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Power and leadership

How funders can facilitate community-led transformation

In response to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s recent report, Local Trust’s policy officer Sarah Stearne reflects on what it means for a funder to enable communities to define and lead their own transformation.

Last month, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published Power, participation and transformative change – how funders can help, a report summarising the learnings from their Grassroots Mobilisation work.

This programme responds to the fact that too often funders, charities and campaigning bodies define initiatives and policies for the people that they advocate for. Despite good intentions, decision-making responsibility and resources tend not to reach people with lived experience – the system fails to prioritise people’s power and agency.

In a concerted effort to address this, JRF have spent five years working with organisations led by those in poverty, learning what it takes to resource and facilitate transformative change at the grassroots. The report makes a series of recommendations, including:

  • reducing the distance between funders and those that they fund
  • devolving power and resources, whilst investing in capacity-building
  • redefining evaluation metrics to account for the value of building power in communities.

In this blog, we join our voice to the call for wider systems change. We also share how JRF’s recommendations resonate with Local Trust’s experience and learning from supporting community-led Big Local partnerships to improve their neighbourhoods since 2012.

Devolving power to local people

In their report, JRF describe how, despite their intentions to “sit under and support the work of groups affected by injustice”, they had to confront the fact that established power dynamics meant they were beginning from a level of “minus trust”.

This is an issue facing institutions and experts alike. Partnership members from Big Local areas often tell us that they feel excluded from local public sector decision-making processes. People are used to power and control being exerted over them that enforces the status quo.

Overcoming “minus trust” means giving people more control over the issues that shape their lives. The knowledge that those with lived experience possess the expertise to lead positive change in their areas sits at the core of the Big Local programme – which gave 150 areas just over £1m each, to invest according to the priorities their community identified for the area.

In 2021, we asked community leaders in Big Local areas about their priorities, to inform our national policy work. The consensus was that the primary issue facing the most under-resourced communities is a system that hinders their involvement and leadership in community regeneration (defined broadly to encompass the socio-economic improvement of neighbourhoods).

Our experience and research suggests there is a real appetite for such involvement in the most deprived and ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods. When polled by Survation in 2020, the majority of residents in these areas said that if a local fund was set up to support their community, local residents should lead decisions over how the money is spent.

Investing to build confidence and capacity

After more than a decade supporting Big Local areas to improve both their neighbourhoods and their prospects, we’ve learned that devolving power and resources is only one ingredient in the recipe for building community power.

In addition to ‘structural change’ (devolving power and resources), we also need ‘relational change’. Power-building requires equal attention to be paid to investment in capacity and confidence building, alongside the provision of support and guidance. And this must be resourced over the long term.

We spoke to partnership members from Big Local areas as part of the recent evaluation of the Community Leadership Academy, a programme created by Local Trust and developed by Koreo, the Young Foundation and Northern Soul to connect participants with their peers, whilst building their confidence to lead positive change in their communities. The majority of participants agreed that the programme had increased their confidence, reduced feelings of imposter syndrome and increased their sense of trust in their own expertise. As one participant explained:

 “I felt I didn’t belong at the table as a leader. This programme has pulled through people who would not naturally have been chosen as leaders … it has spurred me on.”

As the CLA has evolved, one of the most important aspects is that its recruitment process is open to those who do not identify as leaders – recognising that confidence must be built and power-building requires investment in those who do not currently have a seat at the table.

Valuing power-building

In their report, JRF acknowledge that “the stubborn dominant mindset is a view of people with experience as passive recipients of benevolence, rather than agents in social change”.

Key to overcoming this is ensuring that our models of review, evaluation and impact assessment account for the value of building power at a community level. Doing so will help drive sustainable change by attracting more interest in and support for the approach, which will boost community resilience over the long term.

We also need to be mindful that limited approaches to evaluation (purely economic or quantitative assessments) are likely to underplay the long-term value of building capacity and mobilising grassroots action. Evaluations should be rooted in conversations with people on the ground who can provide the context and perspective on what’s been achieved.

Crucially, devolving power to communities means being non-prescriptive in how funds are used. And being a facilitator of community leadership means making it as easy as possible for communities to progress; providing the support to ensure good governance whilst minimising onerous reporting and other ‘hoops’ to jump through.

Residents as experts

Community leadership is the foundation of the Big Local programme and the transformation achieved through a varied portfolio of initiatives improving the lives of local residents.

Projects in Big Local areas include addressing gaps in service provision and responding to the cost of living crisis (running palliative care services, food banks and warm hubs), forging sustainable futures through community-owned energy solutions (commissioning the largest onshore wind turbine in the UK) and boosting local economies through business enterprise centres (one has helped ten new businesses establish premises in the local community).

Residents are the experts in their areas’ regeneration. As a funder we recognise our responsibility to support and facilitate this grassroots power and join our voice to the call for a system that upholds this as a core value.

About the author
Sarah Stearne

Sarah Stearne is policy officer at Local Trust.