The Women’s Institute: More activism and adaptation than Jam and Jerusalem

This is a repost of a blog by Johanna Wilson, Social Media Officer, originally posted on Behind The Door of 104: The NFWI Blog.

The office where it all happens...

The office where it all happens…

It felt strange to be entering the heart of the Women’s Institute in London. While I am the Social Media Officer for the Borough Belles WI and have been a proud Belle since last year, that’s only part of the reason I am here. The other? Curiosity. I moved to London to work as part of the Charityworks Graduate Scheme, which offers the opportunity for trainees to explore the charity sector further. Hearing from organisations across the sector got me thinking: while I understand how traditional charities work, how does an organisation like the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) work? An organisation that is made up of smaller charities with their own boards, that operates on a federation model and whose campaigns are determined by the membership. I got in touch to find out more about how the NFWI supports members to campaign, and the Public Affairs and Communications teams were kind enough to let me visit for a day to find out for myself!

The WI has a proud history and has thrived since it was founded in 1915 to help develop rural communities and encourage women to become involved in food production during WW1, becoming what is now the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK. The model can be a bit complex to get your head around. Your own WI is an individual charity while your Federation provides opportunities and support for a number of WIs. The National Federation is a national charity which represents WI members across the UK and provides guidance and support to Federations and WIs, and a lot of their work goes unseen; in fact, some WI members don’t even know they exist. When I visited the office, everyone was pretty excited preparing for the upcoming Annual Meeting (AM). The AM is the key date in the NFWI’s calendar. It’s not only a logistical challenge for the Events team and an important WI tradition. It is the votes of the delegates at the AM that sets the organisation’s campaign work for years to come. It decides who they’ll be working with, where they’ll be focusing their energies, what actions members can do and what message they’ll be sharing. Though there are a lot of stages to the process, every resolution is proposed by a WI member and shortlisted by members. These resolutions are then debated throughout the organisation by local WIs before being brought to the AM, and once a resolution is adopted, it becomes part of a bank of mandates dating back to the earliest days of the WI, and can be worked on at any point in the future.

When discussing the campaign resolutions put forward this year with the team, there are clear benefits to both. Food poverty is a huge challenge, with food bank use in the UK at a record high and eight million people in the UK struggling to put food on the table. At the same time, dementia care is an issue that is growing in importance and dementia carers are currently saving UK services £11 billion annually. The WI currently has no resolution on unpaid care, an issue that still predominantly affects women and in the Public Affairs department they have to keep an eye to campaigns that could open up other avenues for work (the fun thing about writing this retrospectively is that I now know both of these resolutions have passed!) There is a huge variety in WI campaigns work, both on a daily basis and in the new campaigns that have been chosen by members. Just a few of these are:

  • More Midwives: The WI’s Midwives campaign has been widely celebrated and since its launch in 2012, NFWI research has been cited in NHS England’s National Maternity Review and the WI have contributed to The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence’s first ever safe-staffing guidance for midwifery services. One staff member at NFWI was so inspired by the campaign that she has since gone on to become a midwife herself!
  • Care Not Custody: In 2008, the WI passed a resolution calling for an end to the inappropriate detention of people with mental health problems and has been working with the Prison Reform Trust towards this. This was a campaign of particular interest to me, not only due to my interest in mental health but also because the charity I work for runs Liaison and Diversion services. Mental health in the Criminal Justice system is sadly still a huge challenge, but following on from the trial sites and despite delays, the NFWI is hopeful that a full rollout of these services will be announced soon – a huge success and a promise of support when people need it the most.
  • Climate Change: While this campaign is a longstanding one, there will be a lot of new actions and campaign work coming up. So watch this space, or if you want to get in on the ground floor, apply to be a volunteer Climate Ambassador and work with NFWI to look at climate change in your local area (details here).

Yet what seems most surprising is the continuity of campaigns. To celebrate the centenary last year, we Belles did a whistle-stop tour of the century, and looking at what previous campaigns have been, some issues have clearly remained at the heart of the Women’s Institute. Yes, it seems unlikely that a resolution ‘that this meeting, remembering that our young Queen has duties as a wife and mother urges the nation as a whole not to overwork her Majesty‘ (1952) would get passed now, but the WI has spent one hundred and one years speaking out on the environment, education, women’s rights and rural services, and will be fighting for these issues as we move into the next century.

The team are quick to acknowledge the challenges they face and where they plan to make improvements. The WI is still an organisation that is predominantly rural and while the number of women living in rural areas who are members is fantastic, there are practical challenges to communicating with them. There was even a case of one WI streaming the Centenary AM for their members, which promptly took out the internet in their whole town! Because of this, WI Life is the only consistent way to reach everyone, which brings its own challenges in terms of sharing information quickly, especially for those of us who are used to checking our emails religiously! The WI has a huge geographical reach, which can make it challenging to make sure campaigns are relevant to all members. It’s not rare that proposed resolutions don’t address the current situation in Wales or the Islands who have separate parliaments and work in a completely different legal framework. The Public Affairs team always has to have a view to the wider picture.

Yet it is the strengths of the WI that stand out, and the strength of its members that makes it so formidable. Members of the WI are there because they want to be there and the organisation is member-led. While the small public affairs team doesn’t always have the detailed policy knowledge needed for a new campaign, they are able to create strong partnerships with national organisations, where their partners bring the resources and political links and the WI bring 220,000 engaged and passionate members across the country. The range of campaigns means that there’s always an action to do or somewhere to push for change; from specific climate change action weeks to legal changes around country of origin labelling on food. While the old-world “Jam and Jerusalem” stereotype can linger in the minds of some press offices and production companies, the variety of what the WI does and the women who are members have broken down this stuffy reputation over time.

As the make-up and lives of members change, the NFWI is re-examining their ways of communicating and selecting resolutions. Work to review the resolutions process and consider ways to improve it is underway. The NFWI is also currently organising a full members’ census. With new members joining all the time and new WIs being started every week, now is a perfect time to ask members for their views on campaigns, Denman and ensuring education is accessible for all, as well as something as basic as how people would like to be contacted. The NFWI always looks to change and evolve to ensure that the WI represents every member, old and new, while keeping true to the its roots and ethos.

The Public Affairs team’s newsletter relaunched recently, so you can sign up here to receive regular updates. If there has been one takeaway message I left the NFWI with, it is that the members are at the heart of what is done here and they want to hear from them, not only about their ideas and requests but even just about what they are up to. Hearing from members is what keeps the NFWI connected and they’re always looking to hear from more people – remember, any member can submit a resolution. So finally, all that remains is to say a big thank you to Lisa, Oliver, Jana, Emma, Joanna, Charlotte and Fiona for hosting me for the day!