Innovative communities need innovative funders: what we’re learning from the Neighbourhood Challenge

I’m very pleased to share a new publication with you today which has been created to showcase what we’re learning through working with the 17 Neighbourhood Challenge projects.

Image of Neighbourhood Challenge report

The groups have had an incredibly busy time since the call for ideas back in October 2010, and we have seen a real range of actions taking place across the whole programme since then. Community centres have been refurbished and opened up at The Mill in Walthamstow, Brixham YES in Devon. What is much more than this, these hubs are already becoming local centres of activity where community members themselves have been setting the agenda for how things work, and how to inspire new people to develop, design and lead their own local projects.

A real variety of methods to galvanise action have been put into play, demonstrating a range of locally tailored approaches, from testing challenge prizes at Coopers Edge  in Gloucestershire, to Community Organising in Brent, Newark and Manchester, and social entrepeneurship in Bradford and Bolton. We have also seen many groups take up an Asset Based Community Development (Strengths-based) approach as their own learning progresses, with Merseyside and Surrey Community Foundations using this approach, and Shiregreen in Sheffield.

It is already clear that community organisations and the people they work with have much to teach us about how to access existing potential within neighbourhoods in a tailored way that works best for their area – after all, they are the ones most able to understand, engage, and mobilise untapped local assets and social networks. We are also discovering some very important lessons for funders and support agencies about what they can do to help communities work in this locally tailored, flexible way by considering what they can do to create the right conditions for more bottom-up, innovative behaviours to flourish.

Much of the work being done through the programme relies on a shift in attitude and behaviour rather than simply applying a new method or using a toolkit. The question is not just about what tools are being used, but how they are being applied on the ground, and by whom. Local, enabling, conditions are crucial to the development of the projects, and this is one area we think funders of all kinds can make a big difference through changing their own behaviours and approaches too.

Check out the  latest paper for more information on the latest learning, and if you want a reminder on each of the 17 projects methods, see theoriginal programme paper which describes each project in detail.

How we learn matters: Tea breaks on steroids

The projects all came together at a workshop event in the Autumn which was focused around learning. You can see some photos of the day below; it took place in Birmingham at Fazeley studios which was a great space to work in as it gave us plenty of room to work in small groups as well as sharing news and socialising over tea breaks.

 I often hear the comment that ‘tea breaks are the most useful part of an event’, and would tend to agree. Tea breaks can be a great opportunity to meet new people, share ideas, be yourself, and to speak frankly about your opinions and concerns. They are an opportunity to make a real connection with other people, which may last beyond the day.

We tried to tap into the serendipity of the tea break by using insight collated across all of the projects. We did some simple things like setting up table plans to enable those with common issues to meet, and framing the broad themes for discussion – whilst leaving space for their own questions and comments to be aired too.

In short, we tried to set the tone for the event as being one of an ‘ideal tea break’ where you just might happen to meet the people who can offer you insight or assistance, and you just happen to talk about things you have in common.

This kind of semi-structured workshop is really important to the programme as it has been one of  the ways we have tried to create an atmosphere where sharing successes and failures is encouraged and supported to happen.

Learning informally from one another as a peer group has been part of this, and we have encouraged projects to visit one another after the event too as well as continuing their blog diaries online and reading one another’s updates from time to time.

Overall, people reported back that they have really enjoyed the opportunity to share stories with each other, and to get support and advice from peers on tackling challenging issues they were facing. However, they are also so busy getting on with delivering projects on the ground that it is hard to carve out dedicated time for learning and development. We’re learning about how funders and support agencies can help this to happen.

Over the coming months it will be interesting to see how projects feel about the value that learning and connecting with others has given them as they both look back on all that they have achieved as well as prepare for how they will move on from the final phase of the programme in the Spring.

Visits and looking forward to Birmingham

We have been out and about alot over the last week or so visiting project sites. I have been to quite a few different projects so far and have been very much enjoying finding out more about how projects are working  out in practice. There’s nothing like visiting a local area and spending time meeting people face to face – I’m glad that I have the opportunity to do so at this mid-point in the programme before our mid-point event in Birmingham in October.

