Tag Archives: community organisers

Corporate enthusiasm and Newsnight’s tired cynicism

Interesting posts over last few days from a couple of thoughtful leading figures in the social enterprise movement. Peter Holbrook, chief executive of Social Enterprise UK (SEUK), takes in the death of Steve Jobs and the party conference season while primarily focusing on the evolving relationship between social enterprise and (big) business. SEUK along with the School for Social Entrepreneurs and others, are about to move into a new social enterprise hub developed by accountants PwC at the Fire Station near London Bridge.

This is one of several signs of the growing affection between corporate giants and the social enterprise lobby. Holbrook is optimistic about these developments while recognising some potential objections from within the sector: “I understand many people are concerned that our sector might be used to ‘cleanse’ the image of tarnished business that continues to behave in greedy and selfish ways, but I genuinely believe that the tide is turning and the relationships we cultivate are assessed on the balance of net-gain for society and the sector. We have engaged the corporate ear and we must wisely use this opportunity to create the biggest and best impact for our world by challenging and changing usual business doctrines.”

He goes on to contrast positive engagement from big business with the less positive attitude of politicians: “Maybe it’s because we’re all in business that were beginning to build such productive relationships and understand how business needs to change. Business is getting this agenda much faster than many politicians – too many of whom see us as a peripheral, ideological and a marginal business sector.

Based on the current financial realities for social enterprise, that latter quote creates an impression of big business as the popular auntie and uncle who see the social enterprise kids a couple of days a year to take them to Disneyland while government represents the put upon parents who look after them all year round with nothing to show for it but resentment.

Politicians might not understand social enterprise to the same extent as enthusiastic business people but, currently, they do a lot more to pay for it. SEUK’s Fightback Britain report reveals that more than twice as many social enterprises (27%) have either state contracts or grants/core funding as their main source of income than trading with the private sector (13%), rising to 41%/10% for those with incomes of between £250,000 and £1,000,000.

This is not to say that Peter Holbrook’s essential message is wrong. It is vitally important that social enterprise and social enterprises engage with the private sector – both in terms of sustaining social enterprise and in terms of contributing the development of socially conscious business culture – but that we need to be aware of the position we’re starting from. Finding mutually beneficial ways for social enterprises to work with private sector businesses – large and small – is the right direction to be travelling in, the challenge is to find practical ways to make it work while also bearing in mind likely queries from Mike Chitty, amongst others, about the assumption that social enterprise necessarily has anything much to teach the mainstream private sector.

Elsewhere, Jess Steele of Locality, who is heading up the Community Organisers programme, reflects on the coverage of the scheme on Friday’s Newsnight. In these trying times for the Beeb, the package hardly amounted to a sterling defence of licence fee. Regular viewers may know that Newsnight has been running a regular Big Society slot in which Stephen Smith, the programme’s culture correspondent, is transformed into Citizen Smith – a man apparently attempting to destroy the government’s flagship scheme armed only with a tired pun on his name and a bumbling disinterest in his subject matter.

While previous episodes have looked at suitably uninteresting issues such as whether people should volunteer to maintain the council’s flower beds, Friday saw Smith’s (essentially good natured) spoof-foolishness directed at a £15 million scheme to stimulate positive social action in local communities – both a relatively small investment for a major national project but also the biggest single government in direct delivery of Big Society activity. As Steele suggests, the actual interviewees – both those trainee organisers interviewed at and after the first training event, and Civic Society minister, Nick Hurd – managed to come out of it looking well informed, sensible and, in the case of the organisers, an extremely good investment at £15,000 each for a year’s work.

Given that many of them are themselves facing looming redundancy, you would think BBC editors would understand that the challenges facing deprived communities as the state withdraws and the private sector doesn’t pick up the pieces are anything but a joke. There’s plenty of questions about what community organisers can do to tackle some of these challenges – and the likely limits to what they can do. It’s a shame that BBC’s quality news programme seemed more interested in getting a few cheap laughs that doing its research and asking those questions properly.

Advert for Guardian Social Enterprise 2011


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“The point is to believe in humanity and each other” – Jess Steele interview, part two

Following on from part one, I ask Locality‘s Head of Innovation, Jess Steele, about the relationship between the community organisers programme and the government’s Big Society agenda.

