A charity embracing all things tech in pursuit of its strategic aims and objectives

John Toon, Senior Manager at Beever and Struthers, caught up with Liam Russell, Program Manager at OutdoorLads to talk all things tech, COVID and social media. OutdoorLads is a charitable organisation set up to promote good physical and mental wellbeing amongst gay, bi and trans men. They operate across the whole country, although they have their roots originally in the Northwest and Manchester specifically. They meet their objectives by encouraging a love of the outdoors and outdoor activities/pursuits and they run over 1,000 in person events (in normal times) per year. These cover a whole range of activities such as day walks ranging from a leisure walk by the seafront to hiking up big mountains, cycling and mountain biking events, indoor and outdoor climbing, hostel and camping weekend events and expeditions abroad.

Liam Russell
Program Manager

Liam, tell me a little bit more about OutdoorLads’ purpose.

We run it specifically for gay, bi and trans men and the reason for that is evidence shows that gay, bi and trans men have lower levels of mental wellbeing than their straight counterparts, and outdoor activities have been shown to have very strong impact on improving that situation for people. Also, the outdoors stereotypically is not in an area which gay, bi and trans men typically get involved in and it’s something different and alternative to the gay scene. The gay scene not necessarily being everybody’s cup of tea just because you’re gay, bi or trans.

How long has the organisation been going?

OutdoorLads started in 2006 and it started quite organically using a website called Meetup where somebody had put on there that they wanted to meet other gay guys to go on a camping trip and got a response from about 20 people. They got together for a weekend camping at the National Trust Great Langdale Campsite in the Lake District and by all accounts had a great weekend. From that they decided that this was great, and we should do something more with this and grew the group as OutdoorLads and then a couple of years later after realising what impact it was having on the people involved, and their health and wellbeing, converted to charity status.

We have just had a 15th birthday in February and grown in that time from 20 people on a campsite in the Lake District to around 2000 members today, plus no end of pay-as-you-go members who are people that don’t pay a membership fee but can access our events.

We have changed quite a lot in that time from being quite small and informal to having a website, having a staff team to run the operations and professionalising what we do. While still trying to maintain that friendly, welcoming, all-inclusive approach to things and to show that we value our members and keep engaged with them.

Was there a particular reason why you started out as a reasonably informal club, but then became a much more structured entity by becoming a charity?

I think it was just the fact that people were realising that they were also a really good thing, that there was nobody else doing what OutdoorLads does. The people that were getting involved were getting quite heavily involved and benefiting from it as a result. In addition, people from further afield were hearing about us and getting involved and doing a bit of traveling to get to events and so the natural progression really was to start doing it across the country and not just in the North West. What also helped was the fact that those original trustees, one of whom is still onboard, had the drive to make something more of it really.

You mentioned that everything started off with Meetup and that's the first little thread of the use of technology within the organisation.

Has that been central to the development of the organisation in terms of your growth and management?

Yes, I think technology has really. The website is absolutely the centre pin of OutdoorLads in terms of that’s what everything hangs around. The website has enabled us to do all the functions we need to communicate with our members, to advertise our events and collect payment for them. Members can express their interest in events and can message each other through the website without having to give out phone numbers or email addresses. So, everything that we do is through the website and for that reason we have invested quite heavily in the website because it is the cornerstone of everything that OutdoorLads is.

The website has evolved over time and a couple years ago we had a complete revamp of the website which had become quite large and clunky and had its little faults that we had to try and patch over. So, we spent quite a lot of money investing in a new bespoke custom-built website which is considerably better than what we had before. That’s improved the member experience, it’s absolutely improved the experience for staff and leaders as well to get the information that they need and it’s allowed us to be compliant with regulations, GDPR, etc that we need to take into account as well. Money well invested considering that the previous website was coming to the point where it was probably going to fall over, and we were having to spend a fair amount of money each month on maintenance of the website just to keep it in existence.

So, moving to a new website has brought a breath of fresh air into the group and made that side of things run a lot easier for all concerned really.

The OutdoorLads Website

Internally you have some useful people there with IT skills.

Is it critical for the charity to have those in-house skills or were you able to draw on external IT experts as well to help build what the charity needed?

