New Sarum WI (NSWI) has submitted this account which gives some insight into the ways in which they have kept their members engaged during the Covid-19 pandemic times of 2020 and 2021. They hope that some of them may prove useful to other WIs. They do not feel that they have all the answers, and are always open to new ideas or approaches that have been successful with other groups.
Background: All our officers changed in April 2020 as part of a planned handover; however, little did we know what we were letting ourselves in for! We have a small committee and do not have a separate speaker/programme co-ordinator or assistant secretary, so the President and Secretary undertook a huge amount of work to keep the W.I. flourishing. A lockdown aim was to have a weekly event for members to partake in if desired; even for a very few interested participants. Reaching out to our members and supporting them during the pandemic was a main driver in our planning.
Firstly, we believe that knowing and understanding our W.I. members is crucial. When we find something our members like, we stick to this winning formula to keep them engaged. Hence we have been able to keep previous activities going albeit in a new format, or develop new ideas that work for us. No-one had even heard of Zoom before March, but most were willing to give it a try, by following a handout devised by the secretary and practice one to one calls with committee members. Like so many others we have found this has been an essential tool to keep things happening. We are fortunate to enjoy good quality WIFI access around the city and all but two members have the facility.
For those who were unwilling or unable to use Zoom because of ill health or lack of WIFI capability, we have maintained contact by phone, by the occasional socially distanced visit to drop off a 'meeting in a bag', and we were able to have a 'rule of six' meeting in both August and September.
Meetings: Our meetings have all been virtual, apart from the aforementioned two. The biggest problem we encountered at the start of lockdown was locating good Zoom enabled speakers. The secretary approached many speakers during the early months, had in-depth conversations about how their talk might run, and how to facilitate these early meetings, as many speakers had not considered taking their talks to a virtual audience. Later, with the advent of the W.I. Wanderers on Facebook this became significantly easier. Hats off to Michelle Gordon and Alison Peek for collating a brilliant list of daily activities - this enabled us to participate in many other W.I. meetings and follow up on speakers who would be of interest to our group. The Unofficial W.I. is another great source of information and ideas - showing how the W.I. can support and innovate itself from the thousands of proactive members we have. Sourcing and vetting speakers is still a significant activity, with 2-3 events a week that we participate in to ensure we get the excellence our members want. Sadly, there are still too many speakers who just read a PowerPoint presentation or provide lack lustre and uninspiring talks about themselves, so you really have to do your homework.
We are a small W.I., so did not choose to afford a Zoom license. Hence our usual format is to have the speaker on first and run the meeting for 40 minutes. Then the W.I. members dial back in for a social 40 minutes of chat. As a group this works very well for us. On the odd occasion a speaker will need a bit more time, but everyone is now used to the format, and the short break in the middle enables everyone to get their coffee/tea/wine and biscuits/chocolate replenished.
We opened up one of our meetings on 'Keeping a Journal' to W.I. Wanderers and had more than 50 guests attend an excellent session. This was very pleasing to be able to repay the help that the Wanderers had given us in sourcing good speakers.
In July we held a face-to-face meeting on a local sports field where we could meet together in groups of six, bringing our own food and a fold-up chair. This was a great opportunity after the claustrophobia of lockdown to get out, see old friends, and catch up with news. The next month we utilised the facilities of a local hotel for afternoon tea, again keeping to the rule of six.
Meeting in a Bag:
We wanted to maintain contact with our non-Zoom members, so the secretary craftily created a W.I. experience: making a disposable yet vibrant gift bags from old W.I. magazine covers, adding a teabag, an after eight mint, the local newsletter and some things to do like crafts or puzzles. Where possible we try to follow the virtual meeting theme, for example we included the practice writing examples and exercises undertaken during the journal keeping talk. These are distributed regularly to the small number of members who cannot attend the virtual meetings and enable them to have at least an afternoon/evening with a W.I. flavour to it.
We now hold a regular monthly coffee morning, which is a new lockdown idea, as the group previously had a lunch club. We believe this is something we will attempt to take forward to a post pandemic world as it has proven to be a success, either virtually or in person, when we can hold it in a lockdown-controlled format. When delivered virtually we try to have theme for discussion, such as favourite recipe, TV programme, memories form schooldays etc…. as it promotes a conversation and inclusivity.
