Eleven people were interviewed, i.e., ten Outreach Ambassadors and one Project Manager. Demographic details of the interviewees were not collected. Thematic analysis resulted in the development of four themes and nine sub-themes relating to the reflections on the project’s ambition, thoughts about its implementation, perceptions of impact and feelings about being an Outreach Ambassador. These findings are presented in detail below and supported with verbatim quotes.
Theme 1: Defining success and remaining realistic
Participants shared thoughts on the progress that had been made towards achieving the PROVE project’s ambition to encourage more people living with health conditions to participate in parkrun. This theme captures the responses
Sub-theme 1a: What does success look like?
Participants all agreed that the main purpose of the PROVE project was to encourage more people living with health conditions in England to participate in parkrun. When asked to explain how that could be achieved, participants described needing to raise awareness of parkrun among people with health conditions in the general population and to ensure that parkrun is perceived as accessible to them, for example:
I’m looking to reach out into the community of people living with [health condition] and try to help them understand that parkrun is accessible and is there for them and it’s not just all about running, jogging and walking for fit and healthy people but that people with [health condition] will be made to feel welcome and that we are there to support them. (008, Outreach Ambassador)
Identifying and ‘lowering’ barriers to entry was suggested as a way of improving accessibility:
It's my role to help support, kind of help widen the appeal of parkrun and make sure it’s as inclusive as possible and that we’re doing what we can to help parkrun or help people with [health condition] feel that they could go to parkrun and feel included, and kind of raising awareness of the kind of challenges that having [health condition] might mean for taking part in parkrun. (016, Outreach Ambassador)
Outreach Ambassadors were less clear about how the project’s ambition was going to be quantified or measured. Some Outreach Ambassadors were unsure what constituted a successful outcome, for example:
When we spoke a year ago I said I didn’t know what success looked like and I think I still feel like that. Is success getting 10 more people with [health condition] to parkrun or is it 10,000 more people? (010, Outreach Ambassador).
Sub-theme 1b: Remaining realistic about the project’s potential impact
The Outreach Ambassadors and the Project Manger felt it was important to remain realistic about the potential for the PROVE project to bring about meaningful and lasting change in the proportion of people with health conditions participating in parkrun. For example, one Outreach Ambassador suggested that what they had achieved through the PROVE project was, ‘just not as earth shattering as maybe we first thought we were going to be’ (003, Outreach Ambassador). Similarly, another Outreach Ambassador said:
I guess maybe it’s a bit like with any project you kind of go into it with really grand ideas and then when you sort of figure out the kind of actual realities you sort of realise you have to do things on a smaller scale or make your goals a bit smaller (016, Outreach Ambassador)
Theme 2: Project implementation and management
Participants reflected on how the PROVE project had been implemented, including sharing their insights on what worked, what did not work and why.
Sub-theme 2a: Embracing the learning process
Progress towards the project’s ambition was believed to be slower than anticipated. One Outreach Ambassador referred to the progress as ‘organic’, inferring that the project had developed slowly and naturally. Similarly, another Outreach Ambassador referred to progress as ‘baby steps’ and ‘work in progress’ (003, Outreach Ambassador). Among some Outreach Ambassadors there was tones of disappointment about the progress made, for example:
I think we have made some progress. I’m a little bit disappointed in the amount of progress we’ve made. I think we could have done more. Some of that is the initial lessons you learn during the first year of anything like this. (011, Outreach Ambassador).
Despite some disappointment with the progress made, it was clear that the PROVE Outreach Ambassadors appreciated the importance of learning along the way and building upon successes and failures. They reflected positively on the learning process, ‘Like with most things you sort of learn through doing it. It’s really hard to know how I’d do things different’ (016, Outreach Ambassador). One Outreach Ambassador acknowledged that slow progress can be beneficial, ‘If [we] had pushed it forward quicker we might have made some mistakes.’ (014, Outreach Ambassador).
