Students in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies have the opportunity to work with a real NGO on a business planning activity. The units have been developed and supported with the support of the Engaged Learning team. You can find more about engaged learning on the intranet site or by emailing Hannah Tweddell – Hannah.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unit Director Gaston Fornes explains more…
The two units, NGO Development & Practice and Managing & Evaluating Development are offered as electives in the 2nd year of the UG and master’s programmes respectively. Between the two, every year we have around 100 students, among the largest units in the School.
For around ten years these units have been combining the experience of in-classroom learning with the work with an NGO. In the first years, the NGOs were mainly based in Bristol, but with the wider adoption of communication technologies we have expanded the horizons and worked with organisations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The pandemic has helped us to reach more organisations due to a wider use of technology, but also, unfortunately, because there are more needs.
The main focus of the units is the understanding of how and why NGOs/community-based organisations develop and grow strategically. The main objective is to design, deploy, and measure the [positive] impact that the organisation is creating in the community. The units are assessed taking different approaches and different levels:
- An essay/report due at the same moment that the work with NGOs start to ensure that students are well equipped to deal with the challenges that lie ahead.
- A group presentation at the end of the unit, resulting from the work with the NGOs (a work that lasts around two months).
- Peer assessment, intended to develop in students the ability to give feedback to peers, and also to ensure a fair division of the work.
One of the main success elements is that they embed the development of professional skills in the way units are delivered, giving high responsibility and autonomy to students to lead their own learning process, to work in multidisciplinary and multicultural groups, and to focus on solving problems using a critical approach. I started teaching these units after seven years developing a start-up and a few more before that working in a bank; during this period I realised that this combination of skills, strategic vision, and knowledge to link the dots was something difficult to find in the market and I said why not creating the right environment for this ‘magic’ to happen in the classroom. An important point, this cannot be happening without the amazing work from Hannah Tweddell and the Engaged Learning Office.
The experience for the last decade has been amazing. In 2016 we got the Highly Commended University of Bristol Engagement Award (see here), but beyond formal recognitions I value the feedback from both organisations and students. Every year they are not shy to express how much they have learned in the process, how much the project supports their development, and more importantly how they see their energies and efforts contributing to have a positive impact. It cannot be more fulfilling than this.
Second year student Lucy Wakeley and her team were paired with Zion Community Space. Here she talks about her experience.
As part of the unit my group was matched up with Zion, a community space located in Bedminster Down. The beautiful building was previously a Methodist Church that had been converted into a community centre that is used to serve a wide range of community groups from a breast-feeding group to a memory café for those with dementia. It is also used for weddings, private hire events and has a great cafe.
After many weeks of hard work and a very steep learning curve it was so rewarding to put what we had learned to use. Zion were so welcoming and sent us so much information which was so useful. The real challenge we had working with Zion is that most of the initial things we had suggested they were already implementing. This meant we had to think outside the box.
Zion is a brilliant NGO serving its community and I am so grateful we had a chance to work with them. After finishing the unit, we were keen to continue to be involved with Zion so volunteered at their 10th Anniversary. It was brilliant to see Zion in person and in action, even if the Covid restrictions had altered their plans slightly. It also gave us a chance to try their famous cakes and I can safely say we were not disappointed!
This unit has been the most challenging but also my best unit so far. Each week we were given a case study of an NGO that we had to offer a solution for. Week on week we thought we were going to be unable to complete the tasks but with a lot of teamwork and guidance from Gaston we managed to present every week. These challenges meant by the final project, which for us was working with Zion, we felt quite confident in our abilities.
The unit also taught me the importance of teamwork. I was lucky to have such a brilliant team. By understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses and with really good communication we were able to work well together. This has set us up to work effectively and efficiently in teams in the workplace.
As someone who has a passion for local politics, local community groups such as Zion are so important. Zion is a fantastic community centre that serves so many different groups across the Bedminster community. This includes groups that can often be isolated such as the elderly. I am so grateful we were able to work with Zion and help with their great work.
This unit has made me realise just how many NGO’s there are in my local area who are searching for volunteers. I would encourage all University students to have a look at what is available near them. Not only can you help a brilliant organisation, but you can also get some valuable experience and it is a great way to get to know your university city better.
Emma, Outreach Coordinator from Zion Community Space tells us about her experience from a community partner perspective.
Zion Community Space is a community and event space in Bedminster Down in the south of the city. It is a cafe as well as holding regular events in the daytime and evening to engage with a broad age range in the community. These events are as diverse as pre-school art sessions, comedy nights, writing groups and a Memories Cafe for dementia sufferers and their carers.
It was an overwhelmingly positive experience working with the team from Bristol University.
Initially, there was a slight concern at the beginning of the process that it would actually be more work for us, meetings with the students, providing information, answering questions, more meetings and questions when we were uncertain of what we would get at the end of the project.
I’m very glad to say that these concerns were completely unfounded. The group were completely engaged with what we do here at Zion and all the meetings were constructive, well prepared and always well attended.
The group were great to talk to, had bags of enthusiasm and it was brilliant to see how they worked as a team to divide their tasks up so that they were able to research their own interests and strengths in the context of our organisation.
All interactions were made through one team member meaning that I didn’t have to duplicate information or answer questions multiple time which made everything a lot easier for myself.
Their end of project presentation and their written work was very informative and incredibly professionally produced. It was reassuring that we were already doing some of the suggestions made by the students after a few meetings. Having a group from a different generation look at your organisation and giving you suggestions and feedback, I think is incredibly important. Sometimes you can be quite involved with looking at the organisation through a certain ‘lens’ and seeing from a new point of view was great. This information was passed to all of the Directors and suggestions such as moving a Donate button to a main web page which would be easier to navigate to, is being implemented on our next website update as well as an increase in our advertising as a wedding venue.
Two of the students came and volunteered at our 10th birthday party. It was great to finally meet them face to face and it was so nice that they wanted to come and see the venue and help out on such an important day for us. It meant a huge amount to us.