Follow the money
How offering Big Local grants online can boost community engagement
Toothill Big Local recently replaced an older website with something that looks good and performs well. That alone deserves congratulation, as we know it’s a big task. But they went a step further by putting community engagement at the heart of the website rethink. Now, residents come to the website again and again and use it to put forward their own requests for small grants, and to vote on other peoples’ ideas.
An investment that saves money
Automating the process of giving grants to community members was a major driver behind the decision to invest a budget of £15,000 in the website. This was partly to reduce the administration involved in the cycle of proposals and approvals, but more importantly to give power to the community so they get to decide which proposals get funded.
“It’s an investment that saves money,” says Kareen – Toothill Big Local’s chair who is a passionate advocate of the new website. “It also takes some responsibility away from the partnership. It was a crucial step for the partnership to accept that they don’t decide which projects will get funded. That was important for the simplicity, openness and transparency we set out to achieve.”
We just ask ‘What would you do to improve Toothill?’
Unlike the Great British Bake Off, no-one gets voted off. This isn’t a case of choosing Jill’s idea above Jack’s, as there is enough money in the pot for all of them to be funded if – an important if – the idea is truly supported by residents.
This is where Toothill’s website is really ingenious. Anyone with an idea that needs funds can register it on the site by answering a few simple questions, starting with ‘What would you do to improve Toothill?’ The Toothill Big Local team worked hard with the site’s designer and developer, Mark from Hot Pepper Design and Graeme from Gel Studios - to make sure the questions were pared down to the bare minimum, so residents were not put off from applying. Once complete, the partnership checks whether the idea meets their criteria (e.g. non-statutory, meets Big Local plan objectives) and, once approved, the idea is published on the site’s projects page for all to view.
Place your vote!
From that moment the applicant has at least 3 months to get every man, woman and dog in the area to vote for it. If a threshold of votes is reached, the project gets the green light for funding. The number of votes is tiered according to the value of the request. For example, a project looking for up to £999 needs to reach 25 votes to go ahead, and a project of £250,000 needs to secure more than 1000 local votes, representing 20% of Toothill’s population.
The 3 months when the project is open to votes are exciting. The applicant needs to go out to the community and start to talk up their project – it’s when face to face conversations really matter. They will be asking all of their friends and family to register on the site and place a vote. While on the site, residents can place votes for as many projects as they like, though the functionality of the site prevents someone placing 2 votes for the same project – no cheating!
Assistance for offline residents
And for those people who don’t have computer access or are not online, there’s help too. A range of posters, postcards and leaflets were posted through the door of every resident inviting them to visit or phone the Big Local office to submit proposals, or vote by proxy, if they can’t get online. The site is also optimised for smartphones, which is how many residents get online.
Now that residents are registered on the site, Toothill Big Local wants to use the email database behind the site to contact residents and engage them in different ways. For example, the online mapping function is being tweaked to consult residents about local issues such as where to place bins and benches in a local park, alongside other more traditional consultations using post-it notes and paper maps.
What’s in it for me?
A site like Toothill’s won’t be right for every Big Local area, but for those who think it will suit their community, Toothill are definitely worth talking to. They are rightly proud of how the site avoids conflicts of interest, eases access to grants and increases community engagement. Mark, from Hot Pepper Design, says the same kind of site could be easily tweaked for other Big Local areas now that the framework is in place.
And if your Big Local area is not yet ready for a whizz bang web site that does it all for you, well there are always good old Post-It notes, currently being sold for £12 for a pack of 6. That’s the online price of course…