How do community business leaders balance the pressures of their work with their personal life and wellbeing? We talk to Shotley Pier and our very own Fergus Arkley to find out.

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The Full Transcript

Iain Chambers (IC): It is that issue of you put your oxygen mask on first before you help someone else.  Sometimes I think we don’t do that. We just think, ‘Let’s do the thing that needs doing,’ before we are thinking, ‘What is that costing people personally?’

Neil Roberts (NR): Running any business has its challenges.  Community businesses are no different.

Fergus Arkley (FA): Everyone is very busy thinking about the wellbeing of the community they serve.  Sometimes, in doing so, they miss out the very people who are critical to the delivery of that.

NR: In this episode of the Community Business Fix we are looking behind the scenes at the pressures faced by those who take the lead in community businesses and what help is available to them.

The latest figures show there are nearly 8,000 community businesses, all run by people, mainly volunteers, who want to make a place better.

Jess Steele (JS): We are not heroes.  And just to be honest and say, ‘This makes me cry,’ or, ‘This makes me furious.’

Simon Cobb (SC): I have had times where I wasn’t in the right place; I couldn’t do it, and we closed.

FA: Leaders within community businesses need recognition of the position, the role they are in and the stresses and the pressures that come with that role.  I think they need time and space.

NR: The Community Business Fix is a monthly podcast brought to you by Power to Change, the independent Trust that supports community businesses in England.

If you are new to the community business world, check our show notes for links and information about the movement.  We would also like to hear from you on Twitter @thecbfix, and on Facebook just search for Power to Change.

I am Neil Roberts.  I have been volunteering at and lending support to community businesses over the last eight years, volunteering at a community bakery called LoveBread in Brighouse, West Yorkshire.

On the Community Business Fix, I get to shine a light on the projects in which communities are coming together to transform the places they live.  All the projects we have featured have had their ups and downs, and this show is slightly different because we are focusing on the effect of this on the people behind them.  

I know what that is like because, at LoveBread, we have had our ups and downs – watched volunteers come and go, survived conflicts and weathered the storms of low income, high stress, and pursuing our goals sometimes motivated by little more than a desire to make our community a little bit happier.

If you are expecting a completely positive take on running a community business, this isn’t the story you are about to hear.  But you will hear an honest account of how local people are supporting their wellbeing to have the capacity to lead change in their community.  Many community businesses leaders say, if they knew what they knew now, they wouldn’t do it again. But, on the flipside, it has transformed their lives for the better and they are making a real mark on the world.

Community businesses have very specific challenges.  Because they are driven by passion, it can hurt deeply when that passion is not shared.  Because they tend to be rooted in a locality, antagonism and hostility can be delivered on the doorstep.  A successful project unites a community, but there are often casualties along the way. In this show, we look at the support that is on offer, share some of the lessons learned by those who have been through it, and look to the future.

Fergus Arkley knows these challenges well.  He is a development manager at Power to Change, and his job is focused on supporting the capacity of community business leaders.

FA: Community business leaders are in a unique position which is different to, potentially, other businesses.  They have lots of competing and potentially conflicting pressures. The success of the community business goes so much deeper.  So, many might have been the founding member or an initial activist in a community which then has been the blood of that community business, and some have been involved for 20, 30 years.  

So, when that happens, first of all they have the pressure of running the business itself, so they are like a hyper local employer, so the people that they employ will be from that very direct community.  And they have to realise a business model, which the majority of the time is normally delivered in a marginalised community or stepping in to plug market failure. So, this is a challenging business model that they will be trying to implement.

NR: Ian Chambers is a prime example of the kind of leader Fergus describes. He is general manager of The Bevy, a community-owned pub on a housing estate on the edge of Brighton.  Now The Bevy is up and running, his focus is shifting. He is becoming more, in his own words, of a community business builder, using what he has learnt to help others. One of the first lessons is to identify the social role the business plays in the community.  For those in charge, this creates a particular type of pressure.

IC: The most important and probably heaviest weight to carry is when you realise how important your organisation is in that community and who are the people who lead and work and volunteer and take part in that organisation, and then the people that use.  So, in the case of the pub, just the people who come in the pub – I know it is important to lots of them and you can see that they are meeting their friends. They are having a social life. They are having a life in their community in your pub or in your community centre or in your hall.

