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Power and leadership

Why we must invest in the women supporting their communities

Volunteering serves as the heartbeat of communities across England. To mark Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating the contribution of the dedicated women who volunteer across the Big Local programme – and calling for greater investment in women’s community leadership in the future.  

Since 2012, the Big Local programme has enabled 150 areas across England to make their own decisions on what is best for their communities.  

Funded by the National Lottery Community Fund and led by residents, Big Local areas have invested in everything from vital community assets – including hubs and meeting places – to nurturing green spaces and organising youth and wellbeing services.  

Volunteers play an essential role in Big Local, including the partnership members who oversee programme delivery in each area, and the wider network of volunteers supporting their communities.   

Approximately 6,500 local residents volunteer in Big Local areas, alongside an additional 1,506 partnership members. Women make up over 66 per cent (Loughnane, J. et al, 2024) of those volunteering as partnership members, and their contributions extend far beyond this role – from organising community events and engaging young people, to leading on transformative local projects. 

This reflects a broader national trend, with women in England exhibiting a pronounced inclination towards volunteering, both formally and informally, according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).  

Encouraging a new generation of leaders

Despite the decline in volunteering observed nationally in recent years, the impact of volunteering in Big Local areas remains significant.  

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Community Life Survey for 2021/22 revealed that volunteering levels dropped to 16 per cent from 23 per cent in 2019/20. This decline is attributed, at least in part, to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The question, then, is how do we encourage a new generation of volunteers and leaders to take the next step in their communities? In 2020, Local Trust, in partnership with Koreo, the Young Foundation and Northern Soul, launched the Community Leadership Academy (CLA) to provide support and skills development for the volunteers making Big Local happen. 

The initial aim was to reach participants from Big Local areas only, but this has since expanded to individuals from external partner organisations too. By providing structured support and opportunities for skills development, the CLA aims to cultivate community leadership and foster positive change.  

Participants in the CLA found that the training benefited them in two significant ways: improved self-awareness and awareness of others, and an increase in confidence.  

As a result of the CLA, they were able to identify imposter syndrome; challenge limiting beliefs around their own skills, accomplishments and successes; ask more questions within partnership meetings, and delegate responsibilities.  

This was the experience for Nikki Gascoigne, who is part of Windmill Hill Big Local and went on to become chair of the partnership after taking part in the CLA. As she explains:  

“When I first started, I was like, I’m just a housewife. [The CLA] helped me to connect more with the partnership to make sure that everyone had a voice and everyone was heard. 

“For women, I feel like we kind of lose our identity, but we are more than just a ‘wife’ or ‘mum’, and it’s important for women to know that they can do and be more. I think it’s very important that we invest in those women who are supporting their communities.”   

Yvonne Griggs, from Birchwood Big Local in Lincoln, also discovered newfound confidence and skills through the CLA.  

“A few years ago, a friend asked me to give Big Local a chance. I was interested because I’m a horticulturalist, gardener, a landscaper. I slowly got more drawn in and started off as the greenspaces chairman,” she explains.  

“I was then offered the opportunity for more training. On the first day [of the CLA], I really thought they had made a mistake because everybody, except two or three of us, all had good degrees and I didn’t.  

“When I left school, they said I couldn’t do anything. So, I went and did the courses and we found out that I can learn, that I can do this.” 

For Imrana Niazi, of One Palfrey Big Local in Walsall, the journey to leadership was fraught with challenges, including gender imbalances and adversity. Yet, because of the training she received through the CLA, she found the strength to navigate obstacles, delegate responsibility and foster inclusivity within her community.   

“My passion has always been there from day one,” says Imrana. “Going in to being the chair was not something I’ve ever done before.  

“When I was put forward for the CLA, we had a lot of challenges, such as dealing with misogynist views people had. The CLA gave me that bit of power to acknowledge who I was and what my role was within the community.  

“It gave me the space where I could be myself and address some of our community’s toughest issues.” 

The role of community leadership in levelling up 

Our data shows that around 20 per cent of the people who make up Big Local partnerships across England had not volunteered or engaged in community activities before the programme.  

However, learning from the Big Local programme also shows that a robust framework is needed to help the most disadvantaged communities to make the changes they want to see – and that the infrastructure needs to be in place to support community leadership.  

As a call to future funders, including the government’s proposed community wealth fund, the learnings from Big Local are clear: to make change within these communities, we must first start with neighbourhood-level leadership.  

Nikki, Yvonne and Imrana’s experiences of the CLA demonstrate the importance of nurturing local talent through training and skills development, and the lasting impact this can have on communities. Leadership training – and supporting women into leadership roles – is something that cannot be overlooked.  

Any future government must recognise this as a key component to levelling up communities. After all, local residents are the experts in what their neighbourhoods really need.  


Loughnane, J. et al (2024) ‘Research Team Huddle.’ Internal team meeting, Local Trust. Available upon request (Accessed: 28 February 2024) 

About the author
Rachel Rowney

Rachel Rowney is Chief operating officer at Local Trust.