Using Appreciative Inquiry with an island community

Rathlin is the only inhabited offshore island of Northern Ireland, with a steadily growing population of approximately 150 people. It is the most northerly inhabited island off the coast of the island of Ireland. The reverse L-shaped Rathlin island stretches four miles (six kilometres) from east to west, and two and half miles (four km) from north to south.

It is part of the Causeway Coast and Glens council area, and is represented by the Rathlin Development & Community Association.


In the last few years, Appreciating People has been privileged to work on three Appreciative Inquiry projects – two with the Rathlin Development and Community Association (RDCA) and, more recently, the Rathlin Island Ferry Company (RIFC). This is the story of the AI process used, and the learning that has been emerging. The length of our involvement on the island has provided the perfect opportunity to consider the longer-term impact of AI interventions.

appreciative inquiry with an island community

Developing the Rathlin 20/20 Community Plan

Rathlin wanted a process engaging as much as possible of the island community, and the plan was co-designed and co-created (instead of using external consultants to draw up a plan and then consult the community about it). A secondary aim was to support self-sustaining community engagement by training a core group of residents in Appreciative Inquiry. 

Appreciating People has been developing this approach in other community planning processes – like our work in Liverpool’s Anfield area – and building on the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) process. The island also wanted the process to be captured in visual minutes, and we work with talented artists who visually record the ideas, themes and images emerging from an event, in real time. You’ll find more information about this approach here

The AI process consisted of a number of stages:

Stage one

Creation of a core project group – participants came from across the island. They helped to finalise the inquiry themes and also received a two-day Taste of AI training workshop.

Stage two

The core group worked with Appreciating People to finalise a community AI conversation protocol, and then conducted over 90 interviews. Alongside this, the island’s primary school (which has nine pupils), did its own vision work by developing a Dr Who Tardis and time travelling to the year 2020.

Stage three

Information from the island conversations was organised into common themes and ideas. These themes contributed to the design of the community event and the RDCA’s community plan. 

Stage four

A community-wide event was organised, involving over 50 people and a couple of island partners, and was visually minuted. It concentrated on the 5D stages of discovery, dream and design. This process provided the framework for the RDCA to develop the community plan.

Key learnings

  • The value of providing AI training to the core project group to help support self- sustaining AI practice within other RDCA projects and programmes
  • The impact of the AI conversations across the community – they fostered generativity and interest in the community plan.
  • It provided the RDCA with a better focus for the challenges to be addressed and clarity on the future key intentions and direction
  • It created a strong sense of community ownership to the way forward

restoration and regeneration of the Manor House as an island resource

Rathlin Manor House

One of the strongest themes to emerge from the community event and the island conversations was the need to address the restoration and regeneration of the landmark Manor House building, as a hotel and community resource. This led to Appreciating People’s return to the island six months later to facilitate a design workshop on community ideas for the Manor House. A workshop was held on a Saturday evening with 40 participants, and the workshop’s content and ideas were turned into a visual minute by the artists after the event.

The design workshop content consisted of a combination of discovery interviews, small group work based on a dream for the Manor House, and then identification of the first steps.

Key learnings

  • The value of a workshop focused on one element of the community plan
  • There was a high level of commitment to do something, with common agreement to the approach
  • One result was that the National Trust – which owned the building – provided a long term lease; another was that the Northern Island Government awarded a £750,000 Coastal Communities development grant. The Manor House hotel opened in March 2017

Readers may also be interested to see the strength-based community resources that we developed in our Grundtvig project – Sharing strengths, developing communities – promoting strength-based learning across societies for the future. 

Following our work with the island’s communities, we carried out another Appreciative Inquiry session with the Rathlin Island Ferry Company, which you can read about here…

We met our now-client Linda Hutchinson at the LfE conference, and she wrote a blog for her business, The Ideas Hub, about Rathlin Island. You can read about it here… Tim has since been down to train her team in London.

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