Since the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic, people across Merton and further afield have seen the Dons Local Action Group outside supermarkets collecting food donations for those in need, but their work has gone much further than this. I recently spoke to one of the DLAG Founders, Xavier Wiggins, to find out about the groups’ foundations, what their future looks like, and how they have managed to attract over 1500 volunteers in just four months.
Xavier, take me back to the beginning of the Dons Local Action Group and how the group started up…
At the end of last year, AFC Wimbledon announced that it had quite a big financial shortfall on the new stadium. There was a big meeting on the 9th December that said that their only option was to accept outside investors who would invest £7.5million, but the devil in that detail was that if they wanted to put in more later, they could do it without a vote. That would effectively have put an end to fan ownership, which is integral to what AFC Wimbledon is. So, lots of us thought “We’re not having that!” and created a bond where supporters and non-supporters could lend money to the football club with an interest rate that they chose, over a term that they chose. Lots of people were volunteering and helping with this – talking to people outside train stations, leafleting 2000 roads in the area – so we mobilised the volunteer force for that and raised £5.4million in a few weeks. That was pretty significant and opened the opportunity to get the rest of the borrowing so that we could complete Plough Lane which is important to the whole community and not just the football club.
That was obviously before Covid-19 hit. How did the Dons Local Action Group (DLAG) then come to tackling the impacts of Covid-19 in Merton?
Covid-19 hit whilst we had this big mobilised volunteer force from raising funds for the Plough Lane stadium. On 17th March, I called Craig who had been very involved with the volunteer force for the bond, he’s the President of Old Ruts (Old Rutlishians’) who were clearly going to have to close their venue because of Covid-19. We had a chat and decided that food poverty was where we were going to focus, so I sent a message out to the volunteer group on that day and asked who wanted to help. Three days later, loads of people had said yes, both AFC Wimbledon fans but also Old Ruts members. Many other groups then very quickly started to come forwards to help whether it was groups of mums, Old Wimbledonians, people in other boroughs – it all happened very quickly. We started that Saturday, 21st March, outside Morrisons and with a pop-up food collection point at the Old Ruts. Lots of people started dropping stuff off, and people who needed help because they were self-isolating or were in food poverty were being referred to us by all sorts of organisations including GPs, The Alzheimer’s Society, Schools, The Police, Age UK and so many more. We organically grew to a peak of about 2700 one-week food boxes. We now have 1500+ volunteers.
So initially, the plan was to tackle Covid-19 and help with food donations, but I understand the demand and action from the local community meant that the group continued to grow from there?
Yes, it grew because people then started talking about digital poverty, so Keep Kids Connected was born in Merton, but was then expanded to Wandsworth, Kingston, and Richmond. We have just gone through 750 laptops! It was predominantly Covid-19 related but now we are addressing issues that go beyond Covid-19 such as food poverty, digital poverty, and other things. There is general poverty out there and we are trying to support people that fall through the gap. During all of this, people have started asking questions about what happens after Covid-19, and the answer is that we are sticking around. We are not going anywhere, and we want to formalise the group. We are shaping our future around volunteer desires allied to the needs of our communities.
We had a family that was burnt out of their property recently; they literally just had the shirts on their backs, and we stepped in and provided them with the basics that they needed. There are people that have been sitting without ovens for ages because they could not afford to get them fixed or did not know where to start. There are all sorts of people with all different needs, so we are trying to address that. We cannot help everybody with everything, but we have got such a big volunteer force that we are hopefully able to be a useful resource for people in the boroughs that we work. That is basically what we are about – we are as strong as the volunteers that we have got.
Just to clarify, you are not a charity at present, but are a group that have come together to help those in need?
Yes, we are a volunteer group, but we are working alongside the AFC Wimbledon Foundation which is a registered charity. Any financials and other aspects are managed by them, and they have been helping us a lot. We are now assisting them with their excellent summer schools and hope to partner on many more initiatives.
It sounds like you have mostly grown organically through word of mouth, but I would like to discuss how social media has helped you. Most charities struggle to find volunteers, so it is incredible to see how many people you have been able to attract in such a short space of time.
I do think social media has been vital to it. Would it have been as easy to do this 15 years ago? I don’t know. Social media has brought so much attention to our work; we have had national media such as the BBC, ITV, and The Guardian featuring our work. Even Channel News Asia have done a piece. Fellow Founders, Craig and Cormac, have been vital in using their vast networks to bring in new volunteers and there are so many wonderful volunteer clusters within the group, from teachers to 6th Formers.
Just going back to your point about being featured in the national media, how did these features come about?
Again, when you have got a volunteer force like ours, you can create teams like businesses do. We have got a PR team, Media team, Social Media team, Designers, people helping with things like Safeguarding and Health and Safety.
Still focusing on the DLAG Volunteers, what are some of their backgrounds, and how has volunteering with the DLAG helped them?
