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Private Clients team

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Supporting community-led initiatives

There are multiple approaches to effect long-term, sustainable change in society. Having a deeper understanding of them can enable you to incorporate multiple approaches into your giving strategy. For example, you may wish to support a systems level approach or avoid selecting charities according to their size. 

Another approach to charitable programming that is worth exploring is community-led work. It’s common for these types of initiatives to be viewed as small, local, less risky and ultimately the opposite of a systems level approach.

In reality, there’s not always such a clear divide. Some small and local organisations don’t exemplify community-led practice, while some big international organisations incorporate community-led principles in their programme design, despite having lots of centralised decision making.

In this latest piece, we talk about what a community-led initiative is, its strengths and weaknesses and how to assess this type of organisation. If you’re interested in how you can incorporate this approach into your giving strategy, you may want to revisit our piece on how to build a philanthropic portfolio. 


What is a community-led initiative?

Community-led initiatives essentially do what they say on the tin. They’re projects or organisations that have grown from the belief that change is often most effective and impactful when it comes from within, so are run by the communities they work to support.

Often, but not always, these types of initiatives are place-based (designed to include and benefit the community in a defined geographic location), work on a small scale, and deliver programmes and activities that benefit their communities directly. Common types include food banks, co-operative farms, and community centres. 

However, many of these groups are also involved in activism. One recent example is March for Our Lives, a US-based, youth-led organisation, which grew out of protests after a school shooting. In this case, ‘community’ means something broader than the place-based definition. Some communities are not rooted in their physical location, but are linked by ideas or identities, such as race, sexual orientation or a shared experience, such as gun violence.

What are the benefits of a community-led approach?

It’s increasingly being acknowledged that communities are often best placed to solve or contribute to solutions to their own problems (e.g. in healthcare and pandemic response) and doing so can be empowering and transformative for those involved. 

When this approach works well, it includes a shared local vision that drives action and change, making the most of existing relationships and assets to build solutions that work for whole communities.
Community-led initiatives have grown in popularity due to critiques of philanthropy in which outsiders land in a community and launch projects without a nuanced understanding of the needs of those they’re trying to help. This has been particularly criticised in the context of international development (see the infamous Playpumps example where assumptions about the needs of others led to millions of dollars being wasted).

In addition to being well-placed to understand the issues of a community, and more effectively tackle them, community-led initiatives can be held accountable in a way that projects run by outsiders may not be. As contributors are embedded in the community, they will be less able and less motivated to pack up and leave. This accountability is an important factor in making sure projects are long-lasting, resilient and create meaningful change. 


What are the risks of a community-led approach?

There can be a tendency to romanticise community-led initiatives, but we need to acknowledge that no community is perfect. If there are power imbalances in the community, this may be reflected in the decision-making structure and the activities that are prioritised. In extreme cases, funding this type of community-led initiative could lead to reinforcing damaging inequalities. 

An idealised version of this type of work can also assume that all that’s needed to run a great community initiative is lived experience of the issues and a commitment to doing good. In reality, as well as these vital traits, running social programmes and organisational management often need specific expertise. Relying on good intentions alone can lead to inefficiencies or a failure to maximise potential by not bringing in expertise where needed. 

The Trussell Trust is one organisation dealing well with this issue. Their franchise model means that the national organisation supports a network of community-led foodbanks, empowering them so that they can thrive. 

Community-led initiatives can have a significant impact on community transformation and achieving local vision and goals. However, especially for small organisations, measuring this impact is often challenging, as monitoring and evaluation can be time consuming, costly and requires technical expertise. For simple initiatives providing a limited service in response to a specific need, such as food banks, this may not be a major concern. While food banks may not solve food poverty, the short-term provision of food does effectively tackle hunger. 

For community-led initiatives trialling new ideas or dealing with issues where it’s harder to provide even a short-term solution (such as mental health or gang violence), this may be a hurdle. Even when solutions come from within, there should be some attempt at a cycle of evaluation and improvement baked into the approach. We discuss the importance of evidence and how it can be used to assess a charity’s impact in our Evidence vs Impact series.


How to recognise a strong community-led initiative

Assessing the quality of any charity you’re considering supporting is a difficult task but the following tips can help guide the process of understanding a community-led initiative:

  • Look into the decision-making structure of the organisation. Is it open to the voices of the community and does it reflect the main beneficiaries, or only a subsection of the community it’s aiming to help?
  • Ask them directly what they’ve achieved. Much like any charity, it’s worth asking them what and how they know they have achieved it (i.e. evidence to support their claims) and, crucially, how they’ve learned from their mistakes. No organisation is perfect and recognising past failures and learning from them is a sign of an organisation on the right track.
  • Talk to the community they aim to support. Are they empowered by the initiative? The very act of being community-led, as well as the projects or programmes, can and should be leveraged to provide positive outcomes for those involved, such as increased confidence.
  • Have they built trust with key stakeholders? Community-led initiatives ultimately come down to relationships and those who can build trust can create change.

And lastly, once you’ve found a community-led initiative you’d like to support, we strongly recommend providing unrestricted funding. Because ultimately a good community-led initiative is one that responds to the needs of the community, not its donors.