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May 16, 2012

Under the radar

One of the reasons governments are so interested in what communities can do for themselves, centres on the hope/expectation that they will pick up some of the slack as public services adjust to their new financial surroundings.  But new research suggests there is confusion (on the part of outsider looking in) about what this ‘community sector’ that so much now depends on, actually is? This research argues that there is a hidden community sector – not visible to the untrained eye.


A pioneering study by the Third Sector Research Centre suggests that there is a vast amount of local community activity not captured by traditional surveys of the sector.

Researchers mapped self-organised activity within two very small geographical areas of England. They identified 58 community groups operating in and around just 11 streets – offering an insight into the scale and range of community activity taking place ‘below the radar’ of official registers.

The report describes how groups and individuals operate to support their immediate and extended communities, and the networks and resources they draw upon to do so. 

Many of the groups identified were embedded into their communities and operated within a very specific socio-cultural context. This implies that most are unlikely to be suited to the delivery of wider public services, but that they are already delivering services to their immediate local communities. 

The research highlighted the importance of shared space to groups. Several operated with small overheads and few financial resources. But many were supported directly and indirectly by paid and unpaid staff working in the buildings that they use. The study also demonstrates the importance of key individuals in creating and supporting community activity. 

Andri Soteri-Proctor who conducted the research said, ‘Our research offers a glimpse of the vast array of community activity operating ‘below the radar’. None of these activities would be captured by the majority of surveys and research data. Making this sector more visible to policy makers and the wider public can help increase understanding about their role, capacity and contribution within the wider third sector and society at large.’

Other key findings

  • A diverse range of services and activities are undertaken by groups beneath the official radar. These are based around a particular topic of interest or operate for a particular ‘target community’, such as a faith or ethnic community, elderly or disabled people.
  • Self-organised activities need some form of resourcing to exist – whether this is time, space, skills, or financial support. Groups innovatively generate resources by ‘tapping in’ to their own users, e.g. charging nominal fees or asking for donations, and ‘tapping out’ to others, through entrepreneurial activity, small grants or donations in kind.
  • While groups often exist for their users, many also ‘give out’ to their wider community, locally or in other countries.
  • Groups are connected to and draw on others’ resources, such as membership to specialist networks, support from voluntary and environmental organisations and local infrastructure agencies and use of space in, for example, a church or voluntary organisation.
  • Community activity can be seen as collections of individual ‘bricoleurs’, people who draw on a mixture of resources to support their and others’ activities. ‘community bricoleurs’ pull together resources for several groups and individuals.
  • Many opportunities arise from use of shared space, including the sharing of resources, joint working and use of ‘community bricoleurs’.


Download full paper: ‘Little Big Societies: micro-mapping of organisations operating below the radar’, Andri Soteri-Proctor (pdf, 829KB)

See more information 

For more information contact Naomi Landau: / 020 7520 2421