Creating the programme was one of the government’s flagship Big Society promises, do you think that’s a help or a hindrance?

“I think every time we hear the words ‘David Cameron’s Big Society’ it makes me cringe and I’m often on record saying ‘it’s not his, it’s either all of ours, or it doesn’t exist at all’. On the other hand I’ve always thought that the phrase, the concept of Big Society, is an interesting and useful input into a bigger debate. It’s really important and good that we’re talking about it. That doesn’t mean that it’s the right answer to the debate but it’s a really good thing to be talking about it at last because a lot of us have been working in this kind of field for a long time and struggling to be heard by any mainstream press or politicians at all. So, at the moment it’s interesting that you can get heard with ideas about neighbourhoods, about communities and about devolving power and shifting power downwards. I think that’s quite helpful. 

At the end of the day, it’s a £15 million project. It’s a pretty small thing compared to the vast amounts of government spending on other programmes and the multiple millions it’s spending on war abroad – let alone on other activities within The Big Society. We’re in a really hard time for everybody. Huge welfare cuts will undoubtedly have more impact on the street than this programme can but I think this programme can have an impact. (Partly) because it’s so open-ended, because the organisers bring no specific message and seek no specific outcome: they’re not messengers from government, they’re not messengers from Locality – they are people who are trained and supported and paid to work with what they actively seek out and find on the ground. So, yes I think in some ways it can have a huge impact on how we think about The Big Society.

Do you think there’s a danger than people are going to say ‘I’m angry with the government, so I won’t engage with this programme’?

“That is a challenge for us and for organisers. What we always said was that the most important thing was to liberate the programme from government. I think they are being fairly helpful in letting us do that because this point is there is no specific outcome they’re seeking and they don’t expect us to send government messages.

A wider danger is the party politicisation of community organising and other (similar) kinds of activities, which I think is a very significant risk and is a terribly significant risk for the parties themselves as well as for everybody who cares about it in a non-partisan way. Because the minute the public associate a particular approach with a particular party, it doesn’t matter which party it is, it’s dead in the water because they’ll see it as being sold a party rather than being listened to. I think that’s extremely dangerous and something that the parties should think carefully about.”

So what, in your view, are some of the best examples of community organising that are happening already in the UK?

“There’s elements of it all over the place. Regenerate themselves have some great examples including a project that they’ve been working on for a long time in Bath which has expanded from a small neighbourhood: the council has picked it up and worked with them over a larger area. So that project shows lots of examples of conflict turning into work together with the council, of the whole process of listening and how it builds trusting relationships – mobilising large numbers of people. And there are examples in the Locality – http://locality.org.uk/ – membership, including Development Trusts of course and much older Settlements that have shown how to mobilise people and how to combine changing the powerful with a self-help mutual collaborative approach to getting things done. I think we draw on those histories too.

We also draw on Freire and Alinsky and on the success and the approaches of Citizens UK’s work bringing Alinsky to Britain, or to London. We draw on lots of different stories and want to do that. We’re building an online knowledge hub, which is basically a very straightforward way that people can upload resources – whether they’re scholarly articles or little stories about particular places, photos, videos, whatever. It’s a place where that can be shared both between organisers and be generally accessible to anyone whose interested. So, we want to share and comment on all those resources and stories.”

We’re based in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The council’s not well regarded and the local organised professional voluntary sector isn’t very strong. There are lots of small community groups – meeting in small community centres, pubs or people’s homes – but they tend not to grow or move toward more formal activity. Is this the kind of thing the programme will be able to help with?

“I hope it will because I hope what (the organisers) will do is find and systematically listen to some of those people. People who’ve got loads of energy and are already well connected to groups with each other, groups which are quite big if loose networks. If we begin to systematically listen to them, one of the questions organisers can then ask is ‘do you know anyone else who thinks like you about these issues?’

“And rather than people just going ‘oh yeah, there’s loads of people’, you say well ‘can you picture them?’ ‘Yes, I can picture them, I’ve got them in my head – here’s the four or ten or however many people’. And then it’s ‘well, can we meet with them?’

So that cascading helps to, not necessarily formalise but reveal and value the links that are already there between people. There’s nothing wrong with the conversation in the pub but let’s take it beyond this as well, let’s start talking to people who are not like us because the danger of those very pleasant informal things is that they become cliques and they’re separate from each other.

