I’ve just come up for air after CPRE’s Autumn Conference in Birmingham, and what an inspirational experience it was! The day was a fantastic opportunity for national staff to escape their London office and meet the volunteers who are standing up for our countryside in CPRE branches across the country. It was nice to put faces to names, hear about the latest local campaigns, and above all, give our volunteers the chance to learn from each other.
The unsung heroes of the countryside
What came across loud and clear in the post-event feedback was that this kind of face-to-face networking is an unbeatable way for our volunteers to share success stories and compare campaigning tactics. Though some staff are lucky enough to meet volunteers (and see the countryside we are trying to protect) through our programme of regular branch visits, most of us must seem like a distant presence on the end of a phone to those at the ‘front line’.
In reality, my colleagues and I are only too aware that our lobbying and campaigning for the countryside would be far less effective without the practical local knowledge - and all-important campaign victories - of our grassroots activists. Our work relies on the information and case studies provided by our volunteers - after all, they are the ones dealing with the changes to the planning system. And even when a local campaign doesn’t end in success it gives us a valuable insight into the threats facing the countryside, helping us propose positive solutions at a national level.
The lead-up to this year’s conference was an immense logistical operation; CPRE has 43 county branches and eight regions, and we wanted as many of them to be represented as possible. The pre-conference atmosphere at our National Office was buzzing; the delegate packs attendees carried around with them all day were put together by a conveyor belt of 10 staff collating and stuffing papers - which brought out the competitive spirit in a few!
A warm welcome awaited delegatesPhoto: © CPRE
Then, the day itself. My team and I were up early to make sure that we had everything we needed and that all our equipment was working (IT is fantastic but, if you’re like me, the dread that it will suddenly break down hangs over you all day). As people started to arrive, my nerves began to settle. I mean, even if all the trains to Birmingham suddenly ground to a halt, at least we’d have 10 early birds to dazzle with our slick presentations and dodgy puns. Any fears over turnout were allayed when everyone else showed up, and suddenly what had been a huge, slightly echoing hall was packed to the rafters.
The main hall "packed to the rafters"Photo: © CPRE
For any NGO with a federated structure (most of CPRE’s county branches are separately-registered charities), it is vital that our volunteers are given every opportunity to shape our future direction and feel part of our successes. And while CPRE is a ‘bottom-up’ organisation in many ways – our policies are developed by volunteer-led Task and Finish Groups, for instance – it is important to keep working at these relationships. That is why our conference kicked off with a forthright but positive discussion on how we can maintain the spirit of trust and cooperation across the organisation through a Partnership Agreement.
With the amount of threats facing the countryside it is crucial that we continue to strive to make CPRE an even more effective campaigning force. Using the conference as a forum, we were able to make this process a genuine conversation; and that means that the burden of expectation isn’t just placed on volunteers. While we expect high standards from our formidable local volunteers and wouldn’t dream of patronising them, we recognise that we have a responsibility to give them the tools and support they need to meet those standards. As an organisation, we respect diversity of opinion in a way which befits a charity that celebrates local distinctiveness, while accepting that there will never be a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with volunteers. They are amazing individuals, not just because they are giving their time to a great cause, but because they have so many unique skills and experiences to share.
Shaun Spiers chatting to delegates in the breakout areaPhoto: © CPRE
The morning discussion was followed by a series of immensely engaging Short Talks from our Branch representatives in Hertfordshire, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire and London, covering a diverse range of topics from fundraising to how CPRE can promote sustainable development in our cities. This was one of the standout sessions for many delegates with people commenting on how ‘invaluable’ it is to learn from each other. As stomachs started to rumble, this session led us gratefully into lunchtime and our seasonal (and locally-sourced) meal. Over lunch, my suspicions that the Introduction to Social Media session might be very popular were confirmed by a sea of faces enraptured by the sight of our Communications Team in action. The messages of the day: engage people with stories and keep it short, sweet and sociable!
After lunch, we divided into parallel sessions; one on how to strengthen branches, and one on dealing with the impact of local authorities feeling themselves forced (by imposed housing targets) to build on Green Belts and open countryside. While the session on finding and keeping volunteers was packed, it was the housing supply group who overran. These outcomes were, perhaps, symptomatic of two sector-wide trends; firstly that it is becoming harder for volunteers of national charities to compete for new recruits with local action groups (who aren’t tied to national offices); and, secondly, that rapid changes to Government policy can leave volunteers (and NGO professionals!) struggling to get to grips with the shifting campaigning landscape.
The Government Affairs team in actionPhoto: © CPRE
Needless to say, our Government Affairs team had a lot to pack in to their session on Campaigning for the General Election, with the 50s marketing video, ‘Don’t Sell the Sausage, Sell the Sizzle’ being a highlight of the day for many. With its strong but simple message - engage people on what they can see or feel, rather than the detail of the policies we need to change - it was a reminder that good ideas are both timeless and infinitely adaptable. Just as what worked for sausage vendors 70 years ago can work for modern NGOs, so charity professionals can never fail to learn from the passion and expertise of their volunteers.
Steering a path through the complexities of what it means to campaign effectively for the English countryside can often be challenging but it’s pleasing to know that, for many of our volunteers, “things are definitely moving in the right direction”.
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