Innovating for good: the story of how we had a hack for a hospice

I came across a great word reading an article recently. 'Talkoo'. It's Finnish, and means 'working together, collectively, for a specific good'. For those who ask me what a hack is, this is a good way of putting it, and pretty much sums up how #HelpTheHospice went.

Essentially, a hack is a way to innovate and be creative to solve a business challenge, with a team of people who usually haven't worked together before, and in a short space of time. You can read more on my #helpthehospice blog post.

On 22 February I managed the #HelpTheHospice hack for Willow Burn hospice in Durham that had been a good four months in the planning. 24 people came on the day to help the hospice with a challenge; raise their profile across Durham and the North East.

This is my story of that day, and some of the key things you need to know if you're running your own hack event.

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Making a hack a success involves three main elements:

  • Getting the right people there

  • Coming up with the right ideas to work on

  • Momentum

The people at the hack were a diverse bunch, and this was deliberate. We had social media experts, web developers, students, a photographer and film maker, IT specialists, communications professionals, a project manager from the training sector and innovators from Newcastle University.

I wanted to harness the experience of those who didn't necessarily work in a hospice, in a charity, or in communications or PR, to give a different approach to what was a communications challenge. 

It was at once, the most antisocial and collaborative workshop I’ve ever been to. For people to come together, form ideas, then ignore each other enough to get things done in one day really takes some doing.

Being innovative is often about looking for new ways to solve a problem or improve something. Bringing people with different skills, experience and knowledge together would contribute towards that.

Much of my effort was put into getting the people there that could bring the most benefit, and I tapped up just about every network I had over a couple of months to find the final team. And I made sure I met with or spoke to everyone before they came to the hack. I wanted to make sure the right people were there, and that we all got the most out of it.

But we also needed things to do. The best way to get a good idea is to get LOTS of ideas. So part of the work before the hack wasn't just getting the right people there, but also to get those people thinking. The hard work for a hack is done before the day itself. It's a bit like a marathon. Put the effort in before the actual event and it'll make it much easier on the day.

So a few weeks before the hack I set up a Slack space and started conversations with people who were coming (and some who couldn't make it, but still had plenty to offer). I talked on social media and gathered ideas, blogged, and published background information on hospice care and charity comms to get people thinking. 

At the start of the hack, I asked everyone to be curious, and to challenge. To ask questions. To look for alternatives to how Willow Burn currently marketed themselves and engaged with their audience. We didn't want the hack to just do the same things that Willow Burn had done before. 

We got more than 30 ideas, which we then grouped into themes.

From this, five very different solutions to the challenge were worked on. And they were all great ideas.

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  • One team set up an alliance with Northumbria University and created a student society called WillowBurn initiative to support student care givers and to provide an opportunity for members to volunteer at the hospice.

  • A Facebook chat bot was built to engage with potential supporters online, and save the hospice time answering some of the more common questions they get like "How can I donate?"

  • A group for professionals to donate time or services to Willow Burn was created - called Willow Bank - and more than 30 days of support were pledged before the hack was over.

  • A suite of marketing materials and a toolkit for roadshow activity was developed, to generate awareness in the local community.

  • And a scheme called 'One for you and One for me' was developed and marketing materials produced to encourage businesses to sign up, to allow their customers to donate towards a treat for those at the hospice, like a haircut, massage or yoga class.

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This work was done in chunks, with hourly presentations of progress (PoPs) to the rest of the group. This helped keep the momentum going, which is so important for a hack. You can't just rely on the people that come to keep their energy levels up, sometimes they need a bit of a nudge. 

Part of my role was to keep the effort up. So I'd look for when people needed more help, or when to bring teams together when they had a common need. For example, we realised quite early on that two of the groups could do with some video and photography of the hospice, so we sent a few of the team on location to shoot what was needed. 

This also meant that the hospice had some great stock photography to use in the future. Double win!

To keep the momentum going, it was also important to have a fuelling strategy. Caffeine, cake and lots of healthy options too. And we let people have plenty of breaks. While we had an agenda, it was fairly flexible. People work at different paces, and in different ways, and there's little point imposing what works for you on everyone. Just let them get on.

Sending some of the team on location to shoot photography and video at the hospice

Sending some of the team on location to shoot photography and video at the hospice

I’ve been to many hacks and I would say this has to be one of my favourites and the funnest (is that a word?) that I’ve been on

One thing that was particularly important was for me to do a risk analysis before the day. It was a bit worrying thinking about everything that could go wrong, but did mean maximum preparedness on my part. So we boosted the wifi, got extra power cables, printed out agendas and presentations in case of tech fail, came up with a back-up list of ideas if people drew a blank and prayed that there would be good weather (as I write this I am actually snowed in!)


What an amazing experience my first hack has been! Who ever thought we’d be able to achieve so much in just 8 hours!

Having a great venue was critical so thank you to the North East Business Innovation Centre and the team there for letting us have the room for free, and all their help on the day.

And a big thank you to everyone who came along on the day, but particularly to the core sponsor, Groundswell Innovation. Jane Dalton from Groundswell brought innovative thinking, brand expertise and the skills to help the groups turn their ideas into action. 

If you'd like to know more about running a hack, or would like to talk to me about running one for you, please get in touch

All photos copyright Gavin Forster Photography