GAINing ground – planning and evaluating with young people in Lewis.
This case study shows how GAIN, a community organisation working with young people in the Isle of Lewis, evaluates its work to demonstrate impact and improve future provision.
Guth Airson Iarrtasan Nis (GAIN) is a community-led health organisation based in Ness on the Northern tip of the Isle of Lewis. The organisation was formed in 1998 by a group of mothers who recognised that no local play facilities were available, with a 60 mile round trip to the nearest park. They set up, and now manage, an outdoor adventure park, Eoropie Dunes Park, which opened in 2002. GAIN’s overall aim is to enhance people's health and well-being through providing opportunities for physical, social and psychological development. Regular activities provided by GAIN include a monthly Green Gym for people of all ages and free Community Fun Days designed for family fun. For a number of years GAIN ran a youth development programme where all activities were designed, planned and run by the young people themselves. Through their experiences the youngsters gained a range of skills including project planning, monitoring and evaluation as well as gaining more confidence and self-efficacy. GAIN has also provided courses in first aid, food hygiene and child protection for the young people and their volunteers.
GAIN regularly works in partnership with other voluntary and community organisations and has close links to the school and nursery and they hold an annual Duck Race in partnership with the local Music and Arts Centre. Joint projects have been set up with the social club and the football club, including helping at the gala day, where GAIN runs stalls. The group has also run several intergenerational projects including collaborating with Ness Art Group and with local nursing home residents around the design of a mosaic which is on display at the park. These intergenerational projects benefit different ages in terms of overcoming perceptions and building trust and respect across the generation divide.
At the centre of the group’s activities is a commitment to involve the wider community in everything it does, especially mums, children and young people. GAIN’s Committee consists mainly of committed young mothers who meet fortnightly, to organise and facilitate activities in addition to ensuring the park remains safe and attractive. The committee has recently being strengthened by the addition of two local teenage girls, who wanted to join when they came to the AGM to deliver a presentation on the youth work element of GAIN. A continued presence on the group has been local GP, Gail Cunningham, who now works as Project Manager. She has been involved since the inception of GAIN and she is able to support newer members with her experience and ensure continuity.
Community consultation is a key priority for GAIN. The entire play park has been developed and managed through ongoing consultation. The original mums had no previous experience of community projects and this encouraged the group to start with the basics; the obvious thing was to ask the local children what they wanted. Every facility and piece of equipment in the park was requested by the children. Some ideas have been generated through informal conversation and others have been from responses to formal surveys. In many ways the group’s lack of experience was an advantage. Later, when the group came across community development approaches, they thought: “that’s what we do”.
Over the years, GAIN has refined the way it gathers and uses evidence. GAIN has conducted a number of community surveys as well as collecting feedback following every activity held by GAIN at the park. The results influence GAIN's future decisions.
In 2012, GAIN produced a baseline consultation to evidence need for a funding application to the Big Lottery for a refurbishment of the park. Questionnaires were completed by local school children and community members. A few questionnaires were completed by other local groups and some were sent out to Facebook contacts. People were also asked to fill in surveys while attending activities at the park. From these baseline results the consultation has been followed up, providing two years of comparative data. The survey has been conducted every October, in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
The questionnaire asked nine standard ‘closed’ questions that are repeated yearly to measure change over time. Some questions focus on people’s use of the park and experience of GAIN activities. These include: “how often do you use the park in summer?” and “have you attended or helped at any GAIN organised community activities or Green Gym days?” Other questions focus on health and wellbeing indicators, such as feeling part of the community and social contact with different age groups. The questionnaire also asks open-ended questions, giving respondents plenty of opportunity to submit comments and suggestions.
Last year there was an issue in that the school asked pupils to take the survey home in their schoolbags instead of completing it in the classroom as had happened on previous years. This meant that parents had a greater input into their children’s responses, affecting the results and the completion rate also went down.
However, following collation of these annual surveys GAIN is able to show how participation in GAIN’s activities relates to positive health outcomes.
Evaluation Support Scotland
GAIN has also benefitted from Evaluation Support Scotland (ESS) support. The latter lasted four or five months and consisted of a 45 minute telephone call with ESS once a month. The benefits of such training can be quite simple, as Gail explains:
It was helpful to go through some of the basics – even being clear about what GAIN’s outcomes are was really useful. In a sense, the support allowed us to clarify our thinking and fine tune what we were already doing, and it was reassuring to know we were going down the right road in terms of evaluation.”
Other tools used by GAIN include the Outcome Star approach, used with the young people, as well as Visioning Outcomes in Community Engagment (VOiCE) based on the National Standards for Community Engagement. The group makes good use of the GAIN website, raising awareness of events, issues to do with the playpark, consultations and so on. The website is also important to showcase GAIN's work. Gail comments: “I have been told that a group’s website is the first place funders will look for evidence of its activity and community engagement.” A Facebook page is also now up and running, as well as Twitter and Instagram which are managed by the two aforementioned teenage girls on the committee.
In less than three years the survey has already picked up on some positive changes. The results demonstrate that the improvements to the park and the events arranged by GAIN help people to use the park more and to have more social contact with different age groups. In addition, there have been increases in the proportion of respondents who feel part of the community and who are participating in activities and events, including those organised by GAIN. The consultation has also highlighted the health benefits gained through volunteering. The results have been used to report to funders and apply for future funding.
The survey is also used to consult on the priorities of young people and their families, particularly around improvements and new installations to the play park. In 2013, for instance, questions were included that asked how the local school might best make use of the park. In 2014, respondents were asked whether or not they thought it was a good idea to install a kiosk in the park selling healthy snacks. Many interesting suggestions and comments were also received which have been used by GAIN to provide suggested activities or add requested features eg more seating to the facility.
Lessons and learning
Continual engagement with the wider community is crucial for a number of reasons. Firstly, funders are always asking for evidence and regular consultation shows both demand for GAIN’s work and evaluation demonstrates its impact.
Secondly, GAIN exists to provide a service, and understanding the community’s priorities is vital in order to do this effectively. Occasionally, this commitment to working to the priorities of the community can be tested, such as when the survey generates results that are unexpected or contrary to the group’s plans e.g. provision of toilets (a recurring request). GAIN has always had reservations about this, being concerned with the cost of setting up and running toilets. However, GAIN feels that sometimes the only way to find out if an idea is good or not is to try it out, providing evidence one way or the other. GAIN secured funding and ran a pilot with portable toilets last summer. This was greatly appreciated by users of the park (as well as campers, tourists and visitors to the area) but proved costly in time and monetary terms – in fact GAIN’s Maintenance Manager spent all his time not on park maintenance but ensuring the toilets were accessible and functioning through the summer. GAIN is keen to work with other agencies on toilet provision in the area but can now evidence that it is not possible or sustainable for GAIN to provide these facilities.
Thirdly, the involvement of the community means that people feel they have a stake in the project.
“If people say what they want in terms of activities and new equipment, and then we do it, the community feel that they are owners and will continue to use and enjoy the park and many offer to volunteer or get involved.
GAIN especially appreciates the involvement of local young people in the planning, design and delivery of our work. Over the years teenagers in particular have had a significant role to play and it is encouraging to now have two teenagers on our management committee.”
(Gail Cunningham, Project Manager, GAIN)
Read more about GAIN at www.eoropiedunespark.co.uk
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