Community leadership: bringing on the next generation

9 Oct 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 9 Oct 2020

Gerard Deane, Director of Holywell Trust in Derry/Londonderry, Kate Clifford, Director of Rural Community Network in Cookstown and Lauri McCusker, Director of Fermanagh Trust in Enniskillen,

Many community and voluntary organisations face a looming crisis.

As they mature so too do their staff, their volunteers and their trustees/committee members. Everywhere the search is on for new blood. But how do you encourage the next generation to get involved and provide the right support to help them acquire  the necessary skills?

Most charities in Northern Ireland are very small, especially those in the community sector, all are under severe financial pressure. Dealing from day to day – survival – is tough enough. It can seem as if preparing for the future is a task for another day.

The challenge of succession planning is even more daunting for those many community-based groups in rural areas. Where will the new talent come from, who and where are our future leaders?

This is a problem that Lauri McCusker, director of the Fermanagh Trust has been wrestling with for the past 15 years.

He said: “Investing in people is crucial for our sector. I have benefited from investing in myself and my colleagues, yet since the early 2000s we have seen the collapse of organisations which provided vital community education.

“20 years ago the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) was doing terrific work provided training on negotiation skills, leadership, facilitation and chairing groups. It really helped skill up the sector. The Ulster Peoples College performed a similar role. Now all the bodies that provided this support have gone.”

“So where can you go to skill up staff and volunteers and for people to learn governance techniques?”

He said that West of the Bann the average age of people on the governance side of the sector was 53. The average age of the population is between 38 and 39.

“We just don’t have a huge next wave generation of people taking on the mantle right across civil life in the west.”

This week an announcement was made which could be a game changer.

The National Lottery Community Fund is to invest £500,000 into a five-year project to identify and the next generation of leaders of the community and voluntary sector.   

The funding is going to “Community Leadership in the West” a partnership between the Fermanagh Trust, the Holywell Trust in Derry and the Rural Community Network, Cookstown.

Lauri said: ““We are absolutely delighted to have been awarded this National Lottery grant at this crucial time – it will make sure the needs of communities are heard and represented where it matters in the future.”

A dearth of new blood is  an especial problem for the governance of charities. We all know that best practice is for trustees to serve three year terms on boards. Yet many organisations struggle to bring new talent in, and as a result it’s not uncommon for terms to be extended for many years, far longer than is regarded as good for governance.

Lauri said: “When you see that an agm is being attended by the same people as five years ago you realise the need for change. The problem is that groups do want new blood but to get new recruits you have to offer them something. Many younger people don’t want to sit around a table with a load of old fogeys like me.”

Yet during the pandemic there were encouraging signs within many communities.

“Many projects in the West are led by older people, who are brilliant, but due to age or health issues, had to isolate during the pandemic,” he said. “Some groups found it difficult to move quickly to meet immediate needs in their area due to lack of available leadership on the ground.

“But people have stepped up like never before and made a massive difference, and the aim of this project is to get more of this, support those who are making things happen and succession plan for the future, giving the next generation the chance they need.”

He sees a powerful lesson here: “Ultimately others can step in of the need is there. None of us are irreplaceable – that’s not to say we don’t miss people when they do move on or can’t contribute. But we do need to prepare for the future.”

Kate Beggs, Northern Ireland Director of The National Lottery Community Fund added: “It’s inspiring to see new leaders rising to the challenges in communities, supporting people in need. This project sets a strategic direction, helping pave the way for the VSCE sector through succession planning for the future.”

The Community Leadership in the West project is now recruiting for:

  • Grant-Maker Apprentice Programme for young people working to effect investment and change in their communities
  • Future Leaders Programme which will create new non-political party aligned community leaders, dedicated to the promotion of positive good relations in Derry/Londonderry and beyond
  • 25 key sector skills short-term training courses, resulting in 375 people being trained in the core building blocks to good practice including facilitation, mediation, governance and compliance.
  • A National University of Ireland, Galway, accredited Pre-Graduate Diploma in Community Development Practice, which will start in September 2021.

At a time when there has been so much focus, quite rightly, on immediate funding threats to the sector as a result of the pandemic it is vital to look forward as well to ensuring that we prepare the next generation for community leadership.

In recent times there has been a growing recognition of the central role that communities can and must play in developing policy.

People who live in a neighbourhood are the real experts in what that community needs and it should be they who lead change. We are seeing encouraging signs that this is being accepted: through the development of community planning initiatives, the slow emergence of Participatory Budgeting schemes, and an increased understanding of the potential power of community-based economies.

Stronger communities are healthier and more resilient communities where local people are in the lead.

But that takes strong leadership, both now and into the future. And that is precisely why this far-sighted initiative carries so much potential for community organisations west of the Bann.




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