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Top-down vs bottom-up

By Andrew Weston 9 April 2015

How and where to focus your funding? That’s one key question for funders.

Many decide to narrow their spending on a particular sector—for example, criminal justice or mental health—but some funders choose instead to focus their funding geographically, and support a range of needs in a particular community. However, addressing the multiple and complex needs of a single individual can be a challenging prospect for private grant-makers and public alike.

Start to scrutinise one such community, and it soon becomes clear why it’s sometimes so hard to make sure money spent there helps.

Take, for example, Jaywick on the Essex coast—a town founded in the 1930s as a place for Londoners from humble backgrounds to escape their busy working lives and to embrace art, exercise, and enjoyment in a seaside village. Today it is the most deprived community in England with boarded-up shops, dilapidated houses, and an unemployment rate of 67%.

This desperate situation endures, despite numerous attempts to bring Jaywick closer to that seaside ideal .The reasons for this are complex, but one theme that has been consistent throughout: hostility from the local community to these offers of help.

This was the case, for example, with the 2006 Master Plan, a proposal by Tendring District Council to demolish a large amount of substandard housing and construct new homes. A consultation was launched, but local opposition towards this plan was so intense that the project was scrapped. Discussions on the community website suggest that distrust is a major problem here: external groups are seen as making promises but ignoring community needs and ultimately never fixing the problem.

This image is unfair on the hard work of many people. But it does raise a question: if residents distrust major new projects, and are unwilling to work with them, are they doomed to fail?

It’s a question which contains the seeds of a solution. If help from the outside is rejected, then help from within needs to be fostered.

The co-ordinated rejection of the 2006 Master Plan in fact shows rather neatly that the community can work together. The issue is that residents seem to come together when they are resisting, rather than welcoming change. A potentially useful system to counter these sorts of issues is the fostering of proactive community ‘champions’. These are people who not only understand the local culture, but are a part of it. As such, they can avoid the perception of being ‘outsiders’ armed with empty promises. They are supported in creating, developing and shaping projects based on what they see that the community wants and needs. This allows projects to be built by the community from the ground up in a way that is acceptable to local people and which work within their needs and capability. Projects containing features which may provoke hostility, and projects which are simply unworkable, can be avoided.

Discovering and supporting appropriate community champions is one area where funders could have a role to play. The Big Lottery Fund’s Big Local is a good example: it targets communities which perceived to have been forgotten by conventional external funders. Each community is allocated at least £1m, with residents able to put forward their own ideas of how the money would be spent in a wide range of areas, ranging from employment schemes to creating new community facilities. Successful applications not only receive the Big Lottery funds but also the support and training needed for them to act on their aspirations.

In the case of Jaywick, imposing big projects appears to fail. What’s more, this failure is driving local people further away from the help they need. If engagement by community champions, as in Big Local and other projects, could be replicated it has the potential to transform the relationship between residents and attempts to improve their lives.

In situations like this, funders may be right to be very wary of a more hierarchical top-down approach. Community champions may be a far more fruitful approach.