As part of 2020’s research project on volunteer management in Scottish football, funded by our friends at SD Europe, we spoke to Stenhousemuir FC about their “Community Help Initiative”. We saw this as a fantastic demonstration of how quickly and powerfully a football club can respond to community need if everyone is aligned around a shared purpose and direction.
For a club to be really effective in the community it needs a driver – one or two people who have it in their mind to do something for the community. The club has to reach out wider to find people that want to be involved in more than just football – community doesn’t need to be in conflict with football aspirations, but you need a structure to manage this.
Stenhousemuir FC currently play in SPFL League Two, Scotland’s fourth division, and are incorporated as a Community Interest Company to ensure the community focus is permanent, and the two sides of the club (football and community) are separate but interconnected. Club chairman Iain McMenemy says, “you’ve won the lottery if you have a football person who really gets the community side”, and credits vice-chair David Reid as the driving force behind creating the CIC. The club has an aspiration to do more for the community and are always challenging themselves to go further.
Football is the magnet that attracts new supporters, players, volunteers, and directors. Once they have come to the club, they look to get them involved more – to understand what they’re interested in, what their skills are, and encourage them to get involved further. This has to be done intentionally, and if you don’t work at it, you’ll lose them – they’ll just drop their kids off at the gate and disappear.
Club officials attend regular meetings with community parents, prizegiving events, etc – they don’t just leave this to the coaches. It’s important that silos don’t form, you need to be intentional about keeping the football club and community programmes connected. The club has relationships with more than 20 other sports through the Tryst Community Sports Hub, based at the local high school. This connects two facilities for mutual benefit – Schools Of Football can be held at Ochilview during the day when it would otherwise be unused, and the club’s community teams can use Larbert High School in the evening when it would be empty.
At the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic people took personal action, and the club’s role was to connect and coordinate this, and offer help to the whole community. Within days the club set up a Community Help Initiative, setting up a telephone helpline and distributing leaflets locally to offer help with simple things – dog walking, food deliveries, shopping, lending books, etc. The first phone calls were from people wanting to volunteer, rather than from people looking for help. More than 200 volunteers came on board in total, half of whom had no prior connection to the club, and half who had some connection but had never volunteered before. This added to the volunteers the club already had for the community programmes.
The club showed its commitment to supporting the initiative properly by keeping three full-time staff available to resource it properly. The club didn’t know if it could even survive financially, but the community purpose was so strongly established in the club that it didn’t do the easy thing and just look after itself.
When bringing volunteers into the initiative, the club emphasised its principles and commitment to the community. The importance of listening to what the community needed, responding quickly, making personal connections (by pairing volunteers up with people in the community), and always living up to their promises. By showing their commitment, the club’s trust in people was returned – when helping with food deliveries, for example, the club would pay for groceries themselves rather than asking for money in advance. This smoothed the process and allowed them to respond quickly, and although the club recognised and prepared for the risk of non-payment, in reality everybody paid because they were treated with trust and respect.
The club were able to use their existing connections with schools (working with 28 different schools in the area), local businesses, charities and the council to extend the service they delivered, and this led to the club being given “community anchor organisation” status, which made them eligible for lottery funding to cover some core costs, which would have been almost impossible to get grant funding for otherwise.
Stenhousemuir’s Community Help Initiative got a lot of media attention, locally, nationally and beyond Scotland. Feedback from volunteers and from the community was that they felt the club genuinely meant it when they said they wanted to help the community and was making some hard choices in order to do the right thing. It was clear that the club was authentic, and not doing any of this for attention and PR – volunteers were front and centre, the club didn’t hog the limelight, they were just one of the many organisations working together.
“Giving volunteers the space to make a difference”, SD Scotland 2021
Our research project was originally intended to include visits to each club featured in the project report, and we had to wait a little longer to do this! But we were delighted to eventually sit down with Stenhousemuir’s chairman Iain McMenemy to hear more from him about their work in the community. You can see what he had to say in the video below, and read the full report including more case studies here.