So, I think the fact that we got the in-house skills, it’s been a huge advantage. We have paid for the website externally by people we weren’t connected to before. But having the skills in house has meant that we know what we’re getting and what it can do is right. So, it has enabled as to make sure we’re getting value for money and make sure we’re getting something which does meet our needs, because techie stuff can be quite baffling if you’re not techie!

Otherwise, you are just absolutely in the hands of a software developer and you may or may not have effectively communicated what you think you want to get to them, so there is always that interpretation risk there as well. Understanding our technology and what we do with it and how we want to use it has been a huge help. But I have to say for the people that were involved most heavily in the website developments, it’s no small undertaking and at one point it was almost a full-time job, for one person in particular, but that has paid dividends in terms of what we’ve got is really good.

Did you ever consider getting an “off the shelf” website and what have been the benefits of the investment made?

If we were selling just events, you can buy an off the shelf website and populate it perfectly satisfactorily. But it’s the fact that we wanted it to do lots of extra bits, which was where the real investment is. We wanted quite a lot of bespoke functionality to our website, which most websites can’t manage. It does try to be a lot of things to a lot of people in terms of it is a booking site, a social media communications tool, it stores lists of people who are attending our events and makes them accessible as attendance registers and it helps to manage memberships too. Plus, we have integrations with several other pieces of software and payment providers.

What has also been good about the website is that it’s enabled us to do even more since then with that information. So, for example now we’ve got test and trace in place we can we have automatically generated QR codes for events so that an event leader gets an email the day before an event with a QR code which people can scan on arrival at the event. It means we’re supporting the COVID effort in that way but also gives those attending the reassurance that things are being done properly and they can relax a little bit at that point.

It also communicates to Telegram, which is a bit like WhatsApp for those unfamiliar, where we have various Telegram communication channels which act as like a forum for people as well, without again still being GDP are compliant etc.

So, our in-house technology expertise has enabled a lot of these addons to the website as well, which has been fantastic and a real benefit to the experience we can offer people really.

In terms of COVID, which has clearly been very disruptive for an organisation like yours, can you explain what sort of impact that has had and what you've done to try and continue engaging with members during that period?

What’s just happened is a massive blow for an organisation that tries to bring people together when what lock down does is intentionally keep you apart. Beginning of last year, for the first couple of months I don’t think anybody really realised what the impact was going to be. In March last year we started cancelling our events – our day events but also, paid for events where we had bookings with hostels and campsites as well. So that was a real blow and lots of uncertainty there with lots of people upset that they couldn’t do the activities they wanted to do.

The impact of that is that for lots of people OutdoorLads is one of their key social outlets and it wasn’t available to them. So, what we tried to do then is start thinking about what objectives we should have coming out of this. We need people to still be connected to each other and still connected and engaged with OutdoorLads because we don’t know how long it’s going to last or what the impact is going to be.

We quite quickly pulled together a program of events. Our slogan is “get out more” so these events were called our “stay in more” events – very imaginative marketing! It was successful, and the focus was on events that we could deliver online. We had cocktail making classes and cocktail evenings, we had pub quizzes, music quizzes, lunchtime socials so there was just 12:30 till 1:00 o’clock on your lunch break when you’re working at home, drop in and have a chat with whoever else is on the call.

Most of these “stay in more” events were delivered on Zoom and Jitsi, which is a free software package. We had a series of events with a dreadful title really called “gay shorts” which focussed on gay themed, short films, of which there is a surprising number, like a movie night and we’d watch them altogether on Jitsi and talk about what’s in them. We delivered about 900 of those events in the last year, which is amazing. There was literally something on almost every night of the week. The impact of that has been we’ve seen that people have continued to engage with OutdoorLads. We have obviously seen a drop off in membership through this period because people can’t actually get what it is that they signed up for, but we’ve only seen about a 20% drop in paid membership, which I think, given what we’ve been through, is amazing.

People are still engaged with the group, which meant that when things opened up again, we were already at the front of people’s minds and people were there wanting to get out and didn’t need as much motivation to start getting out again. 