There are so many professionals within the ranks that are happy to help. What we are also starting to find is that people we have helped – such as a couple of homeless people that we have helped to re-house – are now helping us to help other people. They are standing outside shops and collecting food, whereas before they were just receiving it. That is so good for everyone’s mindset including theirs. What I am learning all the time with volunteer groups is that whilst it is about helping other people, it is also about helping the volunteers. We have got a grand plan that people can enhance themselves and their own prospects by working on different things within a volunteer framework. There are people that are walking up and down queues or standing outside supermarkets who would not naturally be that confident but are getting out of their comfort zones and doing it. Or you have got people that have worked together in hubs which are incredibly fast-moving, and things work like clockwork.
I am learning so much about how the whole eco-system of food is working. The big thing that I think we’ve brought to this is a model where people who are going into the supermarkets who can afford to get a couple of extra things are doing so, and it’s quite an easy choice for lots of people to make. It is waking people up to the fact that there are people who will need help, and it is down to us. That’s not any criticism of the government or councils, it’s quite the opposite because I’ve been really impressed with a lot of the official bodies and the work that the longer-term and more established charities and volunteer groups like the foodbanks have been doing. I just think the DLAG have been able to harness the fan base and member bases to bring something different to it, as well as a new group of volunteers that perhaps would not ordinarily be doing stuff. There is also this belonging, it is nice to see the yellow and blue of AFC Wimbledon everywhere. We know that whilst we are helping people, we are also helping the club and telling the community that we are here in the heart of the community and we want to help. We are not a football club that is really driven by money in the sense of “Lets spend a few million quid to gamble on getting to the division above,” our success has been redefined. We want to be a strong fan-owned club at the heart of the community as a force for good and that is very different to most other clubs. Our ambition lies beyond Wimbledon, it lies in being that beacon for other clubs to look at.
What is next for the Dons Local Action Group?
We want to go UK wide with this support. We have talked about creating something called Sport Local Action which is in the planning stages at the minute. We have discussed an ambitious plan of creating 1 million volunteer hours a week by harnessing the fan bases and member bases of sports clubs around the UK. As we are doing with Dons Local Action, we are looking to do this around 5 segments of which Food Poverty is one. The other 4 are Environment and Surroundings, Mentoring and Coaching, Sport and Community Request which would cover things like Keep Kids Connected and Homeless work. Much of this will be in direct collaboration with the AFC Wimbledon Foundation, which already does excellent work in our communities. There is more to it than food, but our view is that there’s so much that large bodies of people can help with, that councils and other organisations can’t because there’s not an endless supply of people and money. It has turned from “we need to help something specific now” to “what do we look like going forward?” and I think lots of groups around the country are thinking exactly that.
You touched on food poverty being one of the pillars of Sport Local Action, and this is an ongoing issue that we are seeing nationally. Here in Merton, we have the Wimbledon Food Bank, Mitcham Food Bank, and we have just had our first Community Fridge open in Morden by Sustainable Merton. Do you work with other community organisations and groups?
Yes, we work with those mentioned and many others. We have a very good relationship with Wimbledon Foodbank – during this pandemic we have helped with providing food, and they have provided food to us as well. This cycle means that sometimes they have got very little and need boosting, and sometimes we have got very little and need boosting, so we don’t waste food. There are always people, even if it is chefs making meals for homeless people. There are generally places where the food can go, it is just making sure that we are supplying it to the right people, the people that really need it. We do not want people to be over-reliant and think that every week for years they will get food, because then we become part of the problem, so we have to be careful on that and work closely with established organisations. Going forwards I think we will be working even more closely with them. We want to be as useful as possible, and if that is supporting them as a large part of what we do, then that would be great.
Huge numbers of people have been furloughed which gives the impression that more people are volunteering because they have more time. What are your thoughts?
We have volunteers from all different sorts of groups. We are getting increased numbers of sixth formers who are being told by their schools that it is a good idea to volunteer and learn new skills. We have got groups of teachers, and then we have groups of people who have been furloughed. Even then, when we went out and asked our current volunteers if they will be volunteering in the future when they are back to work, and the vast majority said yes. This is a mindset. If you are working 35-40 hours a week, there is plenty of time outside of that to do other stuff. Even if it is 3 hours a week of volunteering, that is massive! It could be a shift at the supermarket, or even the hub. If we are going to change stuff and make communities better, it is down to all of us; That is the ethos that I think people are coming around to.
In terms of volunteer recruitment, is there anything that you require from your volunteers or is it just a willingness to get involved?
It is just a willingness to help really. People should not be worried about how much time they can give because any time is fantastic. We do not have a great big structure where we are bogged down in red tape, so we encourage people to go and do it if they have an idea. We need to be as good as the volunteers that we have got, so we want as many skills as possible in the group and we want people to shape their own groups. That is how they will be motivated, and we will keep growing with those volunteers.
