Small is beautiful too

By Iona Joy 27 December 2012

We are entering a world where big is beautiful and everything  has to be scaled up. I was recently at The Funding Network’s Christmas ‘do’ where two truly impressive young men from Birmingham presented their project working with gangs, One Mile Away. This project was developed in the wake of a Channel 4 documentary of the same name, due for release next year.

Andy and Josh (not their real names) came from the two main opposing gangs in the area. Their mission is to get gang members doing useful things rather than dealing in drugs and knifing each other. At considerable personal risk, they go into schools and clubs to act as role models advocating another path. They aren’t against gangs in themselves—to them gangs are really only groups of mates and attempting to break them up is pointless—but they are passionate that they should become a force for good rather than evil. Some simple maths on whether individuals go to prison or to school or work shows good value for money. It only requires a few to be diverted from prison (£47k a time) for efforts to be worthwhile. And their vision has already won support from the Prince’s Trust.

So, I wondered why isn’t government funding this? And then I thought, what chance would such a project have of getting through a typical procurement process? It’s a tiny organisation, working with a small number of incredibly hard to reach and costly people. How could it bid when commissioners want a single vast provider sorting everything? I tried to imagine them in a sub-prime negotiating meeting and the notion was laughable. Perhaps  the Prince’s Trust could send someone with a corporate background in their stead.

A member of the audience asked whether other charities were successfully working with gangs. The pair snorted derisively. ‘Lots of people claim they work with gangs. But if you ain’t  from there, no-one is gonna talk to you or take you seriously.’ I reflected on some wise words from my guru Victoria Hornby (now with the Prince’s Foundation). In Victoria’s experience, effective interventions often spring from the most unprepossessing groups—a loose coalition of folk with mental health disorders, an informal bunch of refugee women—embedded in the community they represent.

So is this initiative scaleable? Not really. It relies on the charisma of a handful of Brummie teenagers working in a patch they know intimately. I tried to visualise the boys spreading the word in Tower Hamlets. Would they develop the relationships to be able to have an impact in E14? Possibly, but it’s by no means certain.

In this case, small is beautiful—and beautiful is likely to stay small.