Purely Academic: Fun in the mountains helped me research our communities

Successful work with communities requires astute judgements and sophisticated facilitation skills, writes Alison Gilchrist

Alison Gilchrist
Alison Gilchrist

On holiday in Austria this year I did some via ferrata - moving through precipitous terrain with the aid of fixed cables, ladders, clips and harnesses. It is great fun and allows you to reach otherwise inaccessible places. This provides an unusual analogy for my research on the interplay between formal and informal ways of working with communities.

For via ferrata to be enjoyable and safe, you need agility, skills, courage, strength and trust in the equipment. From my years of community development practice, I feel the same could be said for effective work with volunteers and community members, especially regarding the appropriate management of governance, participation and accountability.

Last year the William Plowden Fellowship enabled me to explore this topic in depth. Through interviews, workshops and a focus group, I developed a framework for considering the benefits and drawbacks of formal and informal modes, reflecting the different types of interface and transition for collective action, volunteering, and collaborative and public engagement. My initial motivation was to champion informality, but the picture that emerged was more complicated, with the relative advantages and disadvantages dependent on contextual factors and preferences.

The findings related to organisational development, power and democracy, equalities and inclusion, time, relationships and interactions, communication and learning, mitigating risk and maintaining standards.

My conclusion was that successful work with communities requires astute judgements and sophisticated facilitation skills so that informal activities and processes are pragmatically balanced, braided and blended with formal procedures and structures, according to complex or changing circumstances, while respecting the diverse needs and wishes of participants and other partners. The full report is on the website of the Third Sector Research Centre.

Alison Gilchrist is an independent community development practitioner, writer and researcher: Alison@alisongilchrist.co.uk

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