The end of June saw the departure of Angie Wright and Finn Jensen from the Power to Change Community Business Panel. They had completed their five-year terms and were the last of the original cohort. Their respective contributions had been massive and we paid tribute to them in our blog series last year here and here.
Setting up an expert panel may not be that unusual, but to do it before building out your own organisation was certainly a bold move. Our commitment to put community businesses themselves at the heart of everything we do drove that early decision within months of our endowment arriving in early 2015. The panel advises the leadership and board of Power to Change; they meet the trustees at least once a year in what are always lively and interactive sessions. They provide insight and challenge on programmes and plans that they have often played a key role in drawing up, informed by their lived experience as leaders in their communities. We also seek the panel’s support to act as advocates for the community business movement, often speaking on our behalf at events, both national and local.
The panel has been continually refreshed in its make-up over the last five years and as that has happened, we have been mindful of the need to keep the membership as diverse as possible. Pretty well every sector of the community business market has been represented over the years from pubs, hubs and shops to housing, energy and even a community owned pier. As well as covering England in a geographical sense, balancing rural and urban community businesses, we have gone out of our way to ensure that some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country and diverse ethnic backgrounds are covered, giving the lie to the occasional and entirely misplaced perception of the sector as being dominated by the middle classes.
When you set up an expert panel, the temptation is to turn to your grantees or users to rubber stamp decisions that have already been taken or to lecture them on subjects that these leaders in their field are far better qualified to pronounce upon than you. There have been times that Power to Change has been guilty as charged on both counts but when the right balance is struck, working together with a panel of experts can be really productive, even exhilarating.
But enough from me, let’s hear from Angie and Finn in their thoughts on their time on the Community Business Panel:
“Being on the Community Business Panel enabled us to see a wide variety of community businesses across England, speak to the staff, trustees and volunteers there. To see community activism in practice gave me and the other panel members an insight into what can be achieved by collective action.”
- Finn Jensen
“I believe Power to Change has always listened to the panel but has not always been able to act on what we thought was good advice, at times because it is distributing Lottery funds and therefore come with restrictions. An example would be a Panel Seed Grants programme, which came about directly through an idea from the panel and offered grants of £500 for ideas from groups in our own areas. We really wanted a very simple and light touch process but in reality the rigours of due diligence made the process more clunky than it needed to be.
“Early on Power to Change listened very intently to some “home truths” about the grant administers for their first programme. Our comments were harsh but fair, and I believe this significantly influenced their supplier decisions and reduced the demands on applicants at the earliest stages of bidding.”
- Angie Wright
At Power to Change we have upped our meeting frequency through the crisis and by asking the right questions in the right way, the Community Business Panel has been able to play a direct role in shaping our emergency funding and the medium-term renewal programme that will see the light of day soon. But it’s not all work and no play; one of the highlights of my year is the annual two day get-together of panel members, past and present where inspirational community business leaders like Warren Carter of the Bevy in Brighton, Brian Dawe of Liverpool’s SAFE Regeneration and Sona Mahtani who used to run the Selby Centre in Tottenham, come back to pass on their wisdom to the new recruits.
After our sector partners like Co-ops UK, Locality and Plunkett Foundation, panel members like Angie and Finn have shaped our strategy as much as anyone. Although we have many ways of hearing about what’s going on via surveys, visits and events like our annual open doors weekend, the panel works not just because they are a source of intelligence but also because we all pool our power and listen to each other in a way that has built so much trust over the years. Power to Change would certainly not have got to where we have today without them.