Members of the GSA Leapfrog team, expertly assisted by Debbie at Lancaster, delivered two workshops at the Highlands and Islands Enterprise Strengthening Communities Conference 2017, in Aviemore on Sept 21–22. Both workshops were fully booked and we soon saw why as a diverse mix of workers from community trusts, social care charities and community development workers from across the Highlands were invited to try out and discuss our Make It Happen toolbox for feedback.

We were situated within the grand auditorium where the excellent conference keynote presentations and discussions had been taking place. Lovely seating and AV equipment, although slightly overwhelming, we nonetheless stormed ahead by clustering our 20+ participants into the front section, splitting them into groups of 4–6 people, to get them to take a toolbox each and look through the 5 tools they contained to discuss four questions: what contexts they felt they’d work in, what value or challenges they saw in them, how they might adapt them for their work, and how they might support evaluation, or indeed need evaluating themselves.

After initial timidity on receiving these boxes of paper tools, the participants would take the tools individually to talk through what they had in there hands, which encouraged others to ask questions and build an understanding for the group. The discussions were supported by the Leapfrog team members to prompt conversation and record responses. We were keen not to interfere too much, as we were really testing how accessible and meaningful these tools would be for the communities that would use them. The results did not disappoint.

From the discussions I was involved in, there were real favourites, such as how Role Bingo supported a more even spread of responsibility in event organisation. Another favourite was the Event Canvas for providing the space to reflect on projects, or indeed to plan out key decisions along the way. Generally, the tools gained a really positive response with every single participant keen to take the toolboxes back with them (sometimes asking for more than one). The appeal seemed to stem from their being very simple in language, relatable and adaptable. Slight concerns were whether some people they work with would see them as trivial or patronising, and that they would need those using them to be very precise in how they frame their use.

Both workshops were finished off with a discussion around our challenges with evaluation, particularly around tracing the use of physical tools in remote communities. We asked participants to share their experiences and challenges of evaluation to share some insights and stories. Highlights from these discussions included ‘passing places’; how workers driving through a community would stop at a passing place and a community member driving the other way would block them in with their car to talk to them. Very amusing, but it illustrated how simply being present often provided the best opportunities for evaluation and feedback. Another participant felt they related their experience internally, but rarely found ways to do this to across their organisation, as a whole. The success of qualitative evaluation seemed to rest on key workers or intermediaries, who were familiar with a community and could therefore gather insights on what was happening or working more effectively. Regarding the tools themselves, evaluating their success seemed to come down to evaluating their level of use. If they’re used fully or repeatedly, then they would be deemed as effective. The tricky part comes in tracing the variation of use, particularly through any adaptations. A question that will taken on in future evaluation discussions.