Monthly Archives: January 2015

The numbers game

???????????????????????????????I’m a big fan of parkrun – the weekly 5K run (not a race…) enjoyed across the UK every Saturday at 9am by over 50,000 runners of all ages and abilities.

My first parkrun was in May 2013 and I’ve since led two parkrun teams in raising awareness and funds for Movember, run at five courses, and spent 9 months trying (unsuccessfully) to set up a parkrun in my home town. I enjoy marshalling at some of the runs (along with over 5,000 others volunteers) almost as much as the running. What I was told when I started –“it’s not about the running, it’s about the community” – is absolutely true for me and, I believe, a vast number of other parkrunners.

Looking only at the numbers is one way of measuring whether parkrun is successful. The organisers have an amazing array of statistics – compiled and updated weekly by the individual parkruns and available for all to see. The stats paint an impressive picture and the organisers and sponsors are rightly praised for mobilising so many people to take exercise on a regular basis. Note the parkrun seeds were sown 10 years ago – long before the 2012 Olympics. For me, the personal stories from members of the parkrunners’ community are an equally powerful testimony to the importance of the parkrun phenomenon.

But now parkrun is facing a problem of its own success – the number of people wanting to get involved is causing concern about wear and tear on routes, pressure on facilities such as parking and toilets and, in some cases, is bringing runners into conflict with other users of the public spaces. I also sense that over about 150 runners, the special dynamic of the community changes, but this is just a gut feeling.

The parkrun UK strategy for dealing with the spectacular increase in interest seems to be to create many more parkruns – having ten by this time next year is the aspiration for my home county (where we currently have three). In theory, each would attract smaller numbers of runners, travelling shorter distances to get there, and reducing pressure on any one location.

It’s not just parkrun that has to address issues around growth. In the field of social enterprise, there’s an ongoing debate about how best to scale (up) successful producers and providers. The trick is to balance the often conflicting demands associated with addressing ever-growing unmet need cost-effectively while protecting the very thing that makes social enterprise so special; the closeness to customers, connection with the wider community and a sense of shared ownership within the enterprise itself.

It’s the age-old debate about appropriate scale, quality vs quantity of (jargon alert!) outputs and outcomes, and about the breadth and depth of provision. Those concerned about the development and growth of social enterprise, interested in scaling up to make enough difference to enough people’s lives to be taken seriously by mainstream naysayers, might do well to look to the runners in their local parks for some of the answers.

More about parkrun at

Men’s Sheds and lifelong learning

light-bulb-new-businessSomeone once observed that talk about social enterprise is never very far from a Gandhi quote. Here’s one on learning…

“Live like you’re going to die tomorrow, learn like you’re going to live forever.”

It’s well known that feeding our sense of curiosity and acquiring new skills at any age is a great way to sustain mental wellbeing. For older learners, it may also stave off the onset of degenerate diseases associated with ageing.

The University of the Third Age (U3A) recognises this, providing opportunities for retired and semi-retired people to come together to learn, in their words ‘not for qualifications but for its own reward: the sheer joy of discovery’. Another important element in the U3A model is the idea of everyone being able to share the life lessons that come with age. Members share specific skills, alongside professional and personal experiences: the learners teach and the teachers learn, with no distinction between them.

In the ‘lifelong learning’ sector, men are recognised as a ‘hard to reach’ group; the thirst for learning in later life is recognised as being more prevalent amongst women than men. This is reflected in Dacorum, south west Herts, where the U3A group have an impressive 1300 members, but with women in the majority.

Publicity for The Repair Shed* in the U3A Dacorum bulletin generated a response from four people. Interestingly, two were women keen to learn the sort of home maintenance skills – fixing fuses and dripping taps etc – that their husbands had always sorted when they were alive. One of the women and one of the men are due to join The Repair Shed in early 2015.

The Repair Shed, and Men’s Sheds more generally, aim to involve older men in informal learning with skill-sharing being a common strand in most programmes of activity, alongside making, mending and general ‘tinkering’.

Food for the body and brain

Within The Repair Shed, extended skill-sharing is promoted through a time banking facility which records and rewards the input of members (one hour earns one time-credit). Members can then use their time-credits to ‘buy support’ from other members of the time bank.

Cooking is a good example of how this can work. Older men living on their own tend to need to support when it comes to healthy eating. A Repair Shed member wanting to learn how to cook a favourite dish or gain other basic culinary skills can ‘buy cooking lessons’ from other members with relevant skills. In Australia – the home of the Men’s Shed movement, ‘learning by doing’ is a feature of cooking where meals are the outcome of experimentation rather than slavishly following recipes.  The same, incidentally, goes for health education; peer-to-peer encouragement to get professional advice about things like prostate problems being far more effective than bringing in a health professional.

Back in The Repair Shed the plan is to share skills within the group (learning about metal work is a common interest…) before going public to embrace the wider community – with workshops for all ages and abilities in DIY, repair and re-use. Exciting times and lots to learn!

* For more on The Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead, go to