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What’s next for community leadership?

For the last two and a half years, over 100 people volunteering with Big Local have been developing their skills as leaders through the Community Leadership Academy.

In 2019, halfway through the Big Local programme, Local Trust research showed how volunteers in communities across the country were taking on huge responsibilities, responsibilities that in another sector would likely be matched with training or coaching. As a result, alongside Koreo, the Young Foundation and Northern Soul, we established the Community Leadership Academy to support them. A recent evaluation of the programme suggests they have learnt a lot – and so have we.

From the beginning, the Community Leadership Academy was designed to not only offer grassroots leadership development, but also explore what else is out there and learn from others committed to supporting community leaders. This is why, following the release of Helen Goulden’s recent report on community leadership, we brought together some key thinkers and practitioners in this space to discuss our learning so far and what is still to be done if we are to effectively support leadership in communities across the .

“The capacity and capability of communities to participate in decision making, to take ownership of local assets and to organise on the issues that fundamentally affect their wellbeing cannot be assumed or taken for granted. Nor can it be assumed that all those who want to act have access to the skills, knowledge, and support to do so.”
Helen Goulden

Our session began with powerful accounts from two participants of the Community Leadership Academy: Imrana from Palfrey Big Local in Walsall and James from Grange Big Local in north London. Both shared their experiences of working at a grassroots level and how leadership coaching and development has helped them to achieve even more. Their stories were a good reminder of the origins of Local Trust’s investment in the Community Leadership Academy and highlight our first key learning point.

Imrana and James demonstrated how financial investment in a place is just the start, and it is unlikely to have impact if local people are not ready to take it on. Through Big Local, residents in 150 neighbourhoods have been given £1.15m each with no strings attached to improve their communities over a period of 10 – 15 years. This is of course an opportunity, but it is also a responsibility, and in every one of the 150 Big Local areas people have stepped forward to take on that responsibility and ensure the money works for their neighbourhoods. Leadership training can play a crucial role in ensuring those taking on that responsibility have the skills and networks they need.

“I had a vision of change for my area, but without support from the Community Leadership Academy I don’t think I would have been able to continue and see that through.”
Imrana Niazi

Whilst there were similarities in both Imrana and James’ experiences, we also know that place and a personal approach matter. The conversation highlighted the specific circumstances under which community groups operate. We discussed how context and culture in a place can influence what kind of leadership is needed, and therefore what kind of support is needed to develop that leadership. In each case, we discussed how training and support for nurturing leadership needs to be as tailored as possible, whilst also recognising the solidarity and connection people felt from being part of a group of people learning together.

“It’s no longer you against the world, it’s ‘you lot’ against the world.”
James Masters

Throughout the discussion, we noticed something else. The language used to describe community leadership is changing, in the room, but also across wider civil society. No longer is it technocratic, like the language of the regeneration initiatives that have come before, instead it has become more personal, people-centred, and needs-focused. There was a strong focus on growing leadership and not just leaders, recognising that distribution of leadership across a group was often the key to avoiding common problems such as succession planning and burnout.

We agreed that, as our understanding of leadership was clearly evolving, so too should the support and investment in it. Also, we recognised this conversation needed to continue and, importantly, be widened – to allow the pool of people contributing to the discussion to grow.

Too often it is assumed by organisations across sectors that if money is made available people will step forward and volunteer their time to spend it. What we have learnt from the Big Local programme and the Community Leadership Academy is that money alone is not enough: investment in leadership is needed, to help people achieve even more. So, if you’re reading this and think you or someone you know should be involved in these conversations about the future of supporting community leadership, we want to hear from you.

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