Monthly Archives: July 2012

Reporting on our community development work – are our priorities correct?

Working on a government-funded anti-poverty programme brings with it the inevitable duty of regular reporting on progress. Communities First/Cymunedau yn Gyntaf is no different. Though the format has changed numerously, quarterly and annual reports have been a way of life for the programme for a number of years.

Reporting the incremental progress against planned objectives, which are themselves increments towards aspired-for, longer-term outcomes, is a primary purpose of the reports. The other primary purpose they serve is to accompany financial claims to government for the money that pays staff, funds premises and activities and fundamentally helps lever in funding from elsewhere. The ‘bottom line’.

However, it is commonly held among community development workers that acknowledgement by government officials of the reports let alone comment on their content, is rare, especially for quarterly reporting. It is also commonly held that doing the reports is a bind. They tie community development workers to their desks reducing their visibility to the community; they divert development time from community engagement and contact; and long-term community change is difficult to illustrate over short quarterly increments. Governments no doubt recognise that tying workers to their desk is not cost-effective use of public money, and I am sure civil servants do not wish to read reams of information. There is a real danger that a vicious circle occurs where reports that don’t tell very much, are sent to government officials who don’t feedback their comments to the authors, who hated the process of writing the reports in the first place and are now dreading even more the next reporting milestone.

It does community development a massive disservice for the reporting process to become such a burden and stress. And necessary as it is to ‘get the [public] cash in’, and be accountable for the spending of it, community development workers need not be beholden to government officials and the timetable they set us. Yes, they are important but why do we place them on a pedestal to the extent that we do.

As a general rule I believe we can do more to report progress to strategic partners, local stakeholders, other funders and, perhaps most importantly, the communities in which we work. If we do this on a more routine basis we will be gathering the data and narrative required for the government reports (thus making the exercise of compiling these less time-consuming) and the feedback we receive from these complements and validates our narrative.

For instance, if residents in a street anecdotally report that anti-social behaviour, which they rarely report to the police, is down for a third consecutive quarter then the dialogue that community development workers can initiate with the police, community safety, housing and youth services that might corroborate or contextualise this anecdotal narrative is far more informative to government. And in informing and reflecting our practice.

Such a scenario doesn’t reduce community development workers’ visibility and doesn’t bureaucratise their work; rather it enhances its credibility and is probably of value to the partners.

Neither should community development workers confine their reporting to merely the written print form. Use of online blogs to report achievements on a regular basis and to locate snippets of evidence (e.g., satisfaction survey results, testimonials, before-and-after pictures, digital stories) provide a visual means for communities, groups and partners to be involved in the reporting process. Inclusion of hyperlinks in the government reports to such online evidence allows for more to be communicated with fewer words and email attachments.

Why not consider reporting via the spoken word with simple, short video blogs (‘vlogs’). These can provide for the communication of the headline issues that more detailed written reporting can follow up. They are also more likely to catch the eye of people in the community, the media and partners. They too can be publicised via hyperlinks on social media, written reports and emails. Web 2.0 internet platforms and digital technologies also enable communities, with the right support and inspiration, to report change for themselves thus simultaneously freeing-up community development workers, empowering themselves and fostering an organic civic engagement by doing rather than being told. Naysayers will always find it easier to dismiss evidence if paid or vested individuals are reporting it. In a community development context communities reporting change themselves is extremely powerful.

Adopting this approach to reporting and evidence collection reports to government become an exercise in ‘mopping-up’ the most informative and illustrative data and narrative; literally (and unapologetically!) a cut n paste exercise from other sources; and a more reflective exercise for community development workers. It also removes the pedestal from beneath government officials, empowers and involves communities, fosters partnership working and encourages the use of technology.