History / Culture Group:
One of our new members volunteered to lead a History/Culture club. When possible, we visit local interest locations, learn more about the history of our vicinity or attending an exhibition or event. These occasions end with a coffee and cake and have proved to be a very popular. Even when larger group gatherings have not been possible, going out in pairs in the local area with a camera and a theme has provided a creativity outlet plus extra knowledge about where we live. Of course sometimes it is held as a virtual event, this has been a lockdown imitative after all! We have visited art exhibitions, been on ghost tours, created a group photographic collage and learned a lot about the history of our City. There are numerous ideas afoot to expand on this group once lockdown is eased or eradicated.
Another member-led group is the Craft Club. This group has been established for sometime and formerly took the form of a monthly visit to a member’s home with their individual craft projects. In lockdown times we took this to the virtual platform, sometimes involving a make-a-long craft demonstration to members’ sharing their own projects. Ideas include origami, macramé, Christmas decorations, pop-up greeting cards and drawing zentangles. Members have found this relaxing, sociable and fun.
Our W.I. didn't have a book group, so we formed one. The chosen book has to be cheaply available to members to purchase or obtain from the library, available as an e-reader and possibly as an audio book. Rising to the challenge, the group has read works such as A Curious Affair at Styles; No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency; Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom to The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Inspired by the article on ‘Reading’ in WI Life we have challenged our members to extend their reading base and genres during these unusual times. At the month’s end, the group reviews the read via Zoom or WhatsApp. There are future plans afoot to keep this group going post lockdown.
We have maintained our walking group in line with the rule of six (or on hold during tougher lockdown times), and this is a popular activity. Meeting people outdoors when indoor socialisation has been restricted has been a positive alternative. Again, this often ends with coffee.
In response to enquiries within our group, one of our members who is a Walking for Health and Ramblers Leader is looking to build on the success of the walking group to develop a more challenging ‘Striders’ group. This group will be walking longer distances in countryside locations and we hope to start this when the current restrictions ease.
Plant Sale / Produce Sale:
We were able to hold both a socially distanced plant sale and produce sale in member’s front gardens. Contributions and donations were collected under Covid secure practices. The members enjoyed being able to continue some regular activities and NSWI traditions in these different times. (W.I. jam being much appreciated by the author's husband, we have to keep him happy as he also provides behind the scenes assistance).
Many of our members were not highly active on social media platforms before the onset of the pandemic; but the use of these tools has been of great assistance to stay connected and spread a smile. However, we did have an established WhatsApp Social group for impromptu social gathering, meeting and general information. This concept expanded further to the Light Relief group (for more or less saucy jokes), Walking, History/Culture and Reading groups. To hear the continued 'ping, ping, ping' of WhatsApp after a particularly good speaker or event is highly gratifying. The Skittles group will re-start as soon as it can.
Publicity: One aspect that one might not naturally think about is publicity. Everyone enjoys being part of a successful organisation, and who doesn't get a little glow when they see themselves in the local newspaper. We wanted to broadcast our activities further afield, and have had an article and photograph published in the local newspaper, with a regular synopsis of our activities printed in the popular local parish magazine. We have also reached out to women locally through a recruitment stand at a ‘Sustainable Salisbury’ central event (at a time when this was allowed), where we promoted our #ShowtheLove campaign connections with the Climate Coalition.
We converted our social media base from a web page to an open Facebook page when the current committee took over. This is updated regularly (much more easily than a web page) with our events and activities to reflect the fresh, liveliness of the group.
These have helped us recruited several new members who have been impressed with our can-do attitude. We now have 30% more members than a year ago! We understand that some W.I.s are coming to terms with what they will do about membership fees. We have taken the view that our members want a quality W.I. and hence our subscription for 2021 will be in line with the recommended annual increase. We now have the challenge of living up to that standard and delivering it for them.
Something we have instigated this year are the "President's Star" Awards. At the AGM, members who have contributed to make the group successful will be recognised and thanked. We have designed and printed some suitable certificates, and will use this as another way to maintain the positive feelings within the group and celebrate the valued contributions made by our members.
- Submitted by Suzanne Palmer Riches, Secretary New Sarum WI