London volunteers get the abbey habit

Lesnes Abbey Woods is a green lung in built-up suburban south-east London.

Covering 88 acres of woodland, heath and park, it is centred around the ruins of the historic Medieval Lesnes Abbey.

Run by Bexley Council, the popular site has long had teams of volunteers helping with its maintenance.

The council was interested in getting the local community more connected with this jewel in its midst and expanding the ways volunteers engaged and helped out.

Which is where Pippa Smith and Tickbox Marketing’s Volunteer Makers model comes in.

Pippa is a freelancer who works with various organisations to help attract volunteers and to boost their effectiveness.

She had previously encountered Volunteer Makers during her work with Essex Museum’s Snapping the Stiletto project.

Snapping the Stiletto aimed to counter the cliched view of “Essex Girls” by telling the real story of women in the county. It was aided by masses of volunteers and garnered national media attention.

“With Lesnes, the project is all about getting people to engage with the site and get involved at whatever level they feel they can,” Pippa explains.

“We were working during the Global Pandemic which made things difficult, but we could overcome this by using digital engagement.

“By using what I like to call “light touch” volunteer challenges, we kept people interested in the site at a time when we couldn’t run actual events there and this was very important in keeping volunteer numbers up and in diversifying the kinds of volunteers we have.

“We have volunteers from all age ranges now and from all types of backgrounds: from keen gardeners to housebound people who may not visit the site but are champions for it on social media.”

Pippa firmly believes in the Volunteer Makers’ ethos of micro-volunteering: making volunteering something that can be done by anyone no matter how much or little time they have in their life.

“We began with Twitter. Our social media volunteers tweeting out challenges or retweeting positive messages to do with Lesnes,” she says.

“It gave people a sense of ownership, a relationship with the place, rather than see it as just a big, empty, green space.”

With a Volunteer Makers portal to make managing challenges less admin burdensome, the Lesnes Abbey Wood project team kept up a stream of volunteer challenges to attract all kinds of people.

They ranged from a photography challenge to a daffodil survey, a frogspawn count and participation in the national Big Butterfly Survey.

“It’s good to link Lesnes Abbey Woods with these national events,” Pippa notes, “We can put a local spin on them.”

With lockdowns lifted, the project can now expand to more hands-on roles, such as helping guide school visit groups and stewarding events in the park.

There is also a revamped Friends of Lesnes Abbey Woods group starting, with a good mix of volunteers from all ages investing their time in the park’s future.

Pippa is enthusiastic over how Volunteer Makers has helped Lesnes broaden its appeal.

“I’ve found it a very useful mechanism to revitalise volunteering. It allows people to get involved in so many different ways – it rethinks what volunteering is.” she says.

“Getting people invested in a space like Lesnes Abbey Woods helps not only secure the future of it, but benefits local people in so many ways. It builds a community.”

She does have one regret over the project though.

“Because of the lockdown and my other work, I haven’t been able to go there and visit the site yet!” she laughs.

“I know from my colleagues in Bexley and from volunteer feedback what a lovely place it is. I can’t wait to actually get there.”