Guardian: Coding for the community – techie-style philanthropy comes to Manchester

A computer keyboard

Good for Nothing and Madlab get together to give skills free to local groups. Arwa Aburawa reports – and flags up a second session in January

“When you’re having to find a home for someone so they don’t spend the night on the streets, the last thing you think about is whether your website looks good or if it’s accessible,” explains John Heath, who is the CEO of a Morecambe-based charity called Signposts. “We know it’s important especially for our funding but in the end you always have more urgent stuff to do.” This is where the kind-hearted coders and designers of the north come in.

Over a warm autumn weekend in Manchester, around 20 designers, coders and lovers of all things techie gathered to share their skills with three local community projects – for free. The ‘Good for Nothing’ weekender which took place at Madlab last week, aims to help community projects build their profile and equip them for an increasingly competitive funding market.

Signposts was set up to help the people of Morecambe 18 years ago, dealing with issues such as homelessness, poverty, mental health issues and everything in between. Their clients range from young children to pensioners. This broad remit of responding to community needs often means that they struggle to promote themselves effectively. In the past, this didn’t really matter as their core funding was provided for, but now they are having to join the fast-paced world of bidding for funds.

Sharon Calverley, director of operations at Signposts, says:

It’s all gone from grant funding to commissioning. This means we’re having to bid for funding from people who know absolutely nothing about us or the work you’ve been doing in the community for decades. And whereas before we would have the morning to the talk to the funder about who we are and the work we do, now we’re lucky to get more than half an hour of their time. So, we need to be able to make an impression really quickly, which is why things like the video are really important


signpostsSharon Calverley explains her challenges and problems to the team. Photograph: Andy Gott @RSWorksWorking till midnight, the designers improved Signposts’ website, spruced up their leaflets and business cards and also created a short video to help promote them to a new potential funders. Calverley says:

I’ve always been a little cynical about all this media stuff but getting their help has really made me see the value it can bring. The video they made for us today is just perfect – it brought together 18 years of hard work into a 5 minute video.

So, what is it that makes a designer give up their entire weekend to help local communities and organisation? Emma Smart, who worked on the Signposts’ video and website, happens to live near Preston where the charity has a local centre. She says:

We all know money is short and many of these organisations are struggling, so it’s actually really nice to be able to have a chat with them and really put my skills to work for something important. Organisations like Signposts tend to overlook the importance of a good website, a clear leaflet but it can be really helpful for their outreach work.

signpostsWorking it out: the team allotted to Signposts’ projects. Photograph: Andy Gott @RSWorks
The community groups are clearly grateful to get this free support and advice rather than having to divert their limited funds to it. Sharon Calverley says she will definitely be using the video when they meet funders and she now has, for the first time, a website she can be proud of. She adds:

The designers really took their time to listen to us about our project, to understand it and its aims and what they’ve created for us – in their free time – is just amazing.

The organisers are planning to host another Good for Nothing weekender in January 2013. So if you’re a coder or a community worker who would like to take part, get in touch with them at theGood for Nothing website.

Arwa Aburawa is a freelance journalist based in Manchester with an interest in local politics, the environment and broader social issues. You can see more of her work at and also, where she is co-editor.

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