That sounds fantastic. Now that we are slowly seeing the easing of lockdown and we do not know what our new normal looks like. Do you think we will continue to have the DLAG presence outside supermarkets for some time yet?
I really do because I think there is significant demand and that will continue. I think it is important that we can speak to members of the public and shoppers because lots of people giving one or two things when doing their shop amounts to so much. Of course, there are charities like FareShare and other systems in place, but there are still gaps and we want to help plug those gaps. The need is not going away, the poverty is not going away, and the furlough scheme is changing, so many companies are under pressure, and unfortunately, a lot more people may become unemployed. Poverty is now reaching groups of people within industries that are struggling to exist and may continue to struggle for the foreseeable future. Poverty is therefore reaching new people for the first time, so there is a big shake up happening and the elephant in the room is that this economic downturn is going to be drastic and horrible. It will unearth stuff that did not exist before, so we must be nimble, relevant, and passionate about what we do. The way that we are passionate is ensuring that we are providing support to the people that really need it.
As we come into the last part of our chat, I would like to talk about the football side of things and coming home. The Dons (AFC Wimbledon) are set to be moving into the new Plough Lane stadium in October. Will you be needing additional help and volunteers in that respect?
I cannot answer from the club’s perspective, but I think volunteers are going to be vital to the football club as they always have been. We are a sensibly run club with many volunteers in place at the weekend, and that will need to continue. I think DLAG and the AFC Wimbledon Foundation will be a big help in that. When we wanted to complete the building of Plough Lane, we had to go and help ourselves. There will be lots of fun volunteer roles at the club, and what really excites me is how the football club is absolutely a community asset. It needs to be viewed as such. There are amazing things that a football club can do, and for the community to feel like it owns it, is really quite special. FC Barcelona are more than a football club, and that is what we are, and will continue to enhance.
I am incredibly happy to hear that you (DLAG) are going to continue your works in the community to fill those gaps that we have discussed ranging from food poverty to digital poverty and beyond. You have clearly found a system that works and encourages other people to get involved.
We have got to keep understanding what makes that work and there are all sorts of ways that we can work with people. If a charity do lunches for elderly people on a Monday and Wednesday, is there demand for them to do that on a Friday as well – can we help them by supplying the ingredients or cooking the food, or hosting them? Do we need 7 volunteers to help them do that? If the foundation going to the Phipps Bridge estate to do their courses want to go to 5 estates, can we help get them from 1 to 5?
As long as the causes that we are helping with have a value, as in if they are really wanted, needed and used, we will have the volunteers that can help. We just have to make it part of our culture that we help. If we want our communities to be better places, we must do our bit to work on that. We cannot operate in a bubble anymore.
I know that at the moment you’re working in Merton, Kingston, Wandsworth and Richmond, will Merton still be the heart of your community and what you do?
Very much so, it is where we started, where the football club is, where the chunk of our fan base is, and where lots of our partners are, so Merton is the home of Dons Local Action without a doubt. But if we do ever take it beyond there, we have to take if from a solid base where we have cemented our processes. Wouldn‘t it be amazing that something that started in Merton with Merton people is able to help people in Newcastle by providing them with some guidance and helping them get set up. What a great thing that would be for our borough. It is not the biggest borough in London, but everyone has fought together.
I really do extend that to Merton Council – the great thing they said to me early on was “We don’t want to systemise you, we love what you’re doing and we want to support you as much as possible.” I don’t think they realised the power of those words, but that was so important because people worry about charities – it can be overshadowed by form filling and be quite slow – but it doesn’t have to be like that. We are trying to be nimble, relevant, passionate and empowering. If we can continue to do that, we are onto something pretty amazing.
On Wimblecomm, one of our core services is celebrating community spaces, so what community aspects and spaces can we expect at the new Plough Lane stadium?
They have got lots of community spaces and aspects as this is relevant to everything that they have been thinking about. I cannot expand on it purely because I am not involved in that side of things and do not want to give a wrong answer.
That is fine, we are due to catch up with the Press Team at AFC Wimbledon to talk more about The Dons coming home so we will cover that then. Is there anything else you would like to share before we wrap up this interview?
Apart from thanking the volunteers, I would love to reiterate that there are 3 Founders of the Dons Local Action Group, but I am often the one that gets interviewed. I would be grateful if Craig Wellstead and Cormac van der Hoeven could be mentioned for their work on this. Not many people know this, but Craig has been travelling from the South Coast to Old Ruts and sleeping on the floor at a mate’s house for a few days a week to make this happen. Cormac is a schoolteacher who has stuff to do and he has been leaving school and working shifts in the evening. There have been so many amazing people like that who deserve recognition. It is an incredible team.
Interview by Genevieve Etienne-Farrell
We hope you have enjoyed this latest edition of our #WimblecommSpotlight series featuring the Dons Local Action Group who have been doing incredible works across our borough and further afield since the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Continue reading our blog for more of these features with individuals, charities, and other community organisations working for the greater good of Merton and beyond.