We’ve just published a new booklet – Four ways to turn ideas into action – that features case studies of brilliant community projects led by RSA Fellows. It’s based on interviews I carried out over the last year, exploring how people develop their ideas and put them into practice.
You can read about all of their projects in the publication itself, but in introducing it I thought I’d pick out a couple of rough and ready principles that I think are common to their success.
One thing that struck me about nearly everyone I spoke to was how candid (and usually cheerfully so) they were about the things that hadn’t gone well with their projects. When giving an account of ourselves, all of us will sometimes feel the temptation to talk up our achievements – the things we’re proud of, and the moments where our skill and good sense won the day. It’s much harder to take a long hard look at what you’ve done and say “that was the wrong decision,” while avoiding the slide into fatalism or bitterness.
I suspect a good part of the reason my interviewees didn’t make that slide was that they’re all nice, level-headed people. But I also think (and some of their responses seem to back this up) that being part of a supportive, purposeful community like the RSA Fellowship makes it easier to be candid, and thereby help other people learn from your missteps. Many of those involved in the Social Entrepreneurs Network (p. 14) have said previously how much they value having a ‘safe space’ to share their experiences and learn from others.
Work with the right people
Many of the projects I spoke to were at pains to point out how much they’d depended on supportive partners. Keep Calm Prepare for Change (p. 8) only happened thanks to a coalition of green-minded organisations in Manchester, while Vertical Allotments (p. 20) found housing associations were glad to work with them in order to serve their tenants better.
All these relationships, though, are quite different to the relationships you might have seen in the past between (for instance) businesses and charitable or community partners. There’s substance behind them, real shared motive – and in most cases, not a great deal of money changed hands. I think this says something about the changing shape of this kind of project: increasingly, finding people who can provide exposure, open doors and supply practical know-how is just as important as sourcing cash.
Understand the costs
This is in some ways a glum observation: running a community project in your spare time is a hard, often thankless business, and sometimes it takes a very personal toll on people. Rob from Leeds Empties (p. 10) commented on how hard it is to sustain a project you care about when you're giving your time for free, and Maria Ana from Plan Zheroes (p. 22) was impressively candid about how personally stressful she found running a project that had grown beyond her capacity to support it.
The lessons about how to overcome this aren’t surprising: they involve recognising the value of your own time; introducing enough structure to take the weight off a single person; and keeping an eye out for funding that allows you to do both of those things. That's not as easy as it sounds (and it doesn't sound that easy) but being mindful from the start of the options can help avoid reaching breaking point.
I think there’s a final lesson here. There’s a lot of froth around the notion of ‘social action’ (and I do my fair bit to contribute to it) but at root it’s a familiar set of problems about how to organise people and resources. We’re attracted to flashy ideas, and in London you can attend five events a week where you’ll hear about brilliant schemes to change something for the better. What you hear less about is the hard work people put in to sustain even modest community projects, and the challenges they overcome. My hope is that telling these stories is a small way of redressing the balance. Perhaps you have more?