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A Great Big Fundamental Mistake?

February 7, 2011

Many community groups feel the need to do something.  Preferably quickly.

To develop some kind of ‘project that the community can rally around’.  That will ‘inspire people and show them we are doing something’.

But I think this is a mistake.  A great big fundamental mistake.  For several reasons:

  • it lets many people in the community off the hook – they can, and will, wait for YOU to sort things out.  This does nothing except to create a new more local group of the anointed – they may lend a hand – but they will expect you to lead.
  • it further disempowers members of the community who see the power lying with you and your group, or as the latest in a long line of well meaning but powerless do-gooders.
  • it is disrespectful of the community – it implies that you know what is needed to sort things out.
  • it ties up resources – before you know it your are running a couple of projects and everyone is too busy to take on any more.  You start to burn out while achieving little and skeptics in the community start to say ‘I told you so’…
  • you alienate people – whatever project you choose you will make friends and enemies, while others will remain indifferent.  You choose to work on ‘the environment’ and some will think it about ‘jobs’.  You work on ‘jobs’ and others will think it is about ‘childcare’. As soon as you nail your colours to a mast, some will think they are the wrong colours on the wrong mast and just back away.

So what should we do instead?

Listen, wait, educate and facilitate.

  • Listen to what community members want to do, and then help THEM to do it.
  • Wait and wait and wait, until you find someone who REALLY wants to do something and invites you and your group to help. You might want to think about what you would need to be like to deserve such an invitation.
  • Educate.  Help local people to understand about what is happening to them and their community and why. Help them to explore the opportunities created as political, economic, social and technological change sweeps their community.
  • Facilitate. Help people to do their work.  Help them to associate and organise.  Help them to build their power and to work on what matters most to them.  Build extensive networks of people who know how to help.  The Zen of facilitation means that you can maintain many projects without burning out.
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18 Comments
  1. I agree with most of what you say here Mike, but still have some experience which suggests otherwise.
    When we were working in Indonesia, and attempted to come to a community ‘cold’ with just a ‘participatory’ agenda, we were often met with suspicion. People just didn’t get why we were there.
    This was not just down to the fact that we were foreigners as this strategy of an ‘entry-point’ project was something that came from national staff who had tried the traditional participatory approaches.
    Sometimes a small starter project was required to give credibility to the presence of our NGO. An explanation of why we might be there. From this point the field staff could begin the long process of listening and trying to understand the various power relationships, and key stakeholders, on the way to facilitating real change.
    I’m not sure how this experience translates to the UK.
    Certainly a community group that is already part of the community shouldn’t need to justify their reason to be there and the approach you describe, while difficult (and counterintuitive) is preferable.

    • One of the key points Ian is that you only help where you are invited to do so. Get credibility by doing great work in your own community and use that to win an invite to help someone else work in theirs.

  2. That might be the point. This was when we were trying to start a new work in a new community, some way away from where we were based.
    The challenge is that to do it the right way takes sooo much longer!

  3. Raychel permalink

    Some of the suggestions are difficult when you have to tick boxes and jump through hoops for funders and its a rather daring approach that may be seen as much too radical for a lot of community groups that are run in a very old fashioned and traditional way – I could do with some help on this one! I often question why I was offered my post as I am not your old school approach and everything new and different I want to try is knocked back, they prefer to do what they’ve always done (but as expected, we get what we’ve always got!)

    • None of us HAVE to tick boxes and jump through hoops and do the safe stuff. We only HAVE to do that IF we want to keep our job. If we are happy for our professional integrity to be in thrall to our salary then we choose to do the box ticking. We have (almost) all done it. It seems that most paid work in community development these days is actually not about community development but maintenance of the status quo while progressing some national policy obsession, usually around obesity, smoking cessation or employability.

      • Raychel permalink

        Keeping my job is very important – especially at the moment. And I totally agree, maintenance of the status quo is exactly how my role feels, I have more to give than that though, yet am getting jaded by the struggle to fight for an innovative approach to what we do. I’m really not happy to do the box ticking, maybe that’s why I’m not sleeping so well atm!

  4. I meet so many people who are reduced to ‘doing what they can’ within the confines of a job that won’t let them do very much. Let’s just hope that you are able to find your power before too long. One thing is certain. There are no easy answers.

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