A voluntary sector adult education charity with over 60,000 members, thousands of volunteers in local areas, branches and projects, all supporting programmes of classes across the country, professionally taught, bringing thousands of adults back into education each year. This statement, and all the elements within it, is a true description of the WEA now. However, for many volunteers, tutors and staff it doesn’t always feel that way. Why is that?
The WEA is a fantastically dispersed organisation and perceptions of it can be quite local. It’s also a pretty old organisation and many who’ve been involved for a while know its weaknesses. These are often raised in points to me as I’ve been to WEA meetings across the country: why doesn’t the WEA have a stronger profile? Surely all these members aren’t really involved. Who is deciding what in the Association? Why do you keep sending all this stuff I’m not interested in?
In my new role as Director of Membership, Volunteering and Marketing I need to address these questions – but also need to remember what a remarkable organisation the WEA is. For example, alongside our voluntary branch structure, there is a more hidden network of volunteering that supports teaching and partnership work in disadvantaged communities all across England, Carers in Plymouth, Archaeology in Yorkshire, digital inclusion in the East Midlands, classroom support in Slough. We need to find ways to recognise that more, learn from it whilst allowing it to flourish where it is.
The Membership, Volunteering and Marketing strategy is addressing issues like these. The direct resources for this work are modest; but saying that doesn’t take account of the nature of the WEA or the skills and commitment of its tutors, staff and volunteers. By setting up some simple networks I hope we can share ideas and move forward more quickly. New technology can help: almost 30,000 WEA members have reliable e-mail addresses and over 40% of those members open e-mails we send to them. WEA News has a small physical print run but over 16,000 people download it from our website. I think it means we need to focus on making communication interesting, relevant and, where possible, two way. We need to engage more with our huge membership, discover their interests, not assume these will be the same as existing active volunteers. We need to offer them opportunities to connect with one another as well as encouraging more of them to consider giving time to the WEA or raise money to help our work.
Inevitably, the key issue here is communication. That needs to build relationships, use new and old methods, be true to the WEA and help everyone get pleasure from contributing to the Association’s work. It can’t be a centralised, head office approach but it can be coherent, strategic and make sense to everyone involved wherever they are.
We may never get 60,000 people to all be actively engaged with the WEA, but if we got 1% of that number every year as new activists that would bring the resources of 600 new people to assist the WEA in its work - 60 per region leaving aside volunteers who come to us through other routes! I think that’s a reasonable ambition for a voluntary movement and I thank all of those who have helped develop this work so far.