Thursday, 24 November 2011

Community Organisers - opportunity or threat?

Earlier this week I was asked to speak on the subject of Community Organisers at the NAVCA conference in London; giving a voluntary sector and infrastructure perspective. The presentation was purely a personal opinion but here are my thoughts on the issue for those that were unable to attend.

Risk – what are the pros and cons of the approach?
There are a number of risks, threats and challenges posed by the Community Organiser (CO) programme – some of these include: 

  • This is fundamentally a trial – a social experiment. Is this wise during a period of deficit and cuts and when much existing successful local activity is struggling? 
  • The approach will duplicate the work of some community based organisations 
  • There is insufficient funding for the CO programme – with little reimbursement for hosts, little salary for Organisers and no real plan for future sustainability. 
  • There is no clear mechanism to link COs with existing and complimentary local activity. 
  • Power cannot be just given away by Government, it has to be handed over using a process of transition – with the removal of infrastructure to enable this to happen (such as Government Offices) how can this be done well? 
  • The timing is unlikely to work – most COs will be employed for 12 months once leaving their training programme whereas most local authority commissioning cycles are set on three year cycles. This will make the right to challenge a difficult one. 
  • There are clear indicators that Big Society thinking is drawn from naïve concepts and understanding of the ability and capacity of communities to animate in the way they are expected to. 
  • Locality are training 500 senior COs who will then recruit and support further volunteers – this will not cover the country so what about everywhere else?

But there are also some really positive aspects to this programme that we should not forget…

  • More animation of communities and individuals into social action is not a bad thing. 
  • Locality are a well placed organisation to make the best of this programme and are using well established and researched techniques in order to do so. 
  • Not everything we have tried as a sector to influence decision makers has been a resounding success – maybe trying a new approach is the right thing to do?  
  • There are gatekeepers – both within the VCS and within communities – if this provides a way to circumnavigate them then it will be a welcomed addition to the toolkit.

So what’s my view?
  • I believe this is a social experiment.
  • I believe it is about raising lots of individual voices as opposed to the common VCS model of raising collective voice through a hierarchical structure.
  • I believe this is about stimulating local action rather than supporting and growing local action once the animators have already emerged.
  • I believe that the principles are sound and fit well with the need that develops under the Big Society approach BUT the timing is poor.
  • I believe that both good and poor infrastructure exists – this could work better than the poor but will compliment the good if mechanisms to link them are developed.

Some questions to consider
In summary, it is important that each infrastructure organisation evaluates how COs will impact on their work. As a starting point consider:

  1. How could COs contribute to helping you achieve your objectives and in achieving greater influence
  • Through improved reach into local intelligence
  • By providing new means to exert and achieve influence
  1. If you are worried about the impact COs may have then are you:
  • Clear about your role and purpose?
  • Building strong two-way member engagement?
  • Ensuring openness and transparency in your work? 
If so, then what are you worried about!?

To read Rachel Quinn's full comments on community organisers visit

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