Visits so far have included going up to Lancashire to see Prescap, who are running a community journalism  project and challenge prize in Preston.

I took a guided tour around Manchester with Changemakers/Church Action on Poverty who are running three participatory budgeting events which will turn ideas into action with the help of community organisers.

I have also been lucky enough to present certificates to the first round of social entrepeneurs receiving start up funding in Bradford, and to meet some of the potential entrepeneurs putting in applications to take part in Bolton. Both of these groups have been working with UnLtd to develop their methods.

One of the first projects I visited was ‘The Mill’ in Walthamstow (formerly referred to as Blackhorse Action Group), and was shown around the community building that has now been taken over by local residents and repurposed. (They still have some of the library books in the entrance, along with some stylish, home-built furniture!)

We also went up to see the exciting and innovative funding work being carried out by Community Foundation Merseyside as they get ready to launch their pioneering  asset-based community challenge prize.

Last but not least, I have also visited Darwen Aldridge Academy to hear more about their entrepeneurial approach to stimulating involvment from people by taking their ‘living room’ on tour to shopping centres, pubs, libraries…. anywhere people already gather!

I’m looking forward to more visits over the next few weeks -and to catch up with everyone in Birmingham!

Up and running!

Things have been very busy for everyone over the last few months since Neighbourhood Challenge kicked off.

It has been a really exciting time – and also a challenging time – for all of the projects. All 17 groups are up and running now and they’ve been working through the practical issues around how to make their plans translate into action on the ground.

There are lots of exciting things going on as you can see and read on the individual project blogs (just here on the right ->)

I wanted to pick up a few highlights from some of our most active bloggers in this post – but I’d strongly encourage you to take a look through them all to get a feel for the variety of the approaches being taken, and all of the different challenges and successes that projects have experienced during this set up phase.

We also now have a map of our projects which we’re going to be developing further over the next month. (Click here to view the map)

Neighbourhood Challenge News

1. Stand Out in Darwen

Darwen Aldridge have been taking their travelling living room out into the community to find out what is going on locally and to gather ideas for community led projects.

Stand Out Darwen's mobile sitting room

For more info on Darwen Aldridge visit their Neighbourhood Challenge blog.

2. Coopers Edge

We’ve seen some lively  postings from Coopers Edge who  are building interest and involvement in the community on a new housing development using a temporary community centre as a hub for engaging people.

Coopers Edge meetingplace

For more info on Coopers Edge visit their Neighbourhood Challenge blog.

3. Shiregreen

Shiregreen continue to be really active on their blog, updating on community events and  how they have been testing and adapting methods for involving people.

Shiregreen's community tent

For more info on Shiregreen visit their Neighbourhood Challenge blog.

Neighbourhood Challenge in Manchester

It was great to see the Neighbourhood Challenge projects taking part in the Manchester workshop we held last week.

The theme of the day was ‘involving and inspiring new people’, and activities were a mix of peer-to-peer exchange along with facilitated workshops on specialist aspects of engagement.

NCVO facilitated the morning session and opened up the day by asking everyone to share their own experiences of getting involved in community led action. We found that there were a huge number of different  motivations for involvement even in our small group.

Understanding  how and why people become involved in community action is crucial when you’re trying to involve people who have different backgrounds and motivations from your own.
One strong message I took away from our group discussions was just how important it is to go through this process of understanding and trialling new approaches to engagement. Simply ‘seeing it from others point of view’ or ‘taking a walk in their shoes’ is the simplest way to start.
The research project Pathways Through Participation from IVAR, NVCO and Involve is a great resource for those looking to understand these experiences and drivers in more detail.

Blogging the Challenge

When we set up the Neighbourhood Challenge, one of our priorities was finding ways to draw out and share learning throughout the lifetime of the programme. I’ve no doubt that we’ll publish some research and policy stuff at the end of the programme, but we wanted to find a way for people to follow (and get involved in) the stories of each of the 17 community organisations throughout the year. We also wanted to keep it simple and make sure that people could tell their own story, in their words. That’s why we settled on the idea of WordPress blogs as a low cost, user friendly way of people telling their authentic story.