So, you kind of know these things and you think, ‘I don’t want to mess that up.’  So, that is a really heavy burden to carry sometimes, and you have to, I think, talk to other people about that and definitely share that burden and not think, ‘I’m the saviour to carry all that heavy burden.’

FA: As a whole, they are caring organisations.  They are there to support people within their community.  It is grounded within them to think about others. But I think sometimes the leaders within those organisations sometimes get missed out in that sense.  Everyone is very busy thinking about the wellbeing of the community they serve, but sometimes, in doing so, they miss out the very people who are critical to the delivery of that.

NR: So, Fergus, from Power to Change, is aware of the pressures leaders face in getting projects off the ground.  But, as we have heard in our other shows, the challenges change once the business is launched. Projects move through many phases before reaching the ultimate goal of economic sustainability, and that can take a long time.  Ian, from The Bevy pub has been through it and observed the changes in those, most of them volunteers, taking part.

IC: A year or two ago they were in a different phase and had a different mindset, and they have moved on and reached this maturity of their community business, and they are feeling the pressure.  Sometimes it is just the pressure of time – I have been doing this for two, three years now. I thought it was going to get easier. The team is shrinking because people have done their bit now, and so you are left, often, with these people at the core who are carrying a heavier and heavier load, and they might be employees, or they might be volunteers and committee members, but they are carrying a heavy load and they are feeling it really badly.  

I have been in a couple of meetings where I have said, ‘One of the hardest things for me is the mental pressure of doing this.  I feel almost broken,’ and I have had people say, ‘Oh, thank God someone has said that. Can I say that too; that I am also exhausted by all this?’

NR: Jess Steele is another community activist whose passion has taken its toll.  For 10 years, she was at the sharp end of the campaign to save Hastings pier. The pier was closed in 2006 for safety reasons, and the decade that followed saw a number of battles fought to reopen it.  In 2016 the hard work paid off. Hastings one Pier of the Year and the prestigious Stirling prize in 2017. But the same year the Pier Charity went into administration. Jess had left the charity in 2014 but reenlisted with some of her old comrades to raise the money to bid for the pier.  Despite a massive crowdfunding effort, the local campaigners fell short at the half million pounds they needed. In June 2018, it was sold to the man who owns Eastbourne pier and the community moved into another phase.

JS: I was young when this all started.  My daughter was six when the pier closed.  She is 18 now, and she is still putting up with me being engaged and upset by it.

The longer you are in this world, the more familiar you become with it, and, therefore, people look to you to continue to lead.  And it becomes a bit of a spiral where you become more and more familiar and knowledgeable and other people feel less knowledgeable, and so they come to rely on you more and more.

I have experienced that before and, in previous times, I have sometimes stepped away, and it has all gone wrong after that.  So, there is that awful fear that that might happen.

NR: Given the huge impact community projects can have on your personal life and, indeed, on the lives of those around you, small wonder that some leaders want to step down.  But, as Jess has found, to her cost, if you do leave, projects fail. You become so embedded in the business, it is hard to find the right successor, which can be a huge tie.

Here is Ian from The Bevy, but first Fergus from Power to Change.

FA: If you are a community business leader and you are starting to feel the pressure and you are thinking about, ‘I want to step away from this,’ where is the next person who is going to come along and take that role or the talent within the community?  I think that is really quite a daunting image for some community business leaders, thinking that there isn’t a next strategy.

IC: When you meet new people, I feel like there is a duty to be very clear about the challenge of doing these things; that it would be wrong of me to go, ‘Oh, it’s great and it’s really positive, etc.’  Unfortunately, too often that is the mood; everyone is very positive about the amazing things we, undoubtedly, do, but there is not enough about the challenges of working in cooperatives and committees rather than just being, ‘I’ll make a decision and I’ll go with it.  I’ll be a leader.’ So, you have to let people know that that is what it is like here and you may not succeed unless you can work in those ways. Then the flipside of that is lots of people will depend on you; you need to be able to be prepared to put up with criticism.

