The campaign for the American mid-term elections is perhaps the last place you would expect to hear about the seaside village of Jaywick, Essex, and this somewhat bizarre campaign poster sparked understandable outrage at the stereotyping of a place that has, in recent years, undergone significant positive change.
Here at the Fund, we have helped ensure National Lottery funding has supported aspects of this change, but this episode reminded me of some of the vital lessons we have learned about place-based funding in recent years.
Don’t assume you know a place
The Index of Multiple Deprivation in both 2010 and 2015 recorded the eastern part of Jaywick as the most deprived neighbourhood in England. In such circumstances, it can be tempting to imagine that the solution rests in either Government or funders swooping in to the rescue, but this isn’t necessarily what the community want.
Indeed in our engagement with local people we heard that there were mixed feelings about outsiders – including us - ‘parachuting’ in, a sentiment we heard replicated across the country. And so we listened and, this year, adapted our approach to locate more of our grantmakers in regional hubs, closer to the communities we are here to serve.
This approach was vital for somewhere like Jaywick. Now our staff are based locally, the narrative has shifted: we see the strong community spirit, and have been able to bring together local people and organisations to discuss what’s good in the area and how it can be built on. We can find our place in the wider funding ecosystem, complementing what is already happening, such as investment from the local authority.
We’ve supported Jaywick Community Forum with a grant to set up a local funding scheme for very small grants (£50 and £1,000) to support residents to make their ideas happen quickly. And we are now close enough to the community to see what might work next, and see the growing strengths of the people of Jaywick. In other words, we can all see past the label of “the most deprived neighbourhood in England”.
It's about more than money
This example is reinforced by our experience, and that of other funders, in communities across the country, who value far more than just the money that we can bring.
In Hull, the Rank Foundation focuses on building and nurturing networks and relationships, which came to be seen as the ‘crucial glue’ in their work.
In Hartlepool, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation trained local people as community researchers, which led to two reports on what matters to people living in the town. Now the Hartlepool Action Lab helps locals develop solutions to problems as quickly as possible.
You need to engage with the people in their communities
The key to all of this work is engaging with people locally in the community – but this won’t always be easy. Our Ageing Better programme has revealed that projects may need to seek out and engage with people on the streets, at bus-stops, in pubs or in betting shops.
When projects support a specific minority ethnic community, it’s important to work with them to design and tailor that support. Finding the right partners, organisations or brokers also helps develop connection and trust.
Our review of what works in preventing serious youth violence stresses that support needs to extend from schools and statutory services into the community. This can be far from straightforward in this kind of context, where things like a flexible location for engagement can be vital as it may be dangerous for some young people in areas where there are postcode rivalries or gangs. Many young people may rarely, or never, leave the estate they live on to access opportunities offered elsewhere.
There is still a lot to learn
Clearly there’s a lot of complex stuff at play here. Our report, ‘Putting good ingredients in the mix: Lessons and opportunities for place-based working and funding’ offers some principles to inform future approaches to place based funding, and we pose questions for funders - including ourselves - to reflect on.
A key challenge is the poor quality of much of the existing evidence about place-based approaches. A recent report by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing acknowledges this, but offers an emerging evidence base on how “community infrastructure can be used to boost social relations and wellbeing in a community.”
There’s no single right way to work in a place. Place-based funding needs a flexible, open and realistic approach, and through our funding we are continuing to learn about the importance of knowing the background and context of a place. Investing in people and relationships - and building on local assets and potential - is crucial.
There are no easy answers, but by sharing practical and tangible learning - and having the courage to talk about mistakes and challenges - can we all amplify our learning and articulate what a balanced and effective portfolio of place-based funding might look like?
We’d love to hear your views.