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NESTA: Innovative communities need innovative funders

26 March 2012

Over the next few days we’ll be publishing guest blogs from projects we funded 12 months ago under the banner People Powered Change. Today we hear from NESTA’s Alice Casey about their Neighbourhood Challenge.


Neighbourhood Challenge from NESTA UK on Vimeo.

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 NESTA has been working with through the Neighbourhood Challenge programme over the past year turned this concept on its head and began by mapping the strengths and ‘assets’ that already exist in the local area. Groups actively searched for and connected up a variety of existing local assets, whether that was unused buildings or equipment to new ideas, or people with the skills, talents or time to support locally led change.

We wanted to understand what funders of all kinds could do to help communities do this more effectively, reach new people and create their own projects, focused on the things they care most about in their local area. So we set up a learning programme called Neighbourhood Challenge to find out more.We searched for groups with innovative ways of finding and supporting community potential in their neighbourhoods. We learned from all 17 of them over the course of the programme as they turned those ideas into real projects. The approaches they used were as varied as the neighbourhoods they worked in.

Brixham YES

Brixham YES held an awesome Monster Madness party involving live bands and a fancy dress competition

Many groups used asset-based thinking to unlock community potential such as Shiregreen in Sheffield, Lower Green in Surrey, and Speke in Merseyside. The Mill in Walthamstow and Brixham YES in Torbay both worked with local people to refurbish unused buildings on their local high streets, turning these empty places into vibrant and creative community-owned spaces where everyone is asked what skills and talents they have to give, and supported to build on them and create their own initiatives. Brixham YES has used a challenge prize to catalyse action around this, and the Mill has been using a community time match fund.

Bolton Interfaith council and Bradford Moor both worked with UnLtd to test out ways of reaching and supporting new social entrepreneurs launching a range of projects from a personalised care service for older people, to The Zoo catering unit, a local mobile cafe run by young people, which provides training, work experience and accreditation. Stand out in Darwen and Peckham Settlement also showed what can be done through encouraging communities to be enterprising and innovative– they both took travelling living rooms out on to the streets of their local area, and set up an inviting space to reach and inspire many new people, who wouldn’t normally participate, to contribute ideas. They both then took very different approaches to encouraging, developing and selecting those ideas into community-led projects.

These are just a few very brief examples, I can’t mention them all or do them justice here, but you can read a profile of each in the project launch paper – Seventeen Stories Begin. We have learned a huge amount from every project that has been involved, they all have been working incredibly hard, overcoming challenges on the way – and putting in significant volunteer time to make things happen.

Bolton Neighbourhood Challenge

One of the Bolton Neighbourhood Challenge Award Winners, Upbeat Media, have set up DJ, music and video workshops for young people in Great Lever

But how could funding and support agencies enable more local groups like these to be catalysts for change, to access untapped potential, across the UK and beyond? We don’t have all the answers, but we have begun to explore these issues through our new publication “Learning from Innovative Communities.”

We’ve learned that funders need to challenge themselves to be innovative too; rather than only granting funds to plug top-down gaps, and address needs after they have arisen, they could also invest in local potential, catalyse new relationships and enable groups to unlock local ideas, skills and talent for themselves.

It is clear that if neighbourhoods are to reach their full potential, they need more flexible support and investment, freedom to learn from mistakes and support to develop their own capabilities. More innovative funders, supporting more innovative community organisations could unlock that existing creative potential to make a difference in neighbourhoods everywhere.

Alice Casey


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