Monday, 28 March 2011

People Powered Change

Jumping through hoops is how lottery applicants often describe their experience.  I wonder if David Robinson of Community Links had this in mind when in his motivational talk to conclude the Big Lottery Fund’s People Powered Change event at the Lowry Centre in Manchester on Friday he described how dolphins learn to jump through hoops held high in the air by going through them in the water to reach their food, then find them raised inch by inch.
Maybe the Big Lottery Fund could be seen as the hoop-jumper after this day to share and learn about People Powered Change, which is not so much a funding programme, more a philosophy and ‘emerging set of principles’ to enable it to focus support on community-led action. This is a serious effort by the Fund to adjust its priorities and processes in the new dispensation, and to do so while listening to the sector.  If the initiative is a way of joining the high fashion for bigging up little communities, well, funders must keep up with the times. An aspect of this trend that doesn’t get mentioned as much as it might is the way existing democratic structures are ignored, and the power of the state for good at local level is unacknowledged or denied; that is not a charitable funder’s concern, perhaps.  But let’s not forget traditional ways of bending your local councillor’s ear, and let’s not forget the councillors.

It must be said that the room had its inevitable share of bandwagon jumpers, with the smoothest talking and sharpest elbowed already at the top table. There were some interesting thoughts from there. Jonathan Jenkins of UnLtd spoke about the ‘missing middle’ in social investment – the difficulty of finding funding to grow an enterprise after it has started.  If you’re a social entrepreneur who could use a few more bucks, take a look at UnLtd Advantage. And Nicola Bacon of the Young Foundation touched on an aspect of the new order that has been creating more heat than light in traditional community development circles when talking about the Foundation’s Building Local Activism programme, which adds a splash of community organising to CD and empowerment.

The first strong audience response, however, was to the man from Church Action on Poverty, who said: “Please look for what is already there rather than setting up bright, shiny stuff. We’ve been working for three years on empowering people here in Salford – our funding is now stopping”. And it was a shame that people who do real heavy lifting in local communities – running boxing clubs and community centres for inner-city young people – were put on the platform only to hold out their begging bowls in a ‘live grant making’ exercise.

But this was a good day, full of genuine good intentions and as much debate as circumstances allowed. The record of listening is a good one, and I’m sure that CEO Peter Wanless and new England Director Dharmendra Kanani are to be trusted with manoeuvring the behemoth of charitable lottery funding. BIG’s heart is in the right place, and if its size, mind and sinews as a funder can make it look like an elephant learning the tango when it comes to supporting small communities, it certainly wants to learn.

I couldn’t leave Manchester for Devon without a quick look at the L S Lowry paintings deep in the shiny steel maze of the Lowry. The pictures stay with me, but also some words of his, a reminder that communities, big and small, aren’t everything: “Had I not been lonely, none of my work would have happened.  I should not have done what I’ve done, or seen the way I saw things”.

For another take on the day, see David Wilcox’s Social Reporter blog. You’ll also find an interview with Peter Wanless for Our Society, where the debate continues.

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