Whereas if those people are willing to go beyond that and say ‘ok, can we organise with people who are not like us?’ – whether that’s elderly people, or young people, people of a different ethnic group or people on a different estate.  To explicitly take than leap beyond people like you is a really powerful thing to do and begins to create a different kind of network, which begins to become something which the powerful, whoever they are – elected or officials – have to respect.

Once they see it, they respect it without there having to be any great battle because it’s as Alinsky says: “the threat of what you’ve got is what they think you’ve got rather than what you’ve actually got”. You don’t necessarily have to take the action because people start to see that you’ve mobilised already and you’ve listened to people and they can’t push you into a corner and say that’s just the people from that area or that type or the usual suspects.”

I suppose for councils there’s a threat but it’s also a potentially positive thing? If there’s some people who can do something useful…

“Absolutely, we’ve had really surprising reactions from councils actually. We went to a council recently that was almost entirely Labour and you’d think perhaps that they might be fairly negative about a coalition programme but they were completely positive. They said, ‘we’re not interested in the coalition, it’s not about the coalition, it’s about our place here and how it works here.’ So I hope and believe that it’s not tied to party politics, it’s about the maturity of the approach that a local authority can take locally. And some of them are much mature than we give them credit for and are ready to take this on, others perhaps not.”

Recently, I was at a Respublica talk by Robert Puttnam of Bowling Alone fame, who’s now made a comeback with a new book about faith. His line is that religious people are nicer – by nicer he means that they do more stuff in the community. Not many of us in the UK go to church, is that a big problem in terms of community activity?

“I think it’s fascinating because the reason he’s right is because congregations are already organised so the point is: organised people do more – organised, mobilised networks are nicer in that exact way. You can have two reactions to that – you can go and do more congregational organising, and specifically cross-congregational between different faith. There is scope for that and certainly that is something that citizen organising has often been based on. Alternatively, you can say if we organise in neighbourhoods, perhaps we can create a secular version of the same kind of niceness, the same kind of capacity, mutual collaboration working together and mutual respect that you find in many faith groups.

Our reaction is the second. We respect and are happy with congregational organising but that’s not what we’re doing in this programme, what we’re doing in this programme is very much secular, neighbourhood, broad-based organising focused on geographical areas. So, I think he’s hit the nail (on the head), that you get niceness by being organised, mobilised and respecting each other. And by having some shared values but you don’t share values by birth…”

You don’t have to believe in God?

“No, you don’t have to believe in God. The point is to believe in humanity and each other and to build mutual respect. It’s a perfect lesson for us but it also shows this programme is an experiment. Can neighbourhoods build on the best of faith groups without importing the religion itself?”

In terms of the social enterprise movement, what can already existing social enterprises do to interact with this agenda and get involved with community organising?

“I think there’s probably loads of different ways. There’s a big difference, isn’t there, between community enterprises in local neighbourhoods – smallscale, very geographically focused – and big social enterprises, especially the kind of social enterprises that might come from public service spin-outs. I think what will happen is that social enterprises, particularly the larger ones, will actually find themselves challenged. They will be challenged just as much as councils and other providers of services and power holders. They’ll find themselves on different sides of this all the time depending on how they’re behaving and where the power lies in any particular interaction.

What they can do is what social enterprise and community enterprise has always been good at: sharing information, being open about the way you work and the things you’ve learned – helping to create that broad peer network. That’s always the thing that we value most in our members, that they have this give-get relationship with each other where they’re just completely open – in a way that a lot of private businesses are not open to others because there’s a different attitude to competition and benchmarking and information-sharing. It’s not the organisers that will create enterprises, it’s the communities themselves – and often those communities will be highly ambitious but potentially inexperienced in that area – so any help they can get will be really useful.”

But social enterprises can’t just assume that they’re representative of the community…

“They’re not, are they, because the vast majority of social enterprises don’t go out and listen. One thing that is really interesting is the market research angle to the listening. If you go out and listen to 3000 people, the quality as well as the quantity of market research that you’ve got there is enormous. Now, you haven’t gone and asked them ‘do you want my product?’, you’ve gone and asked them ‘what do you love about this place, what makes you cross?’ but out of that comes hugely rich market research.

So, if you are a community enterprise in a particular place then you’re going to want to be part of that because you’re going to get so much information about your potential customers and potential justifications for your service, as well as improvement ideas for your service that it’s well worth being involved.”

