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July 30, 2014

Time for new thinking

Last month, three organisations – SCDC, CDAS and SCDN – whose role is to promote ‘community development’ across Scotland held a conference to discuss a widespread concern that their work was not being sufficiently reflected across many areas of Scottish Government policy. With the Community Empowerment Bill now before Scottish Parliament, and the policy spotlight on communities as never before, perhaps the time is ripe for new thinking around how communities can get the support they need. Ian Cooke at DTAS has shared some thoughts on this.



Ian Cooke, DTAS

Ian Cooke, Director of Development Trusts Association Scotland, shares his thoughts on the key to building vibrant communities:

Over the last few years we have seen the term ‘community’ increasingly move to the centre of the policy agenda in Scotland – community-led regeneration, community ownership, community renewable energies, community enterprise and a proposed key role for communities within the re-provisioning of public services.

While this is both welcome and exciting, it does raise an important question about how we build capacity in communities, if they are to successfully rise to this challenge, and respond positively to these new opportunities. The development of enterprising, asset owning communities, who can lead regeneration processes and play a key role in future public sector delivery, invariably requires the development of an expanded knowledge base and skill set within communities, and requires us to re-think how we do community capacity building.

Historically, community capacity building had been largely done ‘to’ communities, from outside agencies such as local authority services, Third Sector Interfaces (formerly CVS’s), consultants and other specialist voluntary agencies. Will this support continue to be available in the future, and are existing community capacity building services and agencies really up to the task of responding to this new agenda?

Discussions about community capacity building have often been dominated by community development professionals. But much of the afore-mentioned policy development has been influenced by largely organic, bottom-up activity, as community after community has responded to threats and opportunities. In doing so they have drawn inspiration and support from a wide range of sources. Is it now time to reflect on this experience, and listen to communities themselves about what kind of capacity building they require?

As Director of the Development Trusts Association Scotland, I have had the privilege of working with, and representing, some of the most dynamic community organisations in Scotland over the last few years, and it has been fascinating to discuss this issue with many of them. So here are a few thoughts to kick off this much needed debate about future capacity building provision in Scotland.

Firstly, there seems to be a lack of clarity about what we mean by community capacity building – whose capacity is being built and for what purpose? My own experience suggests the need to focus on building the capacity of community anchor organisations as a pre-requisite for any wider community capacity building.

Secondly communities need to be inspired, not patronised! The most effective (and cost effective) single intervention in the early development of community organisations is the opportunity to visit another community to find out what can be achieved and to learn how to go about it. This requires small grants of a few hundred pounds. So why do so few funders want to provide these?

Thirdly, rather than funding capacity building activity as something done to communities, let’s recognise that the opportunity to employ their own staff is the most effective way to create a step change in capacity, and start investing directly in the core costs of community anchor organisations.

Finally, let’s recognise the wealth of knowledge and experience which already exists within the Scottish community sector, and start to tap into this much more effectively and systematically by developing Peer Support Programmes.