News  |  Posted December 10, 2020

Volunteering Online – Strathard Framework Project

Since lockdown began, we have needed to take the time to think about how to involve volunteers in our work going forward.

In October we had the opportunity to host an online engagement workshop as part the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority (LLTNPA) Strathard Framework project.

With LLTNPA, we started the process of engaging stakeholders early. Set across the whole Strathard area, the Framework will identify geographical areas which are sensitive to or have scope for development or land use change. The aim is to build on existing plans and strategies and agree a shared vision across the community and partner organisations, to create a healthier, more climate responsive Strathard that is an economically-thriving place to live, work and visit.

Normally stakeholder engagement workshops would be held face to face in a community space. Volunteers would play an important role here, helping to welcome members of the public, facilitating, and creating an environment where all participants felt able to meaningfully engage in the process.

Developing an online workshop posed a number of unique challenges for us. It was important that we were still able to provide that welcoming space where participants were able to effectively take part.

We offered an opportunity for participants to learn about the platform and become comfortable with a test session a few days before the live workshop. This was open to anyone who felt like they wanted to become more familiar with Zoom. It was important to try to minimise digital exclusion and support anyone who felt like they might need an extra hand.

In a face to face workshop we would divide typically participants into small groups in order to allow more opportunity for people to share their views. A feature of Zoom meant that we were able to replicate this in a digital setting. Alison Baisden was one of the PAS volunteers who assisted in facilitating small group discussions within a breakout room.

Alison Baisden, PAS volunteer: 

Preparing for a digital stakeholder engagement event involved a new set of challenges I wouldn’t have known existed before lockdown.  While this year has required us all to embrace digital platforms for work, social and family get-togethers, helping to host a large-scale event designed to meaningfully engage diverse participants over Zoom was definitely a test of my skills.  Thankfully, the team at PAS had created a carefully structured workshop design which made the most of Zoom’s capacity for sharing presentation materials, creating break-out spaces and polling workshop attendees.

The event itself took place on a Wednesday morning from my kitchen table.  I had joined the event early and it was a surreal experience watching numerous stakeholders flood onto Zoom.  Following an expert introduction from the PAS team, we were transported over Zoom into our individual break-out sessions.  I’d been concerned that the move to individual break-out rooms might end in some confusion or a loss of attendees, but was genuinely impressed at how positively all participants had responded to the technology and how seamlessly this aspect of the event had worked.

Using a digital platform to host a small group also allowed for more focussed and immediate contact with workshop participants.  Each group member had the space to introduce themselves and I could also be satisfied that everyone could easily see and engage with the workshop materials I was sharing from my desktop.  We therefore concentrated on the main issues and opportunities facing the Strathard area – with each stakeholder able to share ideas and identify priority actions.  I was surprised at the depth and range of discussion we were able to cover in the allocated time.  We also made the most of Zoom’s in-built timing feature to ensure we captured all the information we could.

Some of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of the day involved watching the participants engage with and enjoy being involved in an online workshop.  It demonstrated the extent to which we have all picked up skills and embraced digital technology during this year.  Responding to a global pandemic had also seemed to make workshop participants more open to change and keen to tackle local issues caused by an increase in domestic tourism, our changing climate and biodiversity crisis.  Participants were keen to signpost their area’s most important environmental assets and, also, to educate others about their sustainable use.

It’s an exciting time to volunteer for PAS and I was encouraged by everyone’s shared appetite to respond to our social, economic and environmental challenges.  My digital skills definitely took a step-up and it was wonderful to pioneer a form of workshop which may be commonplace in future.