We’ve collected lots of feedback from people with responses saying those events kept me going through lockdown because members don’t live near friends or family, or live away. Also, it was a really good social outlet and a way that people can still meet others and there’s lots of people made genuine new friends through digital events that we’ve run with people they haven’t met before, which is amazing, really.

That’s one of the really interesting things isn't it about the strange situation that we have been in over the last 12 months or so where, like you say, you do something over Zoom and that although you would think it may increase barriers that actually drops the barriers doesn't.

That’s worked fantastically well, and the members have really enjoyed although it may not always be everybody’s cup of tea. But in the circumstance, I feel that we did everything we could possibly do to keep our members entertained, engaged and connected and this comes to the spirit of what OutdoorLads is about – bringing people together albeit in a different way.

You mentioned previously that some of the paid membership has been dropping away but now that we're coming out of lockdown are you seeing that picking back up again?

Two months ago, was the first month for a long time where we had more people joining than direct debits cancelled, which is a great landmark really and absolutely it’s picking up lots. We give away free T-shirts when people sign a direct debit form and I’ve got 100 free T shirts coming this afternoon because we’re out of stock again!

You should hopefully recover that 20% lost membership reasonably quickly do you think?

That’s the aim to bounce back to where we might have been before. We’ve launched a refer a friend scheme so that our existing Members can refer a friend to OutdoorLads and they both get a £10 voucher to spend on events. We’re using social media to get the word out there that we’re still around, still here, doing stuff and encourage people to sign up.

I think COVID has underlined for a lot of people how much they enjoyed OutdoorLads and got out of it if they were members and, they’re talking to other people that they know that could get involved and getting them signed up and realising the benefits of what it does bring. I think it’s been really positive and some of our events have sold out incredibly quickly and just shows that people are really keen and have missed it and want to get back to stuff.

Your “stay in” events have clearly been successful so are you going to continue some of that as a theme going forward and have a bit of a hybrid now of normal outdoor events that would happen pre COVID along with along with some of these more innovative ideas that you've had to had to implement?

They do have a place, but they naturally have to take second fiddle to what we normally do, which is of course outdoors, but will be continuing with those, for example, the lunchtime drop-in that I mentioned, we’re now just doing that twice a week and simply highlighting that to new members.

The music quiz attracted almost like a cult like following amongst people where people couldn’t get a spot at times so that’s something that will be continuing on. We’re actually hoping to bring this alive as an in-person music quiz at some of our big events, which would be really nice to see that go almost full circle.

For other events they won’t be the level that we have had, but hopefully it won’t be needed either. However, there’s enthusiasm to keep that running and people have benefited from it and for weeknights, when there’s not much stuff going on, it just still helps keep you connected and engaged.

Where there any things that didn't work?

There was nothing that was a massive failure. There are some things that I think might have been more popular. Big Spring Camp, that I just mentioned normally has 500 people attending but we couldn’t do it last year and we’re not doing it this year, so we had a Mini Big Spring Camp which was basically camp out in the backyard and a Zoom call for members to communicate.

I thought we’d get lots of people up for that, but it was about 30. But you know it’s less about the numbers that run it, but the impact it has for those that were on it. So, if 30 people did it and it was very different weekend, and they enjoy doing it then that’s fantastic and I’m less concerned that it was only 30.

From personal experience I spent an incredible amount of time camping in my back garden last year, which wasn't entirely expected, but a break from the norm!

You briefly mentioned that you are using Telegram integrated with the website rather than WhatsApp. Is that a particular decision? Were you using WhatsApp before Telegram and then shifted?

We weren’t really using either in this way, but the big difference really is about GDPR. With WhatsApp you can see other people’s phone number whereas with Telegram you don’t get that information. So, it was a way of people being able to be on Telegram and connected to other people and be able talk to them, but no further personal information is shared.

It sits alongside and slightly overlaps the website, and there’s various channels which people can join covering probably 30 or 40 different parts of the country and different event types as well. Some people think that’s absolutely fantastic and really worthwhile, and other people perhaps don’t engage with it as much, but the fact is, it’s there and it’s a service that’s available and it’s not essential that people use that, but they can choose to.

In terms of your technology providers do you have a decision-making process in terms of picking them?

