You might think a town lottery is a good idea. And you would be right, everyone likes to win a bit of extra cash. But, if you look closely, you will also see that it can be much more important, that it can change the way a community engages with and starts to take control of its future.
The town of Darvel in East Ayrshire has made an accidental discovery, a bit like its most famous son Sir Alexander Fleming who accidentally discovered penicillin from a neglected petri dish. It has discovered that local fund raising not only benefits the community but can create a new atmosphere of self-help, support and neighbourliness.
As well as producing over £30,000 per annum from an adult population of 2,500, the Darvel Lottery has acted as a catalyst for higher levels of community activity, more interest in town affairs and a new, more energised group of local volunteers.
To understand why it has been such a success and what lessons can be learned by other towns interested in pursuing a similar path we talked to Darvel Lottery Founder and member of Darvel and District Community Council, Steve Gillies.
Steve, why has the Darvel Lottery been such a great success?
"The level of participation from the community has surprised all of us, and the speed of take-up has been remarkable. I think there are three elements that are important. First, we take great care to make sure that the lottery really belongs to the community – this means that we ask members to develop policy and to have a say in how the lottery operates and develops. For example, the members determine the split between the Prize Fund and Community Fund, and it determines through a voting process how money is spent in the town or surrounding area.
"The second reason is to do with open communications. We use all channels of communications, especially social media, and we are very open. This builds trust in the way the lottery is operated. The lottery draw is usually performed live on Facebook at the monthly community council meeting.
"The third reason is very simple but very powerful. Darvel people invest in the Darvel Lottery because they know the funds will be spent on improving Darvel. And, generally speaking, they know that a local person – a friend, family or neighbour – will win the £1,000 monthly prize. We’ve been very lucky, some well-known and prominent citizens have been fortunate enough to win the top prize and help us promote the lottery."
Is it just Darvel residents who can participate?
"No, whilst the majority live in Darvel we have many members from all over. People who have a connection with the town and want to contribute. The Darvel Diaspora stretches far and wide including Spain, China and Australia."
You say that members decide how money is spent. How does that work?
"We simply release funds, say £10,000, and ask for ideas. These can be anything from repairing the scout hall roof to helping develop a community garden to improving the delivery of local sporting activities. The ideas are presented to the community over a period of 2 weeks during which there is a, often lively, discussion and questions asked. Then we have a private online vote where we ask members to rate their preferences. In this way we follow the principles of participatory budgeting.
"Once the votes are accumulated, we require final approval from the Community Council and allocate funds as requested. It works well and means that funds are directed democratically to community priorities."
As a founder of the Darvel Lottery Steve is clearly a big fan but what do others in the Darvel community think about the lottery?
Jane Slider is a local volunteer and she tells us what the Darvel Lottery means to her:
“It’s been a great way to raise funds. Not large amounts but enough to do the many small things we need. I’m fairly new to Darvel and it’s great to belong to such a vibrant and supportive community. The lottery has awakened a lot of people to the kind of things that we can do in our town.
For such a simple idea its been great. The community response and engagement to the lottery and to other initiatives always surprises me. Recently, we have had some very successful new events – a Scarecrow Festival, the Poppy Appeal and the Dawn to Dusk Project. The lottery paved the way, showing what could be done.
"I foster children with special needs and wanted to help people with chronic pain or mental health issues. The lottery helped me establish a sensory studio kitted out with special equipment and interactive experiences. It’s just one example, but without lottery funds I couldn’t have made it happen."
Katy Savage is also a local volunteer who was involved in delivering support to the Darvel community through the Covid-19 pandemic and she explains how the lottery helped her:
“It provided a significant amount of funds to get started but it’s main contribution was having a set up that we could immediately adapt to deliver our Covid-19 support services. We were able to grab web sites, online forms and tools to quickly set up. It’s one of the reasons why our Covid 19 support services were so quickly launched – one of the first in Scotland.
"More importantly, the lottery had created a new atmosphere of local engagement and support before Covid-19 started. We quickly had nearly 100 volunteers, many of whom were already involved in volunteering through the lottery. So, the important point is that the lottery had created a community already organised with fantastic communications - so, we could act fast when needed.”
George Gardner is Chairperson of Darvel & Area Regeneration Team and he is impressed with the contribution the lottery is making to the town:
“I think first we need to look to the past. Darvel has always been a town with a strong sense of identity and community. It was a vibrant community long before the term was commonplace. For example, the Darvel Community Trust has regenerated the sports hall into a valued community facility. The lottery has taken local donations from a few thousand pounds per annum to over £40,000 per annum, a huge difference in a short time.
The lottery started quite modestly to raise funds for Christmas lights; we anticipated a maximum of 400 subscriptions in 3 years. To be nearly double that in half the time is testimony to the people and friends of Darvel. I hope it continues to generate funds for a long time but the main contribution to the town is the engagement of the community in local issues and plans.
