By Georgiana Lopata

When I was fifteen, I started volunteering and I never turned back. I spent the entirety of my high school experience volunteering twice a week, and my summer break was overflowing with joyful children’s camps and group-bonding nature retreats. The desire to be involved in my community had become second nature, and it was a major factor in my search for universities. And so, I wound up at the University of Winchester last year - in the middle of the awkward stage of the pandemic where people wanted events to be in-person but inevitably ended up joining virtually – and I was refreshing the Winchester Hub website every day for an opportunity that would awaken my sense of purpose after its year-long hibernation.

Every time I checked, the Social Innovation Programme (SIP) seemed to be jumping out at me: a six-week project, where students become part of a team of consultants to address social issues in the local area by working with charities and social enterprises  and providing innovative solutions to challenges they are currently facing. I admit, it all looked so intimidating that I didn’t even apply for the first cohort. Even though it doesn’t require any previous experience, I expected that people would generally be knowledgeable about the public sector, and would already have skills in events management, fundraising, or marketing. As a Creative Writing and English Literature student, the only skills I could bring were creativity, curiosity, and a desire to learn.

As the lockdown situation worsened, and the Winter cohort for SIP rolled around, I bit the bullet and sent in my application. What’s the worst that could happen? Realistically, there’s no world in which someone would be rejected for lack of experience, as there are trainings to teach you everything you need to know. Either way, I was thrilled to be accepted, and so I started on my first task for the selection workshop – preparing a short pitch about a social or environmental issue affecting the local community and suggesting some solutions. I remember being overwhelmed by council reports on infrastructure and public spaces, but then I went back to my roots of focusing on people, and I gave my pitch on the pandemic’s effect on rising cases of homelessness and loneliness. I came up with suggestions, from making cards for people in shelters, to starting a student pen-pal scheme to support them through frequent communication. Everyone was so supportive and receptive to my ideas, which gave me confidence in my abilities and ramped up my excitement to get stuck working on the real thing.

The Launch Day for my SIP cohort was 27 January 2021. This was the day when I got to meet both my team of students and our community partner (a representative from the charity organisation we would be helping). My team-of-four worked with Move Momentum, a local dance charity that aims to make dance accessible to everyone, supporting self-expression, encouraging growth, and providing a community where members can feel personal fulfilment. In the context of the pandemic, they moved their entire activity online, and their biggest challenge was receiving enough funding to keep their classes running. They were planning on organising a fundraiser, and we were tasked with generating ideas for events that would be attractive for their target demographic and receive the most amount of donations, while being able to be held virtually. During the course of the programme, I daresay I became an expert in Online Fundraising 101 and using social media efficiently.

After the excitement of all the introductions, things settled into a comfortable but engaging routine. Every week, I attended meetings with my team where we shared our ideas and divided up various tasks, researching fundraising methods and compiling our ideas onto a huge shared document. We also held meetings with our community partner, which offered us a fascinating insight on working in the charity sector – not only how small teams manage to run things smoothly, but the impact of their work on individuals. It was heart-warming to see how people’s lives and happiness were and still are boosted through dancing with Move Momentum.

I was also constantly developing my skills, due to my own independent work and the weekly trainings facilitated by Sorcha, the staff member who ran SIP at the time. Some of the trainings included teamwork, project management, the social impact sector, and problem-solving. The one that I found most useful was on data collection and analysis, as it allowed me to form a better strategy when doing my research, and learn how to categorise and prioritise the information I found. There were also in-depth trainings on how we should approach our final tasks – writing a report of all of our research and our suggestions, and delivering a presentation of our ideas to the community partner.

Trying to divide one report between four people, with my perfectionism in the mix, was probably the most difficult challenge I faced during my SIP experience. All of us worked on different schedules and had unique approaches when writing our sections, and that made me feel incredibly anxious. There’s nothing more daunting than staring at an empty shared document and waiting for someone else’s bubble to pop up and show that they’re working – except maybe seeing that someone edited or accidentally deleted all of your work. As a student who writes essays on literature, the difference between everyone’s writing style and tone seemed like an illegal inconsistency, and I had to fight the urge to edit sections to make them sound like me. I ended up reaching out to Sorcha for support and advice on how to deal with the situation, and she helped me realize that, although I had to learn to adapt, my work was going to be enriched by everyone else’s contributions, not diminished by them. When the deadline hit, we managed to submit a complex report, packed full of useful information on social media platforms, online fundraising, and our very own personalised ideas for events that our charity could run to raise donations.

At the end of SIP, everyone came back together for the Showcase Day on 9 March 2021. This is when each team gives a presentation detailing their challenge, their research, and the most exciting part – their ideas and solutions. All of the community partners attended, so it was a great opportunity to learn more about their involvement with the community and the social or environmental issues which are currently affecting the local area. I was so eager to share everything my team had accomplished, and because I had so much practice talking about Move Momentum and organising virtual fundraisers, I found I had grown very knowledgeable in the subject, and I had no problem delivering our presentation to the rest of the cohort. The other two teams did a great job, and it was so fascinating to observe the differences between our community partners and our challenges. I left the meeting with so much new information about how I could help my local community through getting involved with similar organisations, and I felt an overwhelming sense of achievement at knowing I played a part in ensuring that people are able to access Move Momentum’s amazing projects in the future.

In fact, I think one of the best aspects of taking part in SIP is getting to see the fruits of your labour as they happen in real time. I followed Move Momentum’s fundraiser on their social media, and my team’s suggestions proved to make fun, successful events that received a fair amount of engagement – I even got involved with some of them, like donating my coffee for the day, and entering the raffle (where I won a prize!). I can’t express how happy and proud I was when Move Momentum reached their donation goal, and then their stretch goal, all before the end of their fundraising week! They are now back to carrying out their projects in person, and are planning a Christmas Fair this December. They recently posted a video of their GEMS (over 65s group) practising their performance for the Fair and having so much fun, and there aren’t many things that bring me as much joy as knowing that I contributed to making this possible, in some small way.

Looking back on my experience with SIP, it has greatly improved my sense of belonging to the community, and it taught me research and presentation skills that I still use for my university assignments. Overall, the Programme is an amazing opportunity to meet like-minded people, help tackle a social issue you’re passionate about, and make a change!

Click here to register your interest for the Spring cohort of SIP now!