Think there’s nothing your charity could learn from a society of fire-dancers, storytellers and drummers? Lila O’Leary, trustee and festival secretary for the Beltane Fire Society shares why you might just be wrong ...
Charities come in all shapes and sizes, but for me the Beltane Fire Society is something special. We’re a society of volunteers that stage huge fire festivals in the heart of Edinburgh each year, attracting audiences of thousands. There’s a lot about us that’s unique, but there are also elements of our approach that could work for other charities, whatever their cause.
Beltane is an ancient Celtic festival, held to mark the end of winter and the coming of summer. We revived the celebration in 1988 and since then every 30 April on Calton Hill we give the ancient tradition a contemporary twist, fire-dancing and drumming with mythical characters in huge physical theatre performances. Over almost 30 years we’ve grown to a society of hundreds of volunteers, and our festivals are featured in international press and watched by as many as 12,000 people.
So how do we do it, and is there anything about our way of working that your charity could be inspired by? Here are our top five tips:
We’re a society of volunteers that stage huge fire festivals in the heart of Edinburgh each year, attracting audiences of thousands. There’s a lot about us that’s unique, but there are also elements of our approach that could work for other charities, whatever their causeLila O'Leary
1. Build community, not just a charity
Our people are volunteers, and we benefit from a huge amount of commitment and passion by actively welcoming everyone into our community. We aim to keep the ‘the society’ and our members as close as possible – staying in constant dialogue, celebrating successes, looking out for each other, and having fun together.
2. Be inspired by your past, not bound by it
Our society is steeped in tradition, but we use it as a springboard, not a set of shackles. We collectively reinvent our festivals each year and almost anything can be changed; our structure and ways of working evolve all the time too as we grow and our membership changes.
3. Create the tools you need, together
As our society has grown, we’ve developed tools to help. Our principles of participation, shared with every member of the society, set out a collective statement on how we work together and what we expect of each other. As a society of creative and passionate people, we’ve also invested a lot of time creating a clear procedure for resolving differences and disputes.
4. Share your story
Sharing a common narrative, in a way that looks great, is part of who we are. You don’t have to be fire spinners and your story doesn’t have to be epic myth – just look for your own narrative to draw supporters in. What’s the problem you exist to address? Who are the characters who express it? What are their trials, successes, challenges? Find your story and commit to sharing it – in person and online.
5. Make almost everything possible
We work from the premise that every idea can be made to work. First we ask “Does this fit with what we want to achieve?” and then we get on to the fun part: “How can we make this work?”. It’s this commitment that means when a volunteer says to us something like – “This year I want to make a 40ft fire-breathing dragon” – it happens.
Ultimately, we’re saying: let your passion for your mission inform every element of your work. For us that passion is about celebrating and sharing community, what’s possible when we work together and sheer human joy. For you it might be passion for change or the desire to help other people. But whatever it is, don’t be afraid to let it shine through in everything you do.
Lila O’Leary is a trustee and festival secretary for the Beltane Fire Society.
Beltane Fire Festival, the society’s biggest annual event, takes place on the evening of 30 April.Buy tickets via beltane.org and The Hub, from £7.50.