It’s more to do with what meets the needs at the time and a willingness to try out new things. One of the reasons we picked Jitsi was because we tried Zoom but it didn’t work very well. As a result, there was a bit of trial and error to finding solutions. Like many organisations, we’ve been feeling our way through this and working it out as we go along to some degree.

You use Xero for accounting, and you've also mentioned taking payments from people through the website.

Are there particular reasons for using Xero and for using the payment solutions you’ve chosen?

Xero is great really because it’s intuitive and easy to find you your way around. I’m not from accounting background and haven’t really used another package like this, but actually picked it up quickly. You can store your paperwork in there as well, so we scan copies of all our invoices which really helps when searching for things. The reports are good, and it just works really well, and I do like how you just have the automatic bank feeds as well so it’s one less job to do.

We collect direct debits through FastPay, which is another really good system. We’ve changed what we do with FastPay, and it integrates with Xero as well, which it didn’t originally, which is brilliant because before we were relying on a huge Excel spreadsheet to work out what direct debit was being sent off this month – it was horrific. It’s a much more appropriate and easier to manage solution now.

We use Stripe as well for collecting our payments through the website. It helps to take those payments quite efficiently and issue refunds, which has been especially helpful considering our cancelled events last year.

So no more cheques or bank transfers?

I had to write a cheque last week and the last time I used the chequebook was in 2011. So, it’s every decade I’m writing a cheque! We still pay for things using bank transfer but again we’re expecting changes in these processes as a result of technology.

I know that you are very strong on Facebook and Instagram and other platforms. So just tell me a bit more about how and why you use those?

We do use Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and my colleague Dan, part of his role is to manage our social media accounts. A few years ago, we were using it just for the occasional post that sort of said “this is event going on why don’t you come along to it” and that’s evolved quite a lot as a tool to keep us at the forefront of people’s minds, engage with our members and spread news of good things that are happening with posts two or three times a day. They normally follow a similar pattern but vary between which media we’re using.

We talk about events that we’re running, but a lot of it is just showing photos from events of people out, doing stuff, enjoying themselves, which helps with membership and people looking at that and thinking. Yeah, that could be me. I could get involved. These people are doing it. Why can’t I?

I think we’ve developed a relatively strong brand with that. We keep it very positive and that works very well. We often share news from other organisations, and particularly what the LGBT sector are doing.

Is it fair to say that the space that you're operating in there isn’t a lot of competition for an audience there?

I think we lay in the middle with that and lots of other mountaineering type organisations aren’t as active as we are, but we have made a conscious decision to up our social media game. It’s a really good tool for what we’re trying to do which is to get our messages out there, so we have actually chosen to, you know, have a member of staff who leads on this.

I think in the outdoor sector there’s not much competition. But, in the LGBT sector there’s more, but we still have a strong presence and a brand identity within our marketplace if you like. We’re helped by the fact that there’s not many outdoors LGBT nationwide groups.

We do find that some of our other partners are keen to get involved as a result of our presence. So, for example, we’re doing a partnership with Cotswold Outdoor who give us a 15% discount for members but are also supporting us with social media initiatives and giving us some vouchers to give away as well.

This demonstrates, doesn’t it, the power of social media as the above initiative helps to build your profile off the back of an organisation that's considerably larger, but are there any downsides?

If we’re honest I’m aware that we’re ticking a rainbow-coloured box for some of these big brands. Equally, does it matter? I mean, it’s improving their awareness, their awareness amongst their audience and it works for us as well. So, I don’t really have a problem with that.

I suppose from your point of view then it's about striking the right balance, isn't it? You don't want to be taken advantage of, as it were, but equally you don't want to turn away opportunities.

What we want is for more LGBT acceptance. By big brands working with us that helps a little way to move towards that so brilliant and it feels good.

I know that you do a huge amount with all the data that you generate. We’ve mentioned about how good the website is, it helping you keep track of attendance lists and interest in events, for example. But I know that you track all the metrics coming out of the various social media channels.

Is data now an integral part of the internal reporting that's done within the organisation?

It is and it’s increasing I suppose in that respect, because that data is available to us, and so it makes sense to harvest it and use it. I think the key is to not make the data run the organisation too much. You have a bit of human input to say, “this makes sense” and “this doesn’t”. But it’s great to be able to see that things that, in effect, are having an impact and things that you perhaps might think ought to but maybe aren’t as much.

