For the past two years, NPC has helped evaluate a programme called Communities Can, which aimed to deliver consultancy support to ‘community organisations’—small groups of people based in local communities aiming to achieve some social good. The support packages provided were aimed at helping organisations to sustain themselves or expand their reach (if they decided to do so), but were also designed to be tailored to individuals’ needs. The programme was funded by the Big Lottery Fund and was delivered through a partnership between the Young Foundation and five pilot CVSs (Blackpool, Barking & Dagenham, Peterborough, Sunderland and Torbay). Independent providers of support covering expertise such as fundraising, web design and marketing were also involved if they were best placed to deliver support packages.
The programme overcame some key challenges:
What is a community organisation? Everyone working on the programme seemed to have a good idea of who should be targeted to receive support, but it was hard to define this precisely, or even find the right terminology. Now I’m writing a blog rather than a formal report I can be more colloquial: it was about organisations that reflected some community need, who might be pretty inexperienced about administering an organisation and who would benefit from a ‘leg up’ to feel more confident and ‘professional’. At the end of the programme, looking at the full list of organisations supported, it’s apparent these types of organisations were engaged (pages 18-19 of our report give you an insight ). For me personally, it helps to highlight the diversity and imagination of UK civil society.
How to engage community organisations? An important finding from the evaluation is how it is only possible to reach these organisations from within the community itself. In practice this means face-to-face, proactive outreach within communities and through informal networks. The aim of this was not only to tell people about the support, but also explain what it actually means and how it works; which was hard to convey through written or other types of communication material.
What do community organisations need or want? This is a particularly hard question because all organisations are different, and a lesson learnt from the pilot programme is the need to segment organisations into two criteria: how well established they are and their levels of ambition. The broad observation is that more established organisations with modest ambitions tended to need quite ‘instrumental’ support such as charity registration, a new website, or help with banking. While newer, more ambitious organisations were looking for ‘developmental support’ which addressed bigger questions around their mission and how they are going to achieve it.
What difference can support like this achieve? Our overall observation is that in some situations this kind of support is capable of achieving a tremendous amount for community organisations. Bearing in mind that each organisation only had around 5 days of support, there’s some fantastic anecdotal evidence of impact; from organisations feeling more ambitious, deciding on the right way forward, to securing funding in what we know is a very tough environment. The two key factors in determining a successful support package appeared to be:
•Community organisations with a more ‘developmental’ than ‘instrumental’ focus, and with the time and the will to engage;
•Providers who are flexible, knowledgeable and take the time to understand organisations and tailor their support.
Given the obvious value of this kind of support and the potential impact of helping smaller organisations to prosper, I ask: where will this support come from in the future? Local infrastructure organisations are struggling and programmes like this are scarce. It would be great to see funders taking lessons from this pilot programme to establish something similar for other communities.