Thanks a lot to Jess for doing this interview.

Recruitment for community organisers is currently ongoing and the first round of training begins in September.


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“People are motivated by things that make them emotional” – Jess Steele interview, part one

In the run up to the 2010 general election, David Cameron pledged to build an army of 5000 trained community organisers to tackle poverty and social breakdown. In February, Locality won the contract to deliver the programme and the recruitment process started earlier this month.

At this early stage, it seems that the numbers of people with strong views on the government’s support for community organising, vastly exceed the numbers of people with a clear idea of community organising actually is. With this in mind, I went to ask Locality’s head of innovation, Jess Steele, what the programme’s all about.

To begin with, why is this programme necessary? If people want to do organise in their communities, why aren’t they just doing it already?

“Some people are just doing it to some extent but every kind of funding and resource support for the last 20 years has mitigated against people just doing it – building trust, respect, relationships and collaborative grassroots work. Everything has been about: ‘you’ve got to develop your project’, ‘you’ve got to write it up and write up all the outputs and outcomes of that project’ and then you take that project to a funder. Then you establish the governance and you have to do a whole lot of hoop-jumping before you get anywhere.

What’s so special about this programme is that it says that actually trust, respect, relationships, mutual listening and systematic engagement of people on their own terms is in itself worthwhile and is a pre-requisite for people having freedom and the mutual capacity to take action on their own behalf.”

There’s going to be 500 paid organisers. What specifically are they going to be doing?

“500 organisers will be hosted by local community organisations in a variety of places around the country. It’s basically a twelve-month bursary-funded process of learning. So, during that year, these people are trainee organisers but they’re also very much active in local communities themselves.

What they do during the first six months – which is the intensive training period – is a parallel process of guided action in their local community plus reflection as a group of organisers from all over the country. So mutual reflecting together on how that guided action is going and what lessons they might have for themselves and each other.

We’re using the process known as Root Solution – Listening Matters developed by RE:generate over the last 20 years. They will be leading that training and leading those guided actions.

 At its core that process about one to one listening on the basis of the idea that people are motivated by things that make them emotional – either things they love about their local area or things that make them sad, angry, frustrated, worried. And it’s only worth really talking to people about those things – in the broadest sense – because those are the things that will motivate people to act.

You do not ignite the impulse to act by showing people a load of statistics – we know that through the experience of neighbourhood renewal. Neighbourhood renewal showed us a whole load of statistics: you die younger, you’re more likely to be burgled, you’re more likely to get pregnant before 16, you’re more likely to fail your exams but – despite being fairly horrifying – those statistics didn’t ignite the impulse to act. Where we’ve seen grassroots action it’s because groups of people come together and they love something and they want to make the best of it or they find something really makes them angry and they want to do something about it.

So the programme is about that systematic listening process, first one-to-one then moving into small groups and cascading that out. The organisers themselves will be seeking what’s known in the programme language as ‘mid-level community organisers’ – what we think of as activist organisers – people who are not paid and trained but who are recruited by the organisers themselves.

These are people who will be recruited because they care and what they particularly want to do is do some more listening and spread that listening out, because through listening what you’re building is powerful, mobilisable networks of people who trust each other because they’ve listened to each other and they’ve heard each other. Now, out of that comes action because when you’re listening to people you start with what they love and what they’re concerned by and then you talk to them about their bigger picture dream, vision and about their project ideas – specific things that they want to work on. That then leads into taking action.

From our point of view the action can range from everything from action to change the powerful, if that’s what’s required, to action that is very much DIY – working together collaboratively to take a specific action which could be about clearing up or building a new project, whatever it might be.”

In terms of the programme as it moves forward, how is it going to be sustainable. Is the idea that organisers will generate income to pay for their roles?

“The idea is that we will support the host organisations to try to make those roles sustainable. So, the government is only paying for this training year for each individual. What Locality will do is try to help the host and the organisers themselves to think about how – in their unique circumstances, in their unique part of the country – they might make this work sustainable.

At the same time we will be seeking – and I’ve already begun this – to seek different approaches where funders, whether they’re charitable foundations or private or public, might be able to make funding available without adding strings. The challenge is to make the work sustainable but to make it sustainable without strings. 

