Community groups gain skills through trial and error rather than training, research suggests

Report co-written by Angus McCabe, senior research fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, highlights the importance of interpersonal skills learned from work or other experiences

Angus McCabe

Small community groups learn by "seeing and doing" and often develop skills through trial and error rather than formal training, according to new research.

A paper by the Third Sector Research Centre, published today, concludes that volunteer-led community groups, which have very low or no income, are good at learning from similar groups and using social networks to identify and attract the skills they need. Skills, such as fundraising, are also often gained through trial and error.

The study involved interviews with 16 representatives from community organisations between March and December 2011 and three focus groups, which explored skills, knowledge and resources, involving 45 activists, practitioners and academics.

Researchers found that community groups did not think training was necessary to develop their skills and often saw it as "patronising" and "not useful". Instead, the report highlights the importance of interpersonal and transferrable skills gained from work or other experiences.

"There has been significant investment in recent years in a range of community building and community engagement activities – from Change Up, Capacitybuilders and Community Empowerment Networks under New Labour, to the Community Organisers programme funded by the current government," said Angus McCabe, a senior research fellow at the TSRC, who conducted the study. "Many of these programmes are underpinned by the assumption that communities need ‘skilling-up’ to engage with policy or provide services. 

"For small ‘below-the-radar’ groups, formal training and systems may not be the best way to do this. But we could think more about how networks that support and share learning within and between communities can be nurtured."

The full report, Seeing and Doing: learning, resources and social networks below the radar, written by McCabe and Jenny Phillimore, from the TSRC at the University of Birmingham, is available here.

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