Local Trust’s Head of Programme Delivery, Chris Falconer, introduces a new initiative to support inspiring community leaders emerging from Big Local.

Community Leadership and Big Local

Big Local is exciting and unique in its approach.  The programme provides £1m in funding and a range of support to 150 different communities over 10–15 years to make their area a better place to live. It’s a radical devolution of power and responsibility which seeks to limit the rules and red tape, with a focus on getting things done.

But when we distil it down and consider what really lies at the core of Big Local, it’s about people a belief that people have the potential to achieve brilliant, innovative and long-lasting change in their neighbourhoods. And that the talent and passion to create positive social change is abundant in all our communities.

Leading change

As Big Local moves past the halfway point, every area has its own stories of the deep commitment and leadership local people have shown to change their areas for the better. From walking groups tackling wellbeing to festivals celebrating what’s great about a place, from hubs that give people a place to talk to services that help families lift themselves out of debt, from working to address the causes and effects of serious youth violence to campaigning for change through politicians and funders – the achievements are inspiring.

And in Big Local, leadership is also found in every day acts of kindness talking and listening, understanding and caring. It is based on knowing people, getting to know people and keeping knowing them, even when they are going through a rough patch. Building community can at times feel frustratingly intangible and yet when it is witnessed it is immediately recognisable. So often what stands behind the parts that make the whole parent and toddler classes, job clubs, sports teams and all manner of other groups – are people with a tireless positivity, passion and inner determination to make change happen.

Beyond the ‘heroic’ leader

Often these people make things happen without really considering themselves leaders at all. It’s just what they do.

At its best, leadership in Big Local is distributed and shared. It comes from many different places, some expected, some unlikely. Not all leaders have titles or formal positions. They gain legitimacy and recognition from their community, based on the people they are and what they do.

What we’ve seen so far shows us that everyone has an ability and potential to lead in their own way, and it was this recognition that prompted us to hold the Leaders Assembly last year. The event saw over a hundred Big Local volunteers come together to discuss, challenge and understand community leadership with incredible enthusiasm. These conversations demonstrated huge demand for more to be done to understand and support community leadership.

Supporting leadership

Since then, at Local Trust, we have been working to respond to this opportunity.

We know from our research and from talking to partnership members and residents that Big Local is rewarding, inspiring and energising. It’s seen as an opportunity to take control and deliver the change communities want to see on their terms. But we also know this responsibility comes with challenges. We’ve been told how the sense of wanting to do the best for an area can sometimes be stressful or frustrating.

All of this comes at a time when there are national conversations underway about more democratic forms of power and how to best achieve social change in future. The government’s Civil Society Strategy and Communities Framework talk about people having greater control over their futures, while many funders now refer to local or place-based approaches, or put people and communities at the heart of their purpose. All these are admirable aims and pretty well aligned with what Big Local is about.

So what needs to change? Clearly, these are many answers but one area where Local Trust has a role is in supporting volunteers and communities to lead in a way that is sustainable.

This may mean providing support to build skills, confidence and networks that people can rely on at a time of eroding local infrastructure and services. We would want to recognise the emotional strength and resilience that are essential but often overlooked factors in this conversation. Our interests also lie in supporting a form of leadership which values relationship building and can inspire, while navigating the challenges of accountability and inclusion which can arise when working in communities.

A Community Leadership Academy

Our response is an exciting partnership with Koreo, The Young Foundation and Northern Soul to pilot the first ever Community Leadership Academy. Through the Academy, we hope to put into practice some of the learning we’ve gained so far about how to support community leaders in Big Local, and perhaps even further afield in future.

It will pioneer a person-centred approach to leadership including one-to-one mentoring and coaching, working directly with individuals in their local area. The Academy will also explore how to best build supportive networks that could last beyond the Big Local Programme – crucial to the shared leadership model we believe in.

We are currently piloting our approach with a small group of volunteers and will be making further announcements about the Academy and how to get involved in the autumn.

It’s a new and emerging area of our work, which means we will have to learn quickly and adapt to make it the best it can be. Our vision of the Academy is to build upon our understanding of what community leadership really is and how we can best support local people to take control. It seeks to draw on learning from Big Local, and leave a legacy of confident leaders whose influence could extend well beyond 150 areas and into all parts of civil society.