Dawn Austwick: What a can-do community in Glasgow taught me about funding

The challenge for funders is to judge when and where we can add value to local voluntary activity, writes the chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund

Dawn Auswtick
Dawn Auswtick

t’s been a while since I’ve blogged for Third Sector so I wanted to share some thoughts with you before we head into the festive break. I’m resolving to be a more frequent blogger next year, and I’m also getting to grips with Twitter so please do follow me @dawnjaustwick to keep in touch.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit an incredibly diverse range of projects across the UK over this past year, and I’ve recently been reflecting on a trip to Glasgow which made a particular impression.

Hosted by local housing association, NG Homes, I witnessed an extraordinary range of community-led activity taking place across the city – from food banks and a cultural cookery exchange to groups offering financial advice – even a university course in community activism!

Witnessing such a rich tapestry of grass-roots activity – alive and thriving – was truly inspiring. So much of this has happened independently, led by people using their own skills, energy and networks to tackle the challenges their community faces.

Wevolution is a perfect illustration of this. They support the formation of ‘self-reliant groups’ of around five to ten women, who come together to save money, share skills, and build micro-enterprises. Their offer includes small business loans up to £5,000. The work is inspired by the women’s self-help movement in India, which is made up of more than eight million groups and over 100 million women. In one example of the scheme in Glasgow, eight women began by each saving £1  a week, in time saving enough to finance a lunch club, which in turn generated income for a community laundry.

The money here is of course essential, but the most important ingredients are the energy and skills of the group, who together are driving forward positive social change in their community (and by the way, we don’t fund them). A challenge laid down to us by Wevolution is that we should think about our funding in the context of a "movement" – one that doesn’t distort, but places power in the hands of individuals and communities.

The challenge for us as a funder, then, is to judge where and when we can add value to local responses – and not only with our money but also our learning, our data, and our ability to connect and convene people. We might characterise this in policy circles as taking an asset-based approach, but was more simply described by those I met in Glasgow as supporting a ‘can-do’ culture – something that was very much in evidence during my visit.

In the meantime, happy holidays to one and all!

Dawn Austwick is the chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund

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