NR: Ian’s landlord’s responsibilities at The Bevy can sometimes conflict with the ideals of a committee-led community-run pub.

IC: I have seen how painful it can be and how personal it can be, because, obviously, if you are having a disagreement within that set up, if someone feels that they are going to be excluded or they exclude themselves from it, then that is a big loss for them.  And we have had that at The Bevy where people have withdrawn or been asked to withdraw because it has to be run in a certain way by agreement, by consensus, not by people being maverick and having their own ways of going about things. And that is a hard thing to organise.

I have spoken to quite a lot of other community business leaders, and they have said, once you feel that it is an OK thing to say, everyone said, ‘How hard is this?  This is so hard. This is harder than it should be,’ and, for some of them, literally facing almost daily and weekly arguments with themselves about, ‘Why am I doing this?  Have I gone too far with this? Have I put too much at stake? Is this safe?’

NR: Safe.  That is a strong word to use in this context.  The need for safety is a concept Sally Chicken would also subscribe to, but, in her case, it is to do with where she both works and lives.

Sally Chicken (SC2): It is the first time in my life I ever got involved in a community project in my own neighbourhood.  So, that was a bit of a shock, to realise I couldn’t walk out of my front door without thinking, ‘Is that person looking at me with a glare in their eye or are they just looking at me?’

NR: That is Sally Chicken.  Her job title is so long we will let her tell you who she is.

SC2: I am a volunteer vice chairman of a very long-winded name: Shotley Heritage Charitable Community Benefit Society.

NR: Thanks Sally.  Just like Jess Steele, Sally has been involved in rescuing a pier.  This one, though, was built not for pleasure but to carry mail, munitions and sailors across the Stour Estuary to the HMS Ganges naval base in Suffolk.  The aim is to raise the funds to buy the pier and restore it to a working attraction from which people can stroll, fish and enjoy the amazing views down the Stour and across to the Harwich and Felixstowe docks.  A worthy project – that was Sally’s assumption.

SC2: It never even crossed my mind that certain elements of the community would turn against the project or would be against it from the beginning.  And I think one of the reasons I agreed to take part in this was to say, ‘This isn’t unusual. It is actually perfectly normal. Research has shown that about 5% of any community will always be against whatever it is you want to do.’

NR: As predictable as this resistance was, it was still difficult to deal with.  After all, it was literally on her doorstep. So, was the project worth the stress it was causing?  Sally knew she had to find some space for herself to answer that question.

SC2: I had a week away where I just went away from the area and had a break with my husband, and just weighed up do I care enough about this to carry on, and the truth was I did care enough to carry on.  I am sure, in some situations, I would have walked away, but I didn’t on this occasion.

NR: Having made the decision to stay and fight, Sally then had to decide whether to share her concerns with Power to Change.  They had awarded the Benefit Society a grant to develop their share offer and also offered professional support. So, what did she do?

SC2: I told them because I thought, if they have put some funding into us, they are entitled to know that we have run into rocky waters.  And, to my great relief, they just said, ‘Don’t worry, this happens to every group, not just because it is Power to Change, but because groups generally have this negative.’  So, their acceptance and willingness to go forward, I thought perhaps they would want to disassociate themselves with it. So, that was very refreshing and very supportive.

They then said, ‘Perhaps you’d like to talk to this particular person or that particular community business because they have been through something similar.’  So, they were immediately able to put me in touch with someone who could mentor me. That was so reassuring; to feel that you could be open about it. I really felt Power to Change were a bit different from other funders in that respect, because experience with other funders is that they make a distance between themselves and the project when things start to be difficult.

Then there were some really practical things like advising us to get legal advice and telling us how to handle really serious situations, and then, of course, the practical tools that didn’t involve legal advice.  You don’t want to go down the legal route; that is the extreme. What are the soft tools you could be using to cope with the situation? So, lots of verbal advice. I got pointed to a couple of research reports to have a look at, which I shared with my team.

NR: Fundraising, campaigning and awareness-raising continues with the first big milestone, the purchase of the pier, being reached in February.  They are now involved in appealing against a planning application refusal in September. Power to Change continue to offer support following Sally’s wise decision to share the challenges with them.  