"Last year we developed our 2020 to 2025 Community Plan and many of the desired outcomes will depend on Darvel having local fund raising as well as support from our partners in East Ayrshire Council. Our strategy is to regenerate the town centre and the lottery will play a large part in our future journey.”
So what about a word from a lottery winner then?
Rose Paterson is also a local volunteer and one of the lucky ones to win the Darvel Lottery, she explains why she took part:
“It was nice surprise to win and we really appreciated the kind messages from everyone. Of course, the prize money isn’t life changing but it can make a real difference for many, especially during the Covid-19 period when many families are struggling financially. I’m involved in the Darvel Helping Hands Food Packs and I can see day to day the impact Covid-19 is having on our community. I’m sure it’s the same in all small towns all across Scotland.
"The lottery has inspired more giving. We have received many donations from across the community, some from lottery winners and many just from people who want to be part of our community journey but can’t provide practical help in other ways.
"The great majority of people who pay into the lottery do so because they want to see Darvel improve. You can see that in increased volunteers, more engagement and increased donations. Sure, it’s nice to win and I like seeing local people benefit, but it’s more about the collective benefit than the individual.”
We have heard from the founding member and volunteers but what does East Ayrshire Council (EAC) think about Darvel Community Council and the community lottery?
We asked Milissa McCulloch, Acting Team Leader of the Communities Team for her thoughts:
“The volunteers in Darvel and District have been truly inspirational and their influence on their community should not be underestimated.
Before Covid-19 took hold, volunteers were involved in developing their next 5-year Action Plan which would outline the vision for their community and how they would bring about the necessary changes to achieve this. The enthusiasm from the core group made the process smooth and achievable within the tight timescales set by the group.
"The Community Council were also happy to share their knowledge and expertise with not only other Community Councils but also with the local authority. Steve has been working with East Ayrshire Council to design and deliver the community lottery and he has also agreed to support groups who are interested in setting up one for their own community.
"The group were also heavily involved in a campaign to demolish the old co-op building which lies on the main street within the town. This building had fallen into a poor state of disrepair. A subgroup was formed from Community Council membership and they have worked with us as a local authority on this project since.
"Through monies that have been allocated from the Town Centre Regeneration Fund and other funders, they have managed to secure over £270,000 to date. The old building has since been demolished and architects appointed to draw up ambitious designs for a new community social area that will be known as the Corner. The Corner will host a range of activities to benefit and regenerate the local community such as a market garden, music gigs, community cinema and other activities. Members of the team generously gave up their time to speak to other Community Councils in the area to explain how they conducted the campaign and the timescales involved.
"During Covid-19, as Katy outlined, the Community Council were very quick to identify volunteers who could support others within the community. Around 100 volunteers were able to deliver shopping and prescriptions, provide a service to phone those who were lonely or experiencing isolation, take dogs for a walk for those shielding, deliver meals prepared by the Darvel Dinner Ladies, prepare and deliver food packs, support EAC services by pulling out refuse bins, maintaining green spaces and carrying out litter picks.
"Without these volunteers many in the community would have struggled during the pandemic and their support allowed EAC to concentrate on essential services.”
The community council and the Darvel lottery is clearly a great success and gets a big thumbs up from local people and East Ayrshire Council, finally we asked Lottery Founder Steve Gillies how he sees the Darvel Lottery going forward and what he would say to other communities thinking of doing something similar:
“I hope it contributes to our community journey for a long time. I’m sure it will. Darvel is a lovely and secure place to live, work and raise a family but there are always small but important things to be done. Things that improve where we, our friends and family live.
"I see it becoming more woven into our joined up strategic plan – the Darvel Lottery working alongside other groups like the Darvel & Area Regeneration Team, The Darvel Trust and the Darvel Improvement Group. I also hope it can be a lead for other towns. We’ve learned some important lessons.
"It is essential to establish regular, open and honest communications with the community, especially on social media. We obsessively communicate, keeping everyone up to date on what is going on. But, we know we can always improve, so reviewing what works is important.
"It’s important that the lottery can contribute across all interests and not just focused on a single issue, no matter how important it may be. Give it a wide remit! The aim is to make it an attractive proposition widely across the community.
"Nothing is successful without the support and engagement of the community. That’s why we put so much effort into community ownership of the lottery. That’s why we ask the community to make decisions on policy, how the lottery operates and, of course, in how funds are used to improve where we live. We are big fans of participatory budgeting; it provides a framework for community decision making."
So, that’s it. Engage the community. Make sure they ‘own’ it. Ensure a wide remit, make it widely attractive. Communicate, communicate, communicate. And then communicate some more!
For more information:
If you are interested in discussing this case study, East Ayrshire Council would be delighted to hear from you and can be contacted via this e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org">