Charity conference attendees

Helping communities tick

By Sue Wixley 18 October 2013

It seems odd that the author of ‘How to lose friends and alienate people’, Toby Young, could be associated with the idea of building social capital. But indeed Young’s role in co-founding the West London Free School is a prime example of the characteristics of “’neighbourliness’, social networks and civic participation” that make up social capital.

Young has noted that he could not have created this Free School without the support of a string pro bono lawyers or the active engagement of concerned parents in leafy West London. In other words, social capital is needed to build a social asset like a new school, which in turn creates more social capital. Social capital begets social capital.

But what of areas where social capital is already weak or declining? And how can this gap be addressed? This was the subject of NPC’s seminar this morning hosted at The Guardian—Communities that work: Can the voluntary sector help build social capital in areas of need?

Our panel of speakers painted a picture of the breadth of work going on to help “communities tick better” as Community Foundation Network’s Stephen Hammersley put it. This includes supporting efforts to keep a pub open, ensuring a local war memorial is maintained, and developing the waiting room at a train station, all the way through to lobbying a hospital to provide better services or working to ensure marginalised groups are able to influence local decision-making.

Many approaches we heard about tend to rely on informal and organic approaches—on growing initiatives from a micro-local level. Debbie Ladds from Local Trust described, for example, how building safer communities is often as much about neighbours getting to know each other (popping round for tea and cake) as it is about formal initiatives like erecting CCTV cameras.

What then is the role of infrastructure bodies or voluntary sector organisations, if any? Indeed this is a question that many local organisations are asking themselves as the moment.

Gordon McCullough of Community Action Southwark believes that local organisations like his have a role to play in “filling the space of possibility” in between mainstream sectors and grassroots organisations. This includes supporting groups that, for one reason or another, are less motivated or equipped to get involved locally, as well as joining up with the public and private sectors.

If social capital is the glue that brings communities together, perhaps voluntary sector organisations—be they grant-makers or infrastructure bodies—are needed to maintain this stickiness. And where more glue is needed, arguably in areas of greater deprivation, so more help is needed to make this adhesiveness last.