The journey of collaboration

Premier League Kicks is a flagship community programme which uses the power of football and sport to inspire young people in some of the most high-need areas in England and Wales. Delivered by Bolsover District Council, in partnership with Derby County FC, the project is improving community safety by engaging young people in positive activities on their doorstep.

Being involved in the partnership which brought this project together has been a particularly interesting journey for community builder Nathan. Here he explains what he’s learnt from the experience and the true meaning of what can be achieved when we genuinely work in collaboration with others:

“The theory of collaboration can be a lot easier than the reality. Workers often come together to talk about what they’re doing, go away with some actions and carry on working on their own particular projects or objectives. Organisational pressure; specific targets and objectives; policies and procedures, comfort and habit; and fear of the unknown are perhaps some of the barriers to genuinely working together.

“These things will continue to be there, but through understanding, building relationships and strong communication, a shared vision can be achieved and worked towards.

“As I stood down at Castle Leisure Centre on an extremely dark, cold Friday evening in early January to witness one of the first football sessions, it was extremely satisfying to see so many people coming together to do something good in their community. There were more than 50 people on or around the playground, probably more than there had ever been before. A lot of its success can be attributed to what happens when collaboration really works.”

How does successful collaboration work?

“What’s the formula for effective joint working? Well, in my experience, it includes lots of different things and in particular strong relationships and trust. I’ve known Adam from Bolsover District Council for a number of years, going back to my days of volunteering and coaching. We’ve got a similar sense of humour and have always got on well.

“Because of this – when he asked my opinion on the football project – he leaned in and really listened to what I had to say and we were able to work together to do things a little differently. A big part of us working so well together was because we had clearly defined roles within our partnership. My main aim was to encourage community engagement in whatever developed as part of the project and for us all to work together towards something good.

“Following the first conversation with Adam I spoke to several members of the community to try and gauge people’s thoughts. I attended the Friends of New Bolsover and Carr Vale Community Association residents’ groups, spoke to existing contacts in the area and used social media to engage with people. I already had a presence in the community and a level of trust with some residents. This allowed genuine feedback and honesty because they saw me as someone with their best interests at heart, not just someone doing a job.

“Once the sessions were up and running the people I’d connected with in the planning stages were the key to spreading the word. They might have shared it anyway, but it really felt like they were making an extra effort because of the effort I’d put in with them. Facebook has been particularly effective and residents have been sharing and commenting on the activities which has led to 20 or more young people taking part each week.

“Connecting with the parents who come along to watch, providing hot drinks and listening to their stories and experiences in the area, learning about the community and together discovering new ideas and opportunities is what being part of the community is all about and has played a big part in getting them on board.”

What learning can we take from the process?

“One of the things I’ve learnt during my time as a community builder is it’s better to wait for opportunities to influence like this rather than trying to force change on people. It’s tempting to want to just get on with it but in the past I’ve jumped in feet first and challenged things and that didn’t always go down well.

“When Adam asked my thoughts on the football project it was one of those moments when you realise someone has trust in you. Being invited in was a big deal and he’d created space and interest for us to connect. But change doesn’t happen overnight.

“It’s also important to acknowledge there will be history to the people and place. Things might not have worked in the past and it’s often hard to please everyone. When I was talking to residents, people spoke of past ‘mistakes’ by the council and instances where they’d not been listened to and it was important not to dismiss this. It’s about how you present it and as a result, residents were pleased they’d been asked their views, were involved in the planning and felt valued.

“Involving the community and building their trust on something like this can lead to other things. It’s just the start of people coming together with a common bond. The kids have something to look forward to and it feels like things are happening for them. I don’t think that happens often enough.

How has this approach led to change?

“This has been a genuine collaborative approach, building on what the community wants and needs and will provide a platform for much more.

“Four months on from the launch of the Friday evening sessions, the programme is still going strong with new members joining all the time. With funding for this type of project always an issue, there was a risk such an amazing thing could easily disappear once the money ran out.

“However, through conversation and relationships, the group is making plans to continue with help from local volunteers and effective joint work of partners. Strategic organisations involved in the planning would not normally have visited, but this time they have been on the ground talking about training opportunities and ongoing support which is a big step forward.

“The Active Derbyshire partnership has now become involved with the project and is supporting the development of volunteers from the community football group. I’ve also sourced some grant funding to purchase some equipment for the group which can be used in the long term instead of having to rely on Bolsover District Council.

“As our work is all about community taking ownership and leading physical activity for themselves, Bolsover District Council are in the process of reviewing and updating their volunteer policy. Under the current policy it would be extremely difficult for sessions to be led by local volunteers due to high levels of often unnecessary administration. Under the new policy, this will be much easier, and more volunteers will be encouraged and inspired to be involved in their own communities.”

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