Sadly, it doesn’t guarantee for any acknowledgement or feedback from government officials…

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Redefining affluence of communities

Browsing as I do from time to time on The Guardian’s Society pages I stumbled across a piece that explained how:

“Many people who work within communities are used to doing a needs assessment to begin a new relationship or project; however, many of the groups in the Neighbourhood Challenge programme over the past year have turned this concept on its head and began by mapping the strengths and ‘assets’ that already exist in the local area”

As a community development worker I’ve initiated and contributed to any number of needs assessments over the years and found the process largely unrewarding: let’s round up a few local activists and identify what we don’t like about an area. Even the use of a SWOT analysis, which invites one to consider strengths and opportunities, tends only to add a tokenistic gloss of positivity to an exercise that conceives from the outset to list failings. That they tend to be done in so-called deprived communities serves only to re-inforce stereotypes, low expectations and a sense of ‘why bother?’.

It is heartening and refreshing to learn that Neighbourhood Challenge has set its stall out differently. Community buildings with space in the timetable, unsold seats at a local sports stadium or theatre, surplus stock from a local factory, etc. are all ripe for auditing in an asset assessment. But it isn’t only with fixed, physical tangibles that an asset assessment should concern itself. There is an overwhelming more valuable asset that should also be audited: people.

The co-production model does this, by seeing people not as a burden, in need or merely as a consumer of a service but as an asset with skills, competencies and experiences that can contribute to a collective community resource. But what might these skills, competencies and experiences be worth? It is true that a financial value can be placed on surplus stock, unsold seats, and community hall usage, but the notion of Civil Domestic Product (as distinct from Gross Domestic Product) allows for the measurement in social growth.

According to Timebanking Wales, it can be baselined and has easy-to-use and, crucially, easy-to-measure indicators such as:

  • the increase in citizens joining existing and new groups
  • the increase in new groups
  • social connectedness

Civil Domestic Product ascribes a greater value to work that people do in their community because it re-defines work in broader terms than merely activities carried out as part of paid employment. Civil Domestic Product defines work as any activity that contributes towards maintaining or enhancing civil society. It can be applied to any community, whether they are (in a ‘conventional’ sense) deprived or affluent. It is easy to see in non-monetary terms that inequalities in some aspects of affluence might not seem so stark. This is not to say that deprived areas are no longer so; nor that there are not deep-seated structural issues disproportionately affecting them; nor that there are wide, and growing, financial inequalities between communities. Rather it acknowledges that they are not solely what prevailing neo-liberal orthodoxy – and its obsession with monetary value and budgetary discipline –  has labelled them as costly to taxpayers, non-contributing, and a ‘drain on society’ .

There are small timebanks springing up all around Wales, the bedrock of which is seeing residents as a collective force for good, irrespective of individual circumstances. If these timebanks can effectivley narrate the benefits they derive in the communities in Civil Domestic Product terms as well as in financial terms their audits will be all the more convincing and help challenge the invidious stigma of less-affluent communities.

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#SaveLePub – a worthy campaign but an opportunity missed?

On 2nd July respected sports writer David Conn tweeted:

“Bradford Bulls appealed for £500,000; hard up fans gave willingly; now it’s all lost. Fans should pool money into trusts, not black holes.”

It followed news that the beleaguered Super League club faced the renewed risk of entering administration despite the recent pledge from thousands of supporters, and despite asking for an assurance (among several prudent others) that:

“the pledge has only been called in because the club is confident that administration can be avoided.”

The fate of a 105 year old rugby league club is a far cry from the efforts to secure the future of a small Newport music venue but Conn’s tweet came to mind when the following appeared on my twitter timeline:

“SWN and Sam Harries (Manager of Le Pub) have begun a campaign to buy and

The campaign’s donation page can be found here and I encourage you to contribute. It is a worthy cause, because as the campaign’s pitch states:

“After the closure of Newport TJs we don’t want that to happen to Le Pub. We think that’s bad for music in Newport. Bad for music in Wales. We keep seeing venues close in Wales and the UK, with people unable to step in to save things. It’s terrible for live music in Wales – for new bands finding places to play; for people to find venues to see bands, make friends, make memories and do something different.”

The Toucan Club and The Point have also shut for good in recent years. The Coal Exchange’s days as a concert venue are numbered with news of the residential redevelopment being un-mothballed. And The Globe and Barfly (now Bogiez) have also had periods when they have been forced to close their doors. Gig-goers and bands in south east Wales deserve better.