She benefited from getting away from it all for a week, but what if you are the main breadwinner and you can’t afford to take time off?  Here is Fergus from Power to Change again. But, first, Jess Steele on the battle scars from the Hastings pier campaign.

JS: Inevitably, there was a terrible feeling of heartbreak, of anti-climax and really not understanding what to do next.  But I hadn’t bargained on the impact that would really have on my physical and mental health. There were times where I was driving around and had to pull over and just cry on the side of the road, and realising that is not usual for me; that kind of response is not something that I am used to.  It is not like I wasn’t supported; I have got a really supportive family and lots of friends, and there are lots of people who care. But I suppose what it really taught me was that we are all much more fragile than we think and that, in community business, the leaders of community business are supposed to be these heroes that can constantly get up again and keep going, whatever life throws at them.

What happens when you really do hit a crisis, because that is where I got to; I was absolutely at crisis point and I couldn’t see a way through for myself, personally.  I just didn’t know what to do next.

What I really needed was a break, a proper respite, and I couldn’t do that because I couldn’t afford it.  I am the only earner in my family. I need to look after my daughter. Most people are in that kind of situation where they can’t afford to just take three months off, and yet that had been the very thing that had kept me going through the last part of the campaign; had been this idea you are going to take a sabbatical.  And it was a kind of fantasy because I just could not afford it.

FA: Leaders within community businesses need recognition of the position, the role they are in and the stresses and the pressures that come with that role.  I think they need time and space.

NR: Jess Steele has a practical suggestion on how to create that time and space.

JS: I suppose what I would really like to see is some kind of solidarity fund of some kind, which I would love to contribute to for other people.  It is a kind of social security within the community business world that, if we could contribute subs towards some kind of pot where, when people are hitting that kind of crisis, they can have some respite, whether it is backfilling their job, so putting someone else in to help take the pressure off, or whether it is literally sending them away somewhere to just have a week, or giving them a bit of time so that they can take a month off.  

I just think we actually have to recognise that, when crisis comes, it is all our responsibility, because people like myself and many others around the country, we want them to play that role of confident leader of people.  Well, we need to take the hard bits with the smooth there. Actually, the only other alternative becomes real burnout, and that is just the worst waste.

NR: A solidarity fund is one idea for the future, but what support is on offer at the moment?  Here is Fergus from Power to Change.

FA: A good example is with community business fund.  So, what we do is we provide something called Business Development Support, and we do that through peer brokerage.  So, we send in another community business to go and talk to the leaders within the community business to find out what their development needs are, but, in doing so, they can do a lot more than just find out what the business support needs are.  Are they going to actually help the individuals and the leaders in terms of coaching and helping to build those networks of support?

We have delivered a leadership programme which helped to build more resilience within leaders.  We have something called Contingency – so, if you are a community business that has got grant funding from us and you hit troubles, then we can actually put you into a programme called Contingency; that is where we actually start to put in some specialised support to help them get over that.

Also, we do a lot of work with the infrastructure that is existing that supports our community business.  So, organisations like The Plunkett Foundation, locality or Cooperatives UK, they are membership organisations, they all promote peer-to-peer support.  If you think of an organisation like locality, when I talk to a lot of community business leaders, they talk about that is where they see their main support from in terms of peer-to-peer support; is through other members of locality.

NR: Ian, from The Bevy, is another advocate of what Fergus describes as peer-to-peer support.  In other words, having a friend who has been through it to share the burden.

IC: When it is really knotty and it is really about community rather than business, that is when you need to have support from people who understand what that means.  There needs to be research and there needs to be reflection and probably a bit of measurement. We need to step forward in the right way that won’t be a wrong turn, but also you need to be careful with people’s psyches and what they can give and what they can’t give.

NR: What we have heard so far, then, is an acknowledgement that community businesses are no different from any other business in terms of the pressures faced by those who run them.  But, because they are often driven by a passion, an ideology or a local need rather than a commercial imperative, the way that pressure exerts itself is different and demands a new approach to manage.

Power to Change are more than aware of this, and it is something that Fergus is working on.

FA: It is early days, and we have a commitment over the next three years to think about how we can address wellbeing and burnout for leaders and community businesses at scale.  Now, the first thing we need to do is to do some research, and then, from there, we want to be in an informed position to think about what interventions we put into place.

