An interim evaluation of our ‘Voices and Choices’ project has been undetaken using community organising to engage and empower residents in some of our poorest communities in Rotherham.
The evaluation was undertaken in Winter 2017 by an independent consultant Judith Courts.
Some of the learning that came out of this work included:
- Listenings offer a great way to start work in an area and provide the basis for early activity. However, they should not be a one off activity but should form the backbone of work being continually updated
- The contributions Listenings make to becoming known, sharing ideas and building trust should be viewed as positively as the issues they identify
- People need time to develop their ideas about what they want. Your listening may be the first time anyone has ever asked them
- In fragmented areas with hard to reach communities particularly from different ethnic backgrounds local people may be very reluctant to engage in Listenings and this may force a different approach early on. However, they must not be forgotten
- It’s a large ask to expect people who have little belief in community life to stand up and create it. Delivering activities directly that gives people the opportunities to engage and see the benefit is fine, but they must be accompanied by the messages that if you want more you have to do it for yourself and we are here to help you. Children events, summer parties etc. give natural opportunities for people to step up and join in.
- Early activity should focus on giving volunteers positive experiences and involve minimal bureaucracy. Engagement should inspire people’s self-belief and build confidence to do more.
- You need to avoid failure as disadvantaged communities give up easily, start small with things you can succeed at.
- Disadvantaged communities find it easier to initially engage in volunteering that gives them opportunities to deliver activities to communities rather than challenge authority. Experience says that campaigning work to change services, facilities and the local environment will follow but unless there is an existing current issue that people are strongly motivated to challenge, campaigning work early in engagement is likely to be less successful and will be demotivating.
- Expect early progress to be slow in very deprived and fragmented areas. Keep in mind the number of times they have been given failed promises. Your role is to be consistent and give them time to join you. Don’t remove support too soon.
- Work with communities as they define themselves and accept that it’s unrealistic to expect communities to mix across cultural boundaries before they are ready.
- Promote yourselves through trusted groups and use high quality marketing materials.
Finding and using volunteers
- Use Listenings to identify people who want to make things different and match them with your own or other organisations activities
- Use your own staff if you have them to meet minimum safeguarding requirements e.g. for children’s activities so that things can start. But remember to explain that volunteers will need to go on the necessary courses at some point
- Keep bureaucracy and form filling down to an absolute minimum while making sure people do take on important safeguarding messages
- Create a flexible group of volunteers, not everyone needs to be involved in everything. An informal group of people who will help out on the day is just as important as those regular volunteers who help every week
- Even if you are delivering elements of the planning make sure volunteers are engaged in the decisions and understand that they will have to do things themselves if the activity is to happen
- Where possible use existing local community organisations to help you present yourself as a trusted friend to new communities. This will help get things going much more quickly
- Invest in quality marketing. Poor quality promotional material does not help you say your are serious about investing in local change
New and existing groups
- Don’t rush volunteers into forming constituted groups unless their activities or need for independent funding requires it. Instead give volunteers time to build their practical skills and confidence, ensuring they are ready to accept and take on board the more formal learning and responsibilities that come with constituted groups.
- When groups are considering becoming constituted make sure they take up relevant training and skills development so they are ready for the more formal roles required.
- Work to support groups to avoid the traps of becoming territorial, encouraging them to see collaboration as a way to deliver more for their community.
- Support groups to be confident to say no to statutory partners when this delivery would either push group volunteers beyond their capacity or take the group into areas of delivery they either are not yet ready for or simply don’t want to do.
Community led plans
- Don’t move into delivering formal community led plans too quickly. Recognise that communities need early successes before they will participate in these more formal ways of working.
- Recognise that the delivery of community plans need confident and skilled community leaders. Where no such individuals or organisations exist the delivery of plans may fail. In deprived communities where few individuals have the necessary skills and confidence it may be better to support the delivery of such groups/individuals first.
- If given the time they need to develop at their own pace, the Community Organiser approach will deliver the skilled leaders and community vision needed to develop realistic plans for community led change. But change makers need to avoid a one size fits all approach and continually tailor delivery to the needs and capacity of the communities it is working with.
- When taking on trainees it’s important to plan early activities in a way that gives trainees time to gain practical experience as well as add value to communities. Without this, trainees’ confidence will be undermined and their development slowed
- For the same reason it’s also important to provide the trainees with appropriate levels of supervision and practical mentoring. The process of delivering needs to incorporate steps of approval and checking to ensure planned deliveries are viable and well-executed
- Using learning from practical activities, particularly where mistakes have happened can be a really valuable way for the whole team to learn how to make improvements
- Managers need to recognise that any trainee scheme will have people who fail but when taking on trainees who also face life challenges they need to be willing to offer additional support and supervision
- When matching Organisers with local hosts care needs to be taken to make sure hosts are seen as accessible by the whole community and able to appropriately use and support Organisers. Otherwise, some sections of the community may come to see Organisers as unavailable to them