At the time of writing*, and after only a week, the campaign had raised 10% of the £20,000 target, but with only 3 weeks remaining time is clearly pressing. However, “do something different” says the campaign’s pitch. But with many of the music venues listed here, and others, having privately changed hands in recent years yet, I suspect, remaining very difficult to run as profit-making enterprises, how different are the objectives of this campaign? In its use of crowdfunding and social media, it is certainly novel. But different?

It is usually the case that in such crowdfunding campaigns – such as the community of Glyncoch’s hugely successful efforts to raise almost £800,000 for a new community centre – that should the target not be met then donators are returned their contributions in full so there is absolutely no chance that the investment is lost as may have happened in the case of the Bradford Bulls supporters’ pledge. But there is nonetheless a parallel between both campaigns.

According to the founder of crowdfunding platform StartSomeGood.com, Tom Dawkins, there are three reasons why people contribute to a crowdfunding campaign:

  • because they care about the work
  • because they want to see the future being described come to fruition
  • because they feel connected to the entrepreneur or the community they represent

In both the Bradford Bulls and Le Pub cases it is clear that these motivations have been powerful. In the Le Pub case, however, I would hazard a guess and say it is primarily the third reason, and specifically the connection with community that is proving to be the main motivation, both community of geography i.e,. Newport and south east Wales, and community of interest i.e., twenty-to-thirtysomething gig-goers, members of aspiring bands, and people with an interest in the alternative music scene.

As such I think the #SaveLePub campaign is missing an opportunity to really tap into these communities and genuinely “do something different” by offering an alternative business model for music venue ownership and enterprise in south east Wales, and perhaps the UK. The #SaveLePub campaign incentives for different levels of contribution by offering a free drink in return for a £10 contribution; a t-shirt for a £50 contribution; culminating in a free-entry-for-life incentive for the up to five people who contribute £1000 each.

These are admirable and logical incentives. But offering donators the opportunity to get not just a t-shirt or pint but a share or shares in Le Pub and a stake in the business and become co-owners would help not only raise the necessary money and allow individual donators to demonstrate their modest but impassioned philanthropy, but offer a radical alternative to a typical business model that is, as demonstarted by the plight of other venues in south east Wales, clearly struggling.

If the #SaveLePub campaign was to offer the opportunity to take up mutual ownership of Le Pub, donators would retain control of the capital they invest rather than merely exchange it for a free pint, a limited edition t-shirt and the opportunity to carry on attending gigs as before (at least until the next financial difficulty). The rights and entitlements this brings would include a right to a say in how Le Pub operates (e.g., which bands it puts on, themed club nights, which drinks to serve etc.), a share in any profits (and co-operatives do make profits) the venue makes and a massive practical resource in running the venue. Indeed the sustainability of the enterprise would not be reliant on high risk/high reward, PR-intensive crowdfunding efforts to raise capital. It would have a membership from which to do that, if necessary, in a planned and co-ordinated manner. Furthermore it could develop social as well as financial objectives related to offering recording opportunities to bands or encouraging socially excluded or unemployed people opportunities to develop confidence, skills and income in the music industry

This would be doing something different indeed. And not only in south east Wales but on a UK basis. I know of very few mutually-owned music venues elsewhere in the UK. The Unity in Wakefield is one, albeit on a different scale to Le Pub, and not exclusively a music venue. The Wharf Chambers in Leeds is closer in scale and scope to Le Pub. Yet The Co-operatives UK‘s directory of co-operatives doesn’t appear to list many others.

If you know of one I’d love to hear about it.

So, I raise a glass to the efforts of the #SaveLePub campaign. I dip into my pockets to contribute. And I wish it every success.

But it could be so much more.

*This was originally posted on July 13th. The #Save Le Pub campaign has been relaunched with a different crowdfunder and the sum it hopes to raise is also different. Other terms might also have changed. The current pledge page is at http://www.sponsume.com/project/save-le-pub

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