It’s also about keeping and using the data in the context of what the group is and what we’re trying to achieve. You know we’re not a business trying to flog something – our objective is the charitable aims still, and the resulting data is helping support that.

Leading on from that, one of the things that I know you do on a regular basis if you do membership surveys, don't you? And that is quite closely tied into your objectives as a charity, isn't it?

We do an annual survey the results of which go into our annual report. Basically, it’s checking with our members to gather their experiences and their thoughts about the group.

We collect details on how long individuals have been a member; their level of engagement with the organisation; and then a section where you know we asked about their experiences and what their thoughts are on OutdoorLads and what difference it’s made?

It’s all about impact and that’s the bit where you need a box of tissues because it’s tear-jerking stuff sometimes. People have said OutdoorLads has allowed them to come out and be who they really are and enjoy life whereas perhaps before they weren’t. When you read that, you think, crikey, we really are having some serious impacts here and these people have sat there and written this down to tell us about it. Probably feeling quite nervous about having this about it, but also really, really pleased that they’ve been able to do what they wanted to do.

It’s not just about coming out it’s also about trying new things so people that have never been on a proper walk up a mountain have done that with OutdoorLads and experienced new things that gives you a sense of personal achievement and confidence which you know is also really valuable.

What's next?

I think the first part, where we are now, is recovery unfortunately, because we need to get back to the level of events on that we had before and to that aim, it’s all about getting back more events, more walks, more people involved, more members is the plan for this year.

Before COVID hit, in January, we had a board away day where we looked at strategy and where we want to go, and lots of really good ideas came out of that which were then instantly put on the backburner because of COVID. We want to look at how we can do what we do but do it even better and constantly improve our member experience, so there’s a few little projects which we are working on.

A big setback is Big Spring Camp which frankly is our big income generator of the year, hopefully we can do it in 2022. That has an impact in terms of income generation and it’s a real focal point for the group and members, when we typically have an attendance of 500. So, it is a set back and we need to get back to some element of normality.

Do you think the experience of the last 12 months or so has made a difference in terms of resilience of Outdoorlads, the committee, the people who work for the charity and the membership as a whole?

I think we have shown quite a lot of resilience really. If a year ago you told us what the impact was going to be I would have been surprised to still be here in the form we are now, but we are, so I think we have been very resilient as have our Members really. They’ve also supported us and egged us on, and lots made very generous donations to help keep us going and that’s amazing.

I think there’s a renewed enthusiasm for what we do, because we’ve not been able to do it for a while, which sounds very strange. Members are champing at the bit to get back.

I think there’s some frustration with some of the things that we’ve had to contend with and deal with, and they have not been ideal, and changes had to made to things. But we’ve coped and got through it and found ways around issues. That’s part of this whole situation, we’ve had to just change and adapt, and I can think of lots of conversations we’ve had about things which have never come to fruition either. For example, at one point we were thinking we’d have to buy our own COVID testing machine to get through Big Spring Camp. It was going to cost £7000 or something ridiculous, but a lot of these things haven’t had to be done in the end.

It is an indication not just of the organisation’s resiliency but the ability to forward plan and to strategize as well. At least you've had the forethought to think about that and think, oh, maybe we do need to do this to be able to do X, Y and Z.

Ultimately, you may not have had to do it but at least you considered it.

We have done lots of planning and thinking about those things. Sometimes that’s been quite draining and some of those conversations that you don’t really want to be having to be honest, but you have them and if they have not had to actually implement them that’s brilliant, isn’t it?

I’m quite pleased with how staff and trustees responded, but also how members have responded.

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John Toon

John Toon

I have a passion for technology, both personal and business, and for helping organisations operate as efficiently as possible. I hate admin and laborious processes – there is always a better way! With the growth in the cloud accounting ecosystem over the past 10 years efficiency and apps increasingly go hand in hand. I am a regular speaker on the tech scene both for UK and overseas audiences presenting to other accountants, businesses and not for profit organisations. As a Receipt Bank advocate, a small cohort of accountants around the world, I help to promote and shape the future development and direction of the app.

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