Philip Colligan and Alice Casey

Alice and Philip ready to send out blogging prizes!

We’ve gone a little bit further too. Community organisations up and down the country will know the horrors of monthly reporting to their funders. Systems created with good intent, but that end up generating tons of work and reams of paper that adds questionable value. Accountability for public money is of course hugely important for funders, but does anyone really read the monitoring information that you send in to them? So we thought we’d try something a bit different.  We’re trying to manage all of the project “reporting” through the blogs.

Imagine a world where community organisations posted their own reports of performance and expenditure online and all of their different funders used that to satisfy themselves that they were using the money appropriately. Perhaps there are funders that already take this approach? If so, we’d love to hear from you.

Of course, blogging isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and it can be intimidating for a first time blogger – publishing to the world can be a bit scary. So we’ve got the fantastic Talk About Local supporting the “bloggers” and as an added incentive, I rashly offered to dish out some prizes for the best blogs.

Almost all of the 17 community organisations have now posted their first blogs and I’ve really enjoyed reading them. The competition was so tough that I ended up awarding three prizes:

  • Best blog: Brixham YES – The fantastic pictures and stories in Brixham’s blog really bring the project to life. We really liked the slideshow: http://brixhamyes.wordpress.com/
  • Best monitoring blog: Holy Trinity – As well as some really interesting and lively posts, Holy Trinity have put together a good go at  a first monitoring blog post answering the questions we’re particularly interested in: http://parishpeoplespower.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/12-march-2011-0027/
  • First blog posted: Surrey Community Foundation – This blog is coming along well, and crucially, they were first to post up using the email address – very speedy!: http://lgnchall.wordpress.com/

Each of the winners has been sent a digital camera to help keep up their marvellous work and add more photos to the future posts. We keep asking all of the projects to post photos so in the spirit of practicing what we preach, so above is a photo of our own as we get ready to send out the cameras to the three winners. Thanks to all for making the blogs such a great read!

Reasons to be Excited!

The Neighbourhood Challenge is a new programme from NESTA, working with the Big Lottery Fund, to support community-led innovation. It aims to show how community organisations ‚ “when equipped with the right skills, practical tools and small, catalytic amounts of money,” can galvanise people to work together to create innovative responses to local priorities, particularly in neighbourhoods with low levels of social capital.

Around 600 community organisations across England originally applied to be part of the 12 month programme of which 17 organisations will now be provided with funding and support to trial an approach to community organising that reflects their own vision for what will work best in their area.

We will provide the practical tools and high-quality training needed for participating organisations to help people in their communities create local campaigns, innovative community projects and new social enterprises that address their passions and priorities. We will also provide micro-finance to support the development of local projects and establish local challenge prizes to incentivise community-led innovation.

We’ll be following the progress of the seventeen teams and reporting on them through this blog. In turn each of the teams is tasked with documenting their own experience through their own blogs, and we’ll start to see that happen in the next few weeks as they get set-up.

The Neighbourhood Challenge is a new programme from NESTA, working with the Big Lottery Fund, to support community-led innovation. It aims to show how community organisations “when equipped with the right skills, practical tools and small, catalytic amounts of money” can galvanise people to work together to create innovative responses to local priorities, particularly in neighbourhoods with low levels of social capital.

Around 600 community organisations across England originally applied to be part of the 12 month programme of which 17 organisations will now be provided with funding and support to trial an approach to community organising that reflects their own vision for what will work best in their area.

We will provide the practical tools and high-quality training needed for participating organisations to help people in their communities create local campaigns, innovative community projects and new social enterprises that address their passions and priorities. We will also provide micro-finance to support the development of local projects and establish local challenge prizes to incentivise community-led innovation.

We’ll be following the progress of the teams and reporting on them through this blog. In turn each of the teams is tasked with documenting their own experience through their own blogs, and we’ll start to see that happen in the next few weeks as they get set-up.

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