I think what will happen is that where local communities value the organiser who’s worked with them for a year – and where they really see that this is beginning to lead to some interesting and fantastic opportunities – it will be those local people’s role to convince funders.

What Locality will try to do is on the one hand to help the organisers to be entrepreneurial and the host to be entrepreneurial but, on the other hand, we’ll try to help funders work out how they can directly listen to communities where organisers have been working to hear if those communities would like to see that continue.

So, we’re looking at new approaches to communities challenging funders to fund things that don’t necessarily have specific outcomes. That’s hard but there’s a huge move in that direction from funders. There’s a huge interest in ‘how can we listen to communities more directly’ rather than just taking funding applications from community groups and those groups that are good at writing funding applications get funded. How do we listen to those communities that don’t sit down and write the funding applications? There’s a huge interest in that and if we can help to make that happen then it could be quite transformational for ordinary funding streams as well as government programmes.”

Are you thinking that this funding will come mainly from charitable grant funders or could it also potentially come from councils?

“Certainly but it’s about getting the model right. The no strings bit is very hard with local funders particularly so what we’re trying to do is begin to explore how that might work with larger funders who have quite broad aims – like the Big Lottery.

Once we get a model that works we can see whether councils would like to do something similar – to listen to communities who say ‘actually, this is really good for us, this organiser’. The other thing is that there is some evidence that organised, networked mobilised communities end up creating cashable savings because they end up doing so much more for themselves. That means that in theory at least that it might be helpful for councils to fund ongoing mobilisation, networking, organised communities but only if we can find a way that they’d do that without strings. That is extremely challenging at local level but it’s certainly something that we continue to explore.”

What happens in areas where it doesn’t work?

“It’s very much a learning programme so if it doesn’t work in particular areas we absolutely need to understand why it doesn’t work. We will learn at least as much from failures as we learn from successes, so we need to squeeze them dry for lessons.

(In some cases) it might be that it was successful but very self-contained and actually. Or it might be that it was so successful that it kicked off some major challenges and conflicts. So, it might be successful but in lots of different ways.

The idea, though, is that this is a one-off opportunity to create a new movement in community organising at scale, homegrown, across different types of places in England from dense inner cities to rural areas via every other type of place – so scale and diversity and national networking are the really crucial things about this programme.

The important thing we need to do is to make sure that there is some national stability and sustainability for the programme. In the government’s tender documents they talked about an Institute for Community Organising. It may well not have that name but we will certainly seek to create a legacy body for the programme that is owned by organisers themselves and that continues to promote the recruitment, training, support and ongoing accreditation of community organisers.

And that body will work with other organisations because while we’re working on a particular model there are other approaches and we want to learn from and collaborate with them.”

You mentioned the different approaches – from your tender bid your approach seems to be somewhere inbetween a more consensual approach or a more confrontational approach to organising, perhaps I’m slightly simplifying that. Is there a sense in which the organisers won’t look to get too focused on challenging government?

“There’s a range of axis on a spectrum, I suppose, but the one we specifically talk about in the bid is between Freire and Alinsky. It’s not fair to characterise Freire as consensual and Alinsky as challenging, though, because Freire is incredibly challenging but what he’s challenging is consciousness.  (For him) it’s not just about haves and have nots, it’s raising critical consciousness, critical awareness – so that is actually fairly challenging in its own right, it’s just a different focus to the challenge.

So, I think we see ourselves as combining really important parts of both of those thinkers, along with another thinker called Santos De Morais. He was imprisoned with Paolo Freire. He takes this consciousness another stage to talk about entrepreneurial consciousness and economic literacy because in the end Freire was all about ‘the poor will become empowered through literacy which is based on consciousness’, Santos De Morais says the poor will become empowered through jobs and wealth – which they create themselves on the back of critical consciousness.

So, it’s about what you can create yourself, in an empowered way, not because some Business Link adviser tells you to but because you have become collaboratively conscious of the other people in your community who want to solve something together – you can solve it together.

And whether that is about building something, creating together, or whether it’s about marching on the town hall to change the powerful, the crucial thing is to do that effectively, to not waste people’s time in campaigns or business development that is going to be ineffective.”

End of Part One.

Questions in part two include: ‘Creating the programme was one of the government’s flagship Big Society promises, do you think that’s a help or a hindrance?’


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