men in the Carrick area.
The Belturbet Men’s Shed is set up in a shut down train station.
A CoderDojo in Madagascar decided to get a bus and drive around Africa to teach kids coding.
How to get it: This is obviously more work and requires a higher commitment but it’s very rewarding as well. You might find it easier in rural than in urban areas, but in the end it all comes down to networking and finding the hidden gems.
One last tip
When you ask for use of a venue, keep it short but have the most important information in place. Having your story in place on why this is important will always help you to get others excited about being involved. Always talk about the impact you have and don’t be shy when asking, always remember: You’re not asking for yourself but for the kids, for the migrants, for the older people, for the community.
We’d love to hear your experiences. Where did you find your venue? Please share your story with us and tell us about the good and bad in mastering this challenge of community work. Please just leave a comment below.