What place for ‘place’ in funding the voluntary sector?


Ruth Gripper and NPC


If I ask you to think of a place, what comes to mind—a neighbourhood, a city, a region? Place—or perhaps more accurately, community—has always interested me. I grew up in a close-knit rural community, and my first proper job was working for an MP—who represented and championed a particular place. London, where I now live and work, started to make sense for me when I first heard the common saying that it is really just a collection of villages.

But what makes a place and the people within it thrive? And what role can voluntary organisations and those that fund them play to support them? Place-based funding is not new, but it is currently enjoying a good deal of attention for many reasons:

Place is a ‘way in’ to thinking about systems change.
The challenges we face are too big—and too complex—to solve on our own. This has led many charities and funders to think of their work in terms of systems change—tackling the root causes of problems by changing underlying structures and mechanisms that make the system behave as it does.

Place provides a boundary that helps us understand what that ‘system’ is and how we might influence it. An interest in systems change has led Lankelly Chase to explore area-based approaches, both providing funding for organisations working in this way and commissioning research to develop their own knowledge.

Place means something to people.
Ask someone about their neighbourhood or community and they will not only know exactly what you are talking about, but be able to tell you what they think about it and how it could be improved.

Place is powerful for donors, too, with community foundations and place-based giving funds such as Islington Giving leveraging individuals’ connection to a particular area—allowing people to match their emotional investment with a financial one.

The wider context plays a role.
The EU referendum result in the UK, and last year’s presidential election in the US have focused attention on political, social and economic divisions and the places ‘left behind’ by globalisation.

Close attention was paid to similar divisions in the run-up to the recent French presidential vote. Meanwhile, the focus of public policymaking is shifting: looking to communities to do more for themselves, devolving power to cities and regions, and forcing the voluntary sector to rethink how it works with other local actors.

Thinking in terms of place can help shift the power dynamic.
With many in the sector looking to give users more control and a stronger voice, focusing on a place (rather than organisations or predetermined themes) can be one way to do this. This might mean working with organisations beyond the traditional voluntary sector. Citizens UK, like the Industrial Areas Foundation in the US, works with civil society in its widest sense—broad networks of faith groups, schools, trade unions and other civic organisations—building relationships between them and working together to achieve change.

Funders thinking about taking a place-based approach need to ask themselves some questions. How long are you prepared to commit to an area? Depending on your goals, a place-based approach might require a longer-term involvement.

Local Trust’s Big Local programme, for example, is working on a ten-year time frame, while the Kellogg Foundation is committed to working in each of its priority areas for at least a generation. What is the right balance between breadth and depth—take a light-touch approach or engage more deeply in a smaller number of areas?

The Kellogg Foundation chose the latter option. Focusing on place might even lead you to work in a completely different way—investing more time and energy in capacity building, for example, or taking a more activist role yourself.

For example, Lloyds TSB Foundation Scotland is employing a team of community coordinators as part of its place-based approach. The Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, meanwhile, acts as the ‘operating arm’ of the Jacobs Family Foundation, working with the communities where the Foundation funds.

Place-based approaches are not for everyone, and the answers to these questions won’t be the same for every organisation. For those of us with an interest in this area, though, it is exciting to see where the current energy and interest will lead.

Ruth Gripper is a Consultant with New Philanthropy Capital.

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