Grassroots are top of the tree

12 May 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 12 May 2017

No-one expects utopia, but NI can be a brighter place
No-one expects utopia, but NI can be a brighter place

The latest thinking in social innovation involves ideas that are led by the local community - i.e. those set to benefit - on every level, with support organisations like Amplify NI and even major funders like the Big Lottery Fund fully bought in.

Community-led ideas are more important than ever within the third sector.

Getting local people to take the lead in social innovation – from conceiving ideas to implementation – has great benefits and can be transformative.

This week the Big Lottery Fund, one of the most significant funders of community and voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland, reaffirmed its own commitment to this approach.

