It’s not about the alcohol! Helping communities to drink more healthily

Andrew Misell | August 2018 | 10 minutes

How do you get ‘ordinary’ social drinkers thinking and talking about alcohol? Probably not by talking to them about alcohol.


Nobody likes feeling like they’re being told what to do, and anyone who’s worked at the coalface of health promotion will know that trying to “educate” individuals to “know their units” or “drink responsibly” doesn’t work most of the time.

So, we decided to put our leaflets and our unit measuring cups and our good advice to one side. For three years, in the twin towns of Fishguard and Goodwick on the north Pembrokeshire coast, we ran a community alcohol project that wasn’t about alcohol. Instead, it was about all the things in our lives that alcohol goes with – and there are plenty of those!

The towns we were working in didn’t have extraordinary alcohol problems, and that was the point, really. We weren’t trying to show how to manage a crisis; we wanted to see how ordinary people could help each other to have a healthier relationship with alcohol.

We applied the empowering principles of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), which is all about making best use of the talents and resources – the “assets” – that are already there at ground-level. These “assets” might include something obvious like an underused building; or a well-recognised and respected professional skill, like accountancy. Or it might just be that someone is always supportive and encouraging, or good at listening. All people and all their skills are important, and everyone has something to contribute.

The resulting project activities included intergenerational IT sessions, tea dances, and music and poetry evenings. Out of these, naturally and unforced, came conversations about alcohol. One of the locals summed up what we achieved in words I love to re-read:

I assumed it would be preaching about not drinking as it was run by Alcohol Concern, but it seems to be far more about bringing the community together.”

If every one of our projects got feedback like that, we’d be well on our way to a healthier relationship with alcohol!

But, like many other projects, ours was time-limited. It was funded for three years and no more. We hoped that our ABCD approach – drawing on local talent rather than creating new clients – would help ensure sustainability. One year after the project ended, we commissioned the independent evaluators from Participation Cymru to go back and see just how sustainable our project was. Did it have a lasting impact, or had it dissipated like so many other short-term initiatives? Here’s what they found.

First up, we have to be honest and say that we don’t know whether people are drinking more healthily, or drinking less, as a result of our project. We don’t have detailed enough statistics; and if even we did, and they showed a drop in consumption, it would be a big leap to attribute that to our work. The good news is that there does appear to be more happening locally as a result of our project. Initiatives that started under our auspices are still going strong: Sound of the Youth music events, tea dances, Men’s Sheds, and the work to improve local play parks. All of these are alcohol-free activities, but more importantly, they bring people together.

And we’ve learnt some valuable lessons for the future. When the evaluators asked participants what they would say to anyone who wanted to start a similar project, they gave us three key pointers:

  • Involve the community from the start: build on what people want, and join with networks and organisations that are already there
  • Don’t label the project as being about alcohol
  • Make it fun – no one wants a sermon

One unexpected consequence – especially as we’d been so keen to use ABCD – was that the community was keen to maintain a full-time worker on the ground as a community connector: someone “really focused on pulling people together.” We know from our project that this can be a tricky role to fulfil. Our own Project Manager had a tough job convincing people he wasn’t, as one person put it, “just another wheeler-dealer,” that he really was there for the community, not just for himself or for Alcohol Concern. And that’s the big lesson: if people believe that your community alcohol project is more is about the alcohol than about the community, it’s likely to sink before it’s left port.

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Communities Together Project: Fishguard and Goodwick

Download the one-year-on evaluation of the project here. (0.48Mb)

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It’s not about the alcohol

Download the handbook here (0.71Mb)

There’s strength in numbers

A poem about the Communities Together project, by Project Manager Marc Mordey, with help and ideas from several Fishguard and Goodwick community champions, August 2017.

What are the ties that bind?

Good times, sad times, celebration and commiseration.

The chink of glass, the drowning of sorrows,

Take a drop, take a little,

Taken too much on board?

“Ain’t you got no home to go to?”

How do we talk this through together

Without condemnation, lecture, or impunity?

We start to chat,

A little bit of this, a little bit of that.

Meeting here and there,

Coffee shops, church halls and draughty rooms.

And out of conversation blooms:

Coffee mornings, storm warnings,

Scouts, Sea Cadets, the Army youth too,

Brass bands, Lifeboats, Coastguards

Fishguard and Goodwick, the beautiful blue.

Lions’ gentle roarings

(“You’re like a breath of fresh air”).

Are the old folks all grumpy?

Do the younger ones care?

Let’s celebrate our age-friendliness, with festivals and fairs.

Soroptimists, many other optimists too,

But also nay-sayers who

Would have us believe that

There’s nothing to be done.

Bring on the school children, bowls clubs, Rotary and Round Tablers,

Fishguard AFC players, Sound of Youth ravers, Good Neighbours,

Each and every one.

Community Forum, Town Team, County Council, Town Hall,

On ye come, come ye all.

Think about the ‘tombstoning’

Before you make the fall.

Folk singers and poets, pancakes and pizzas,

Pirates, playgrounds, snowmen and Santa.

Library, Theatr Gwaun, amongst the hubs.

Not quite so good, at getting into the pubs?

Yet, in our town of Transition

We are talking moderation,

Not preaching prohibition,

Thus no-alcohol beer is the festival king

At the Seagulls Rugby Club.

Chamber of Commerce,

Last Invasion ideas – advance, and

If we are feeling none the worse

Whisk me off to the Bay Hotel

for a Sunday afternoon Tea Dance.

Music, scones and jam, nothing silly

And the endless energy of Jockabilly.

Do we drink less, or more?

To find the correct answer, now that would be clever.

Let’s talk the talk, to find the cure.

But learn this we did, and learned it well.

There’s more strength in numbers

With people, the glue. Communities Together.