Rhodri Davies: Why aren’t more charities supporting community building initiatives?

As the sector recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, there is an opportunity to strengthen bonds of neighbourhood and raise funds for good causes

Rhodri Davies

The pandemic brought huge challenges for many of us, but also launched a remarkable upsurge of community spirit as people throughout the country responded to the needs on their doorstep.

This led to the creation of a plethora of mutual aid groups, with many people rediscovering basic bonds of community and the value of being a good neighbour.

The question for charities, then, is should they be doing more to support and harness this renewed focus on community, and if so how?

In one sense, “community” is something that all charities should surely want to support, as it seems reasonable to suppose that any organisation that exists for a social purpose should have a wider interest in supporting the growth of social capital and strengthening the bonds between communities. In practice, however, this can be a more difficult case to make if organisations are unwilling to look beyond the rigid boundaries of their stated charitable mission.

Perhaps we simply need to be a bit more mercenary in our pitch? There is, for instance, a strong case to be made for charities supporting wider community building initiatives on the basis of “enlightened self-interest”.

Strong communities provide the soil in which more formal social action – such as giving and volunteering – can grow. So it makes sense to invest in the strength of communities, if only for the reason that charities themselves are likely to benefit in the longer term.

Of course, while in theory it is easy to agree that a “rising tide lifts all ships”, in practice charities tend to be under pressure to raise funds so it can be hard for them to justify investment in things that bring shared, long-term benefits rather than more immediate and direct ones.

But even if that is the case, there are plenty of opportunities to engage with existing community-building initiatives that also bring concrete opportunities for fundraising and finding volunteers.

Take, for example, Eden Communities’ The Big Lunch project, which was launched in 2009 with the aim of encouraging community spirit through annual neighbourhood lunch events.

There was never any intention to use these events for fundraising (either for the Eden Project or for any other charities), but it turns out that the mere act of bringing people together inevitably leads to people asking and giving. Since 2016 more than £50m has been raised for charities around the UK as part of The Big Lunch.

But despite this evident success, Eden Communities have so far struggled when it comes to convincing charities to engage with The Big Lunch. Why is this?

Perhaps it reflects the awkward reality that, while we might like to think the charity sector is all about community and collaboration, in reality it is more often driven by competition and KPIs.

This was certainly something I experienced when I worked at the Charities Aid Foundation and we were leading #GivingTuesday in the UK.

We found it hard (in the early years, at least) to get charities on board. In many cases they viewed the idea of a collective campaign focused on giving with suspicion – something that would compete with their own fundraising, rather than as a tool everyone could use to boost their existing efforts (as it was certainly meant to be).

Could the pandemic provide the impetus to get us past this barrier?

Along with the surge of interest in community-level engagement we also saw a new-found spirit of collaboration within the voluntary sector, as charities and funders put aside their institutional egos and worked together to address the huge challenges we all faced.

If we can continue and combine these trends, then perhaps we can forge new partnerships between charities and community-building initiatives.

We need to be careful not to fall into the trap of seeing community-building initiatives simply in transactional terms, as something that can be co-opted to fit existing fundraising strategies.

But if we can avoid this risk, then we may be able to strengthen our bonds of neighbourhood even further, while also providing opportunities to raise more funds for good causes.

As the UK government’s Nathan Committee noted way back in 1952: “Many tributes have been paid to the voluntary worker but fewer to the good neighbour. Yet in an urban society like ours, too prone to become ‘a disordered dust of individuals’, it is the informal, unorganised actions of the good neighbour which make satisfactory social relationships possible.

If we can rekindle the relationship between informal neighbourliness and the organised work of charities, then we all stand to benefit.

Rhodri Davies is philanthropy expert in residence at the Pears Foundation

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