But I can give you an idea of some of the things that could potentially come out of this.  So, we could do a lot more around peer support, making sure that community businesses are linked together and that leaders have people to call in; so buddying.  We could think about coaching or counselling support; knowing the signs and awareness-raising in terms of wellbeing.

I think there is a lot we can do around succession planning; so, helping leaders to know there is an exit strategy.  I think there is also a lot we can do around an individual’s resilience; people being aware of it and being conscious of their own resilience and about the things they can put in place.  So, this could be about exercise, it could be about sleeping better, it could be about healthy eating.

NR: Ian, from The Bevy, is beneficiary of one of Power to Change’s initiatives.  He got a lot out of it, both in business and personal terms.

IC: I am kind of lucky that, having been put on a course by Power to Change, that I met people there where the shorthand is immediately available to each other.  So, we don’t have to spend a long time describing how things feel. You can say one sentence, and this trusted circle I have can come back with just the right response in two or three sentences.  Sometimes that will be sympathy, sometimes that will be empathy, sometimes it will be, ‘Have you thought about doing this?’ It is useful because they are going through the same thing.

Some of that help that I have given to other projects, I have literally had people straightaway saying, ‘Thank God you were here because that changed the dynamic.  Thank God you gave us that advice because we would have done a different thing, and we would have done that thing that may well have led to a poor outcome.’

NR: Sally Chicken discovered some of her own strategies to deal with the challenges she faces in the Shotley Pier campaign.

SC2: I probably use social media a bit less; so, I don’t look on Facebook every day.  I was looking at Twitter and Facebook every day, and I found that was not helping me. And, actually, I have taken more exercise, going out for a good long walk, and actually walking past the pier to remind myself why I care.  That has been nice, actually.

NR: Many organisations have the wellbeing of their users at their heart, but for Simon Cobb at Stoneham Bakehouse, the preservation of his own wellbeing was the catalyst that led to him setting up a community business.  It continues to inform every decision he makes. After leaving his profession, Simon started baking commercially at home and then opened a community bakehouse in his neighbourhood. It recently earned the accolade of featuring as one of The Sunday Times’ 25 best bakeries.

SC: Well, the inspiration about it is really my story of being a teacher and hitting rock bottom and being off ill and then leaving my job ill with depression and stress and anxiety.  And, after a period of time, finding that breadmaking was a really therapeutic thing for me to do in terms of the physical-ness of it but also moving forward into the idea of sharing that with other people and being involved in the community.  Because I haven’t come from any real business background, decisions are not, yes, for the business, but they are also made on the basis of ensuring that my mental health and my wellbeing is kept at a good level as well. That is really important to me, but I think it is really important for that wider look of it as well, in the sense that staff morale and staff wellbeing and all those things are so important to the success of business that you have to consider those things.

NR: So, how do these guiding principles play out in the real world?  One is that the bakery doesn’t open on Mondays.

SC: I have had to really train myself to say, no, Mondays is a day when I don’t work.  The job is an endless one; there is always something that needs doing. So, yes, you have to take that on board.  And I think the fact that the business is built around wellbeing actually helps me to do that.

NR: Simon’s choice to be open and share what happened to him has enabled him to create guiding principles that will hopefully ward off health issues for him and his volunteers in the future.

SC: We encourage people to be open about their wellbeing and their mental health.  And so, we do have times when volunteers will say, ‘Look, I’m feeling really rubbish.  Is there any chance I can miss my shift?’ As a team, we are really good at covering those situations, and also being accepting of the fact that sometimes these things happen and you have got to just get on.  I think that is a healthy state that people don’t feel like they have got to come in. After all, they are all volunteering. It is not like they are being paid for it and have that financial reason for coming in.

I have had times, at least one, possibly two days, where I wasn’t in the right place, I couldn’t do it, and we closed, and put up a bit of stuff on social media saying that we were closed because of illness.  And the community were great – we had messages coming in, ‘I hope you’re alright,’ and all that sort of stuff. When I was back at work, people would ask me how I was. I think they get what we are about in the sense that we are not just a normal bakery.