Sub-theme 2b: Working within the boundaries of a volunteer workforce
The Project Manager and Outreach Ambassadors reflected on the implications of the PROVE project utilising a volunteer network for its delivery. The Project Manager, who had been commissioned by parkrun to project manage the project, compared working with a volunteer organisation to that of a staff organisation:
I think one of the learnings across a lot of this has just been that there’s only so much - working with a volunteer organisation is very different from working with a staff organisation - there’s only so much you can reasonably expect volunteers to do in terms of commitments. (002, Project Manager)
Outreach Ambassadors shared the belief that there is a limit to what volunteers can be expected to do due to other commitments and time demands. The Outreach Ambassadors seemed comfortable doing as much or as little as their personal time allowed, and seemed to value having autonomy, as described by one Outreach Ambassador:
[volunteers] should feel as if they do as much as they think is right, and do the things that they think are right, and things that they can manage. Because as much as we want to get the message out there, everyone’s a volunteer. (004, Outreach Ambassador)
Sub-theme 2c: The importance of project management
Participants reflected on the role of the Project Manager to oversee the implementation of the project and coordination of the volunteer Outreach Ambassadors. The Project Manager described the challenge of giving the Outreach Ambassadors autonomy whilst needing to be directive with guidance and instructions and 'hands-on' with final decision-making. For example, the following quote from the Project Manager captures the experience of 'striking a balance':
[the Project Manager role] really should be like gatekeeping and overseeing, but I think one of the learnings is that it strays into the 'hands-on' as well. It’s just been difficult over the last 12 months to get that balance between, and it’s always difficult, sometimes it’s easier to move things forward to just do it yourself. And it’s just about striking a balance about where you should dive in and do it yourself, and where it’s worth accepting that things are going to be maybe a bit delayed. That if you get the Outreach Ambassadors to do things, there’s that balance between wanting to empower them and give them their freedom, and being aware that we need to just get stuff done. (002, Project Manager)
The Outreach Ambassadors believed the Project Manager had been important, both strategically with project guidance and personally with support, for example:
I can’t imagine how this PROVE project could possibly have gone ahead without that kind of coordinating role and overseeing role. And I think he’s particularly, he’s got particular skills. Like he’s really diplomatic but very clear with people. He holds you to account in the nicest possible way, you don’t even realise it’s happened until afterwards. He seems to grasp all the different nuances of the different conditions really well, so I think he’s quite amazing. (014, Outreach Ambassador)
There was generally a positive review of the project management, but some Outreach Ambassadors felt that the PROVE project was working in a silo and felt disconnected from other parkrun initiatives. A number of Outreach Ambassadors saw synergy between the PROVE project and the 'parkrun practice' initiative (where healthcare practitioners signpost patients and practice staff to parkrun events), but lacked clarity on how to align the two initiatives together, for example:
[The initiatives] seem to be done in a very disconnected way. There’s one person working on the parkrun practice, and then the PROVE project seems to work in isolation. But in practice there’s a huge amount of overlap… and it's competing for the [organisation’s] resource and communications bandwidth. (011, Outreach Ambassador)
Theme 3: Capturing impact
This theme captures the perceived impact of the PROVE project.
Sub-theme 3a: Questioning the scope of the PROVE project’s reach and engagement
The Outreach Ambassadors and the Project Manager spoke about the project's reach and engagement within and beyond the existing parkrun community. They described having received a positive response to the PROVE project and a general sense of support from the parkrun community, for example describing the response from the parkrun community as ‘overwhelmingly positive’ (002, Project Manager). Some Outreach Ambassadors believed that the PROVE project made people within the parkrun community more aware of people who have health conditions at parkrun. Some Outreach Ambassadors believed that it enabled conversations about health conditions, and opened doors to new opportunities for parkrun, for example:
It’s just been an opportunity to start conversations, and it’s given us that legitimacy to be able to say well, “why don’t you come along to the parkrun on a Saturday morning and we can help you to keep life as normal as possible” really ... So there’s a lot more communication, a lot more conversations going around, in my opinion anyway (003, Outreach Ambassadors).
