Operating in 22 countries around the world with 300,000 global participants every week, parkrun is a not-for-profit that aims to create a happier and healthier planet. The organisation facilitates free 5km walking and running events in parks and open spaces, with an emphasis on the social component of exercise and community fitness. Tim Oberg, parkrun Australia’s CEO and Strategic Director, spoke with Inclusive Australia over Zoom to discuss the key role of community, the importance of wellbeing, and how the business has adapted to the challenges of a global pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, what did parkrun look like?
Each weekend in regular times, parkrun facilitates 380 running and walking events across Australia in both regional and metropolitan communities. These events are the lifeblood of the parkrun entity, promoting its values of community, health, happiness and social interaction. Tim explains that parkrun was created primarily as a social activity, rather than just a running event, and that this remains the guiding principle of the organisation today.
With a lean staff of just 10 people in Australia, these events rely on a layered volunteer structure. This enhances the cross-generational impact of parkrun, where children and 80-year-olds alike can participate and volunteer together. In this way, the events are a formidable equaliser, where ability, age and experience is less important than simply getting involved.
How has parkrun adapted to life in the coronavirus pandemic?
Given social distancing measures, parkrun has been unable to hold its in-person running events in Australia, and these events usually comprise around 80 per cent of parkrun’s operations. For an organisation which, by nature, exists to facilitate physical events, it has been necessary to pivot and focus on improving communications both within the company and externally. Seeing stronger connections form between staff members in Australia and internationally has been a highlight of this experience, Tim says, as well as galvanising relationships with parkrun’s major sponsors.
From an internal standpoint, Tim emphasises that wellbeing is the main priority. Parkrun has taken a view of “the more the better” in regard to internal communications: the Australian team is holding daily check-ins between staff, in the knowledge that the pandemic is affecting everyone in different ways. Parkrun is also afforded a unique perspective in this pandemic as an international organisation. Through interacting with overseas staff, Tim has found it interesting how different countries have handled this period, and the contrast between the lenience of Sweden’s restrictions to New Zealand’s hard-line lockdown approach stood out in particular.
Usually, the highlight of each weekend is seeing everyone stick around for a coffee and chat after the run, Tim says, and this spirit has stayed strong even with the events themselves postponed. The parkrun community has continued to connect and stay engaged with the program through virtual coffees, weekend quizzes and online chat groups, which have sparked within local event Facebook groups.
What impact will the pandemic have on parkrun, moving into the future?
At its core, parkrun is about facilitating running events in-person, and this will not change moving forward. Tim believes the business will be better off once everything is up and running as normal again; the team have had time to “spring clean”, experiment, and refine internal processes, which they may not have been able to do without the excess of time afforded by lockdown. Their small Australian staff made it easy to pivot the business during the pandemic, so Tim predicts pivoting back to regular programming will be a similarly simple process. The biggest learning from this period will be the power of strong communications and relationships, and how to maximise impact through technology.
Go to www.parkrun.com.au to find out more as their events get back up and running post-coronavirus.
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