At the end of June I spent a day in Birmingham at VCSScamp 2014; the focus of the day was looking at digital and social media solutions for VCS organisations. It was a fun, informative and engaging day full of discussion and full and open sharing of problems and solutions.

Before I went I felt a little wary? What was a VCSScamp and what is an unconference?

Firstly to try and explain the title of the event.

It was a gathering of people from VCS (Voluntary and Community Sector) S (Support) organisations. Which included staff and workers from Local Infrastructure Organisations (volunteer centres, CVS’s, Community Action groups, etc), as well as people who work in the sector as freelance workers

So far so obvious, but why camp? It’s a terminology that is slowly escaping from the IT sector, and loosely describes a gathering of a number of people for a loosely structured, informal learning event. They’re called camps, because in the original formats people camped out when attending them. For any etymology, or social history, buffs there are whole strands of pages on Wikipedia describing their different flavours. You can start here:

This camp was based on the unconference format. ( This sit’s somewhere between a networking event and a conference. There is no set agenda, no keynote speaker, and little or no reliance on PowerPoint.

Everyone knows the most interesting bits of formal conferences and networking events are the conversations gathered round the coffee and cake, in between the bits on the timetable. An unconference is a way of stringing together all those bits, making them the main feature of the day and still having coffee and cake. Win-Win, or Cake-Cake (if you prefer).

Here’s what happens.

The day starts with everyone in the same room. One of the organisers leads this first session. Everyone introduces themselves briefly, and the organiser introduces the theme of the day.

Delegates then offer suggestions for sessions they’d like to see/ take part in. These can be questions they’d like the answering. Demos of projects they are working on. Or just discussions of area that interest them.

Then begin to recognise areas of shared interest, be that similarities between projects, existing interest/ expertise in a technology being discussed, or just a chance to compare notes on difficulties they have faced

Then the sessions run. They can take the form of a mini presentation followed by a question and answer session or just be a discussion group. Questions are posed, solutions suggested, the learning organises itself.

The unconference organisers, take the session details and create an ad-hoc agenda for the day allocating a time and space for each discussion. Normally several small sessions will run simultaneously for timeslots of roughly 45 minutes.

And how do delegates know which session to attend? Well, they take a look at the agenda and see which sessions suit there interests. If after a few minutes they realise the discussion isn’t suited to their needs, or maybe it has swerved off a related tangent, they are free to move on to one of the other sessions

Wow, eh? As someone who has spent hours in meetings planning conferences and mithering over details, this was mind-blowing and scary.

  • The conference organisers are happy to let other adults take responsibility for their own learning?
  • What if you end up with all questions and no answers?
  • You don’t need a complicated booking form with options for workshop choices (that delegates can never remember) and limits on workshop numbers?
  • I spent ages on those spreadsheets!

But as I said at the top, what I found was a fun, informative and engaging day full of discussion and sharing of problems, solutions hints and ideas. 

Why I am telling you this now? Well one of the attendees at the Birmingham event (Carolyn Ellis from Voluntary Action Barnsley has worked with the organisers (Paul Webster @watfordgap and Pauline Roche @paulineroche), to bring together VcssCamp North which runs on November 27th in Barnsley.

Do you work in an infrastructure support organisation? Are you already using digital tools in your work? Or, are you thinking of starting to engage in Social Media to promote your activities? This is a day to network with, and get advice from, people who work in a similar background and may already have worked through the same questions your organisation faces.

More details and booking forms can be found here:

What do you think? Have you attended a VCSScamp or unconference, is this a fair view of how it works? Are you intrigued by the idea but Barnsley is a bit too far for you to travel, would you be interested in a VCSScamp for the NorthWest? Or anywhere else?

Let us know via twitter @GmcvoDatabases or post a comment below!