I think with all these things it’s the drip, drip, drip effect. I think what PROVE is doing is harnessing lots of good things that are already going on, and nudging and pushing them forward, and bringing them to attention. (014, Outreach Ambassador)
Many of the activities implemented as part of the PROVE project (outlined in Table 1) facilitated the Outreach Ambassador’s ability to engage with existing parkrun participants. For example, the Facebook groups, blogs and the Accessibility Guidelines were said to have been received positively by the parkrun community. They were believed to help raise awareness of health conditions, shift the narrative, provide an opportunity to understand barriers to participation and what support people with health conditions might need. The challenge the Outreach Ambassadors had was in being able to measure the reach and impact the activities were having.
The Outreach Ambassadors and Project Manager also questioned the level of engagement they were getting beyond the parkrun community. One Outreach Ambassador cautioned, ‘I mean it had a good reaction, but as I say, we were largely speaking to the converted’ (011, Outreach Ambassador). This idea of the PROVE project 'speaking to the converted' was a belief shared by many Outreach Ambassadors, for example:
How do we reach people with [health condition] who don’t know about parkrun? We could try and reach them directly, but we need a huge budget. Trying to get other people to get our message out there is challenging. (010, Outreach Ambassador)
The Project Manager shared the opinion that the scope of the project’s reach was sometimes limited by communication challenges. The Project Manager described parkrun communication channels as like layers of an onion; from parkrun HQ at the centre of the onion and moving outwards to the parkrun core volunteer team, the parkrun community and the final layer being key stakeholders outside of the parkrun community that provide the links to members of the general population. Participants described challenges in reach and communication at all layers, for example, at the parkrun community level:
I’ve been to two or three [parkrun events] where I’ve just, different bits of the country where I’ve just gone up to the person on that day, the event run director, and said oh hi, just to say hi, I’m an Outreach Ambassador for PROVE. And they haven’t known about the PROVE project. (014, Outreach Ambassador)
The Project Manager described a communication challenge at the final layer of the onion:
A constant struggle is trying to get channels outside of parkrun. We’ve put loads of effort into different charities …. Even like the national bodies for various disability sports. And it just feels like you’re really, it just feels like you’re really struggling to get any engagement. And I don’t know whether that’s just because people like, they’ve got so much other stuff going on. It doesn’t feel like it’s a lack of goodwill engaging with these charities. When you get a response people are supportive and so on, but then you’ll agree something that’s going to get done, never gets done (P002, Project Manager)
Outreach Ambassadors felt that the success of the PROVE project depended on not only reaching wider audiences with messages, but about engaging and getting buy-in from those who can promote parkrun to wide audiences, such as healthcare professionals and other key stakeholders, for example:
Unless we get a buy-in from GPs (General Practitioners) and from community resources, you know, such as community groups etc., we can only do so much. We can bombard people, we can put posters out, we can put all sorts of fliers out, but we also need that recommendation, almost that qualification from healthcare professionals really (003, Outreach Ambassador)
Yet some Outreach Ambassadors described difficulties trying to form connections with advocacy groups, which were perceived as the gateway to the broader community of people living with health conditions. The Outreach Ambassadors described difficulty knowing who to speak to or how to reach them. Where interactions with advocacy groups did occur, it was facilitated by Outreach Ambassadors having an existing link or connection to the organisation.
