Opening the lid on Empowering Places: Welcome to the year of accountability

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Programme manager Bonnie Hewson reflects on the progress of the programme

The big questions for us are, can you start and sustain community business in places that are more deprived, does this help them become more resilient and better places to live, and what can we learn about the process that will help others to achieve this?

– Bonnie Hewson Empowering Places Programme Manager

Since 2017, Empowering Places has been supporting six communities – Hartlepool; Wigan; Leicester; Bradford; Plymouth; Grimsby – to address their local needs. With the release of the new Interim Evaluation report, Bonnie Hewson, reflects on the progress of the programme.

In March 2020, just as lockdown was looming for the first time, New Philanthropy Capital (NPC), a think tank for the charity sector, published a report called “A rebalancing act: How funders can address power dynamics”. Having just finished a Community Organising course their language around sharing power (power with rather than power over) really resonated with me. I come from a grassroots community and small charity background where I spent a fair bit of time trying to raise money (and talking about sustainability whilst being financially unsustainable), so now in my role as a funder I am acutely aware of the power that funders do have – even whilst often feeling that they don’t. This means I am always questioning whether I am doing enough in my own programme to understand my power, build relationships based on trust, adjust the design of the programme to changing needs, listen to the experience of my grantees and build collective power.

These days I talk more about accountability, reminding businesses to be accountable to their communities – but I am also mindful that I also need to be accountable for the choices I make, not just to the charity commission, but to the grantees I support. And in this particularly difficult time it is even more important to remember that when we are trying to help communities to build back better after Covid that how we fund is as important as how much we fund – listening, being responsive and owning our decisions are essential ingredients in addressing the power dynamics at play in funding relationships.

My programme, Empowering Places, supports six communities that experience deprivation to develop community businesses to address their local needs, through a catalytic community anchor. It is a five-year programme and in the first two years we gave our places space to develop their long-term plans and test and learn from their respective approaches, without the pressure of being in the public spotlight. Since the end of 2019 we have been working with Renaisi, who are experienced in helping organisations to understand and evaluate their impact on communities. With their help we are undertaking a wide-ranging learning and evaluation exercise and now, despite a tumultuous year, the public facing reports are now starting to flow.

The first interim evaluation report gives all the background to the Empowering Places programme, its framing and approach as a place-based programme, its aims and its early attempts to assess impact. This includes the impact of our support on our six grantees, of their support on their 60+ emerging community businesses and of the community businesses on their places. The big questions for us are, can you start and sustain community business in places that are more deprived, does this help them become more resilient and better places to live, and what can we learn about the process that will help others to achieve this? This report shows how are going about answering this deceptively simple question and provides a baseline of progress in each place to date, it sets us off a trail of discovery.

This first report sets the scene for other follow up reports due in 2021 which will provide more detailed profiles on each of the places where we are working and will also look more deeply into the approaches taken to build capacity in each place, and the challenges faced by community anchors seeking to catalyse community businesses. This report also touches on the impact of Covid-19 which will be followed up in a further report later this year.

One of Power to Change’s core values is openness and it feels good after having worked on this programme since 2017 to finally be able to share some of the knowledge and learning – including some of the things that haven’t worked – and be transparent about how we have made decisions in our place-based work. If 2020 turned into The Year of Covid-19 – I’m determined to reclaim 2021 as my year of Learning & Accountability. You can expect a steady flow of information about Empowering Places from now on – from ethnographic videos and Covid-19 diaries, to reflections on developing best practice in funding place-based strategic change and how capacity building budgets have been utilised across the programme. And if you have any questions or insights I’d be glad to hear them – you can send an email to places@www.powertochange.org.uk.