BD Giving Notes – #13 ‘The first ‘returns’ on our investment’

Participation takes time and resources but the outcome is larger numbers of people who not only feel able but are able to make change happen in their community. 

About a year ago, BD Giving recruited a group of local people to help us design an Investment Policy for the Barking & Dagenham’s Community Endowment Fund.

Last week, we held the last planned meeting with that Community Steering Group (CSG) for a while and, as of last month, we have our Investment Policy

While we will undoubtedly post a full deep dive into our process, this Note is about trying to capture some of my immediate thoughts and learning from a year of developing a community-led approach to investing for the future.

In no particular order, they are:

People are busy and it’s easy to forget this

Even with the best will in the world, it’s not always possible to honour or remember all your commitments. One thing that really stood out to me is what a difference to participation a simple text message or round of phone calls could make.

It’s important to find a careful balance between nagging people and engaging them though. For us, what was important was continually returning to the ‘why’ we needed people to do their homework and attend meetings. Reminding them that this was a participatory process that couldn’t move forward without enough participation seemed to resonate with a lot of people and helped us get various decisions over the line.

This way of working takes time and further underlines the need for participatory processes to be properly resourced – it’s not reasonable for anyone to expect us to deliver more intensive processes using the same resources as traditional grant-making.

Plan for the ideal, accept the good

If we look back at the journey map we originally set out with the CSG, we did not accomplish everything there. However, I don’t feel that anyone involved in the process feels too let down by that.

What we set out was very ambitious but achievable. Lots of variables were in play but we were still able to achieve outputs that I think we can all be proud of. We have an investment policy and we have laid the foundations for the other parts of the process, namely the governance and structures of the CSG itself.

Our CEO Geraud will tell you that I tend to be very hard on myself. If I don’t get 100% of what I want, I’m tempted to write it off as a complete failure! One of the ways he has been an excellent boss is in showing me that progress is worth commending – if we only achieved 60% of what we set out to achieve, we’re still in a much better position than at the start of the process.

Social glue is important

Speaking of plans, when we designed this first year of the CSG we planned for the whole thing being online. This was, in part, due to COVID cases being on the increase and in part about logistics. The Curiosity Society, who were partnering with us, would find it difficult to travel to B&D regularly.

After our first in-person meeting it was clear that was what had been missing from the process. While our CSG are being compensated for their time, the work they are doing is absolutely not the same as employment and their motivations are primarily about making connections with others to make local change happen – together.

After their first in-person meeting, they’d broken down some of the more awkward barriers that happen when you’re only engaging online. The differences in their conversations was quite palpable.

As a disabled person, I’m always going to push for accessibility but to me this means exploring hybrid approaches and using technology to augment existing social dynamics, not replace them. It will undoubtedly be a little bit messy and awkward but so is any change.

It’s important to find the fun in the process

I have been very apprehensive throughout the whole process; how could I not be? We were embarking on the biggest thing we’ve done as a charity to date and perhaps also, one of the first in the UK to be doing investment in this way.

That apprehension has often tempered my thinking (see point 2) and made it hard to appreciate what we were doing in the moment. What helped with that was seeing the confidence of the CSG grow with each meeting, as well as their own recognition of themselves as pioneers. It’s clear to me that they have struggled with a lot of the information. As have I, but we have been able to create an environment where they feel able to express their feelings and get the answers they need.

Working in a participatory way is challenging but it’s also a lot of fun precisely because it is challenging. I take a lot of enjoyment from creating the conditions for others to take ownership of what happens in their community, and to do so in a way that promotes joy and trust.

As a final thought I’ll underline my key takeaway, which reinforces all our current learning:

Participation takes time and resources but the outcome is larger numbers of people who not only feel able but are able to make change happen in their community. 

That’s worth just as much to me as whatever else our investments generate.

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