How digital has helped the delivery of a community project ― Skylark IX’s digital story
Constructed as a pleasure craft during the 1930s, Skylark IX was part of the world-famous armada of British ‘little ships’ used to bring back allied service people during the battle of Dunkirk in 1940. The Skylark IX Recovery Trust was formed in 2013 to rescue and restore Skylark IX and now works with a range of socially-isolated individuals and communities to help preserve the boat for future generations. In this case study Oliver Edwards considers how Skylark IX has made a step-change in digital to ensure it can keeps pace with a wide range of audiences.
Image courtesy of Skylark IX Recovery Trust ©.
Delivering fantastic heritage, culture and arts projects has been possible in organisations of all sizes for several decades, helped in no small part by grant funding, volunteer labour and passion for the subject. Our understanding of the importance of engagement and community outreach has been growing, particularly through the last decade, and this can be significantly enhanced by digital outputs. This case study looks at an organisation which has delivered a step-change in efforts online to ensure they can keep pace with a wide range of audiences.
The Skylark IX Recovery Trust was formed from a keen local desire to preserve a historic small boat with a lot of meaning for the people of its home town ― Dumbarton in Scotland. Skylark IX was constructed as a pleasure craft during the 1930s and operated initially in the South of England. From there, it joined the world-famous armada of British ‘little ships’ used in Operation Dynamo to bring back allied service people from Dunkirk during the dark days of 1940. Its association with Scotland began after the war, surviving through sheer luck and good fortune, and the boat is now preserved for future generations to view, ponder and care for. Working with a range of socially-isolated individuals and communities, the work of the Trust takes a greater relevance than it might if it cared singularly for Skylark IX’s future without considering how its story can help others.
Working with a range of socially-isolated individuals and communities, the work of the Trust takes a greater relevance than it might if it cared singularly for Skylark IX’s future without considering how its story can help others.
The Trust has taken a particularly proactive approach to outreach. Funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the project started brilliantly, with the organisation scaling up its capacity by taking on staff and focusing on the development of skills such as boatbuilding with traditional methods. Claire McDade, appointed as the project manager to oversee the project’s delivery, has worked in museums, galleries and culture for many years across the UK with particular experience in outreach. Outreach, though, has changed so much thanks to the growth of online and digital methods, changing some of the fundamentals of community project delivery. Online outputs have, for some time, been delivered by small and medium sized heritage organisations as an aside to existing plans. This ‘add-on’ approach runs the risk of organisations being left behind, eventually making their efforts less impactful. Having clearly understood the potential for this outcome, the Skylark IX Recovery Trust applied to take part in the Digital Heritage Lab and associated mentoring programme, and I was allocated as their ‘critical friend’.
We began the mentoring process by discussing the digital priorities of the organisation, and continued this approach throughout our period together. A good place to start, as we did, was to talk about the desired outcome of work online. Does the organisation want to sell tickets for a visitor attraction? Not in this case. Does it want to reach out into the community? This is a priority for this Trust, thus changing the approach, social media platforms, messaging, and promotional methods needed.
Sail making via Zoom. Image courtesy of Skylark IX Recovery Trust ©.
With a small team, setting priorities is critical to ensuring the best results are garnered. A scatter-gun approach when resources are limited can mean no real impact of online work is felt, much time is expended and motivation can be lost. This does mean occasionally saying ‘no, this isn’t for us’. In recent times, it has been very tempting for many cultural organisations to look to the superb example of the Black Country Living Museum, trailblazing a path on the video-based platform TikTok, and to automatically assume that this is the right platform for them too. In the event, Skylark IX Trust have chosen to adopt TikTok to reach young audiences, which is very much part of their raison d’etre. They have, though, chosen to steer clear of creating some unsustainable presences such as an organisation-specific page on LinkedIn.
A scatter-gun approach when resources are limited can mean no real impact of online work is felt, much time is expended and motivation can be lost. This does mean occasionally saying ‘no, this isn’t for us’.
The mentoring period has not just ruled things out, but also helped to establish those outlets which deserve increased attention. Regularising outputs on Facebook and Twitter is critical to building loyal engagement there but the Trust has struggled to achieve this in a structured way, particularly struggling with a lack of content. Introducing the Trust to content management systems, instilling the importance of regularity and suggesting creative approaches for generating engaging posts should all aid in achieving sustainability. Establishing the ‘why’ helps here too. The analytics and data that online platforms generate in bundles can be better broken down now into the metrics that are most meaningful for this organisation.
Building a website
One of the important ― critical, even ― pieces of infrastructure for most heritage and cultural organisations is a website. While social media and other forms of digital communications are increasingly embraced, maintaining an ‘anchor’ online through which a consistent ‘base message’ of who, what and why can be conveyed can be very important for a range of purposes such as cultivation of donation income. This is particularly true in Britain, where social media platforms are less trusted than in other developed nations (The Guardian, Hern, 2019). The Skylark IX Recovery Trust had struggled on this issue for some time, perhaps not understanding the importance of this solid foundation alongside more fluid, transient communication. As the Trust’s National Lottery Heritage Fund project moved forward, the need for building outcomes during the funded period which would be sustainable by the organisation as a whole going forward became clearer.
I discussed at some length with the Trust, during their Digital Heritage Lab mentoring sessions, the importance of establishing step changes digitally which could be taken forward if, for example, team members changed or the funding available was lessened. The development cost of a professional website can run to several thousands of pounds, which can be very difficult for organisations to justify outside of external funding opportunities. Thus, the site created had to be capable of surviving in an attractive and high-functioning way, technology changes through coming years without substantial further investment. It had to be mobile compatible. It also had to incorporate an element of ‘indestructibility’ to safeguard against irreversible edits by a team who, by the nature of the size of organisation, have to be good generalists in a wide spectrum of skills rather than fantastic, but limited, specialists.
Getting all these priorities into a clear website brief was, in itself, something new for the organisation which had only scoped work into tender documents for work offline. Naturally, much of the principles applied and part of my role as the digital skills mentor for the Trust was to reassure the team of this. It was just as important in web work to build a good, flexible relationship with the supplier chosen, to see that they established clear timescales for work and that they delivered against budget. The moral here is that while some of the skills and expertise needed to deliver work online are very different to those deployed elsewhere, many of the guiding principles of good project management remain. This is great news for organisations like the Trust and for individuals like Claire who are learning to adapt to a new world of digital.
In our last mentoring session together, Claire said: “you have given us the confidence” which belies another important outcome for organisations going through the growing pains of getting digital into the heart of their ethos. Practical, feel-real steps that actually move digital from the abstract into the delivery, as the Trust delivered through its period of mentoring, are crucial to establishing conviction that the direction taken is the right one. For the Trust, this went even further than we might have first hoped with regular boat-building sessions online and superb engagement on social media with calendar events such as International Womens’ Day.
- Much of the basis for good project management can be directly applied to work online, though you may feel unsure at first.
- Measurable and achievable actions such as engaging with an event online or creating new website pages can have a real impact, even if they do not feel ‘grand’ or comparable to much larger organisations.
- Set clear objectives. Remember the ‘why’ and set your goals accordingly. Don’t be afraid to drop schemes or not adopt the latest innovation if you assess rationally that this doesn’t work for you.
The Skylark IX Recovery Trust has been mentored by Oliver Edwards as part of The Lab strand of the Digital Heritage Lab.
The Digital Heritage Lab is a project managed by the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy, One Further and the Collections Trust and funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. It is a free programme for small and medium sized heritage organisations seeking to develop their digital capabilities and capacity.