NR: There is no question that lessons can be learnt from Simon’s experience, and applied not just to community businesses but the broader business world.  The latest health and safety executive statistics show that 44% of work-related ill health is caused by stress, depression or anxiety. So, where do we go from here?  Jess Steele again, but first Fergus from Power to Change.

FA: There is a lot more that still needs to be done in terms of just awareness of wellbeing and that sense that we should be checking in on people.  I think we fall back on, ‘People should just be strong,’ but actually being strong isn’t actually the way. If people are having problems, how can we, together, face that challenge?

JS: The challenge will always be that we need people to be passionate, to throw themselves in.  And, of course, one of the dangers of even talking about it is that it might put off people who are at an earlier stage in thinking about getting involved in community business, and we certainly don’t want to do that.

So, we need to balance it always with there are amazing rewards.  But I don’t want to just say to people, ‘There are amazing rewards and, when it is hard, you just have to be tough.  You have to be the hero.’ I want to say, ‘There are amazing rewards when it’s good and, when it’s bad, we’re all here and we will help, and you will be alright because we will help.’  So, I suppose, that whole concept of ‘we’, that is part of building the movement; the sense that we have got each other’s backs, and that that goes beyond just we are all on the same Facebook group or something.  It is not just about networking. It is about trust and caring for each other.

NR: The last word there from Jess Steele.  But, before we go, as we do in every show, it is time to ask a community expert for their top tips.

Peter Lefort (PL): So, my name is Peter Lefort and I am the UK Community Network Manager for Eden Project Communities.  I do a lot of work around resilience: talking about it and overcoming the barriers that sometimes people feel when discussing what is important to them.

So at our online workshop we talked about lots of different ideas that people use in their day-to-day lives, things from as simple as having a bath, spending some time alone, reading a book, going for a walk, physical activity, all of these ideas some of which feel accessible, maybe some of which there are more barriers that need to be overcome, and we can do that collectively.  But the biggest message, and the thing that is really important that we talk together about, is breaking down that myth about doing nothing.

That is the thing that we mostly talked about in our workshop, is this idea of, when you are doing those things that give you resilience, you are not doing nothing.  You shouldn’t feel guilty about them. You shouldn’t be thinking, ‘I should be prioritising those external things that are coming in.’ And that was actually really, really powerful to hear everyone talk about that and almost collectively agree they would support each other in giving time to ourselves and checking in with each other that we are doing that.

It is going to be different for each person what gives us energy, what gives us the roots of our resilience, but a lot of things that come up very, very often are around perspective.  So, nature is a huge thing – spending time in nature, going for a walk, going for a swim, going for a run; something that physically connects you to the world outside your own head is hugely important.  And another aspect of that is building allies – spending time with friends, people who know that we need to look after ourselves. That is a really important tip, when you are spending time with other people, helping them to understand how important that is for you.  If you have got a partner, a family member, a friend, someone who you can explain to them, ‘I really need to do this thing because it is important to me,’ then you have got an ally who can check in and who knows that, when you are doing whatever it is that is important to you, you are helping yourself become more resilient.

NR: That was Peter Lefort from Eden Community Projects, who recently hosted an online workshop to support people doing community work.  If you want to learn more, check out the website at

Thanks to those who shared their experience with us on this show.  If you are thinking about doing something similar or are in the middle of your community business adventure, you can find the latest news on events, grants and support on the Power to Change website – that is  We will be adding links and other useful information on the show notes for this episode, and you can also connect with us by following on Twitter @thecbfix. We would love to hear your thoughts and about your experiences that connect with the show.

As we have heard in this show, a big part of looking after your own wellbeing is knowing that you are not alone.  We would like to get these stories to as many people as possible, so we would really appreciate it if you shared the show with at least one person you know that might benefit from hearing these personal stories.  

Please don’t forget to subscribe to the Community Business Fix in your favourite podcast app.  The benefit of being subscribed means you won’t miss our next episode where we will be finding out more about community housing projects and the New Homes in Community Hands funding programme opening in spring, 2019.

You have been listening to a fieldwork production commissioned by Power to Change.  It was presented by me, Neil Roberts; research and production by Curtis James; sound and music by Simon James; writing and executive production by Chris Paling.