Sub-theme 3b: Reliance upon anecdotal evidence of success
A common discussion point was the absence of measurable objectives and how this limited the ability to assess the impact of the PROVE project activities implemented. Most Outreach Ambassadors believed the primary desired outcome was to increase the numbers of people with health conditions participating in parkrun, but felt there was little quantifiable evidence to show that this was being achieved. parkrun does not routinely capture health condition data from its participants, making any quantifiable change difficult to capture in the evaluation of the PROVE project. Instead, the Outreach Ambassadors and Project Manager used anecdotal evidence and success stories, as demonstrated in the quotes below:
I don’t think we’ve got a very accurate or effective way of measuring [impact]… and in the absence of [evidence] almost comes down to an article of faith that’s showing we must be moving the dial a bit. And if we accept that it isn’t going to give us hard and fast evidence, then we’re into more of the qualitative [evidence] (002, Project Manager)
I think it’s really difficult. I mean I think we’re getting really positive stories on Facebook now. Would that have happened anyway? Who knows? I think a lot of it’s so hard to quantify, like the impact. When you read those stories it’s people doing, saying things like as a result of parkrun I’ve now done a 10k, or I’ve now gone out and run by myself (014, Outreach Ambassador)
Many people have benefitted. There are lots of examples of success stories. We hear and see examples all the time of people becoming involved in parkrun that didn’t think they could due to their health issues. Also as well as new people, I hear and see examples of people who were already going to parkrun but were missing out on the full experience, for example Sign Language Support now being available at many events on a very regular basis has improved things for them (005, Outreach Ambassador)
Theme 4: What it takes to be a PROVE project Outreach Ambassador
Outreach Ambassadors reflected on their experience of being a PROVE project Outreach Ambassador.
Sub-theme 4a: Qualities and skills required
The Outreach Ambassadors were asked to describe their role and the characteristics of a successful Outreach Ambassador. The qualities defined were broadly similar to those described by Outreach Ambassadors in interviews 12 months earlier (e.g., communication skills, knowledge of the condition, empathy), with some additional qualities being valued 12 months later, like 'being good with social media', 'perseverance', 'tenacity', 'persuasiveness' and 'job flexibility' mentioned as important. Another key quality mentioned by Outreach Ambassadors was the ability to network and form connections with key stakeholders e.g., ‘[someone who] understands the need to make links with strategic organisations and across. So for us it’s across the voluntary, health services, social services…So they have to be strategic as well as doers’ (014, Outreach Ambassador).
Having existing links with stakeholders and an awareness of sources of support was believed to be helpful. It was common for Outreach Ambassadors to describe their role as important for signposting people to other services and organisations:
Even though it’s not necessarily part of our role to offer advice, if you can point people in the right direction at least, then I think we’ve probably done something useful. (004, Outreach Ambassador)
Our role as Outreach Ambassador isn’t to do things on the ground, I see it very much as facilitating and enabling and supporting, and getting people to think laterally and upwards and downwards about what they might do (014, Outreach Ambassador)
Sub-theme 4b: A proud and privileged position
All Outreach Ambassadors interviewed spoke positively about their experience as a PROVE Outreach Ambassador. There was a sense of pride and privilege. Many felt rewarded by the sense of ‘changing a few people's lives, really helping actual people’ (016, Outreach Ambassador). Value was placed on there being a team of Outreach Ambassadors bringing a range of skills and expertise to the role. Having more than one Outreach Ambassador was believed to be useful when other responsibilities took priority (e.g., personal life circumstances). Though working in teams brought about the challenge of living in different locations, making face-to-face meetings and decision-making difficult. One Outreach Ambassador explained:
I have found that decisions have been made and not involved everybody, and I’ve found that quite difficult to get my head around really. But I understand that sometimes you just have to go with it, sometimes because of the position that [the Project Manager] holds he obviously has the final say, and I appreciate that sometimes he just has to make that decision based on the information that he’s got. It’s not necessarily a criticism; it’s just obviously with the three of us being so far flung over the UK it can be difficult to meet at times (003, Outreach Ambassador)
There was a strong sense that the Outreach Ambassador role was considered a privileged position, ‘It becomes something you’re kind of quite proud of rather than a chore’ (015, Outreach Ambassador). It was common for Outreach Ambassadors to strive to want to achieve more. There was a strong sense of 'unfinished business' and a hunger to continue the work done to date, for example:
I wouldn’t say I’ve achieved everything that I wanted to do. It’s one of those things, it’s like moving the goalposts all the time isn’t it? Because of the way that [health condition] has such a negative impact on people, and on their quality of life, I don’t think my aspirations will ever be fully achieved…It’s just work in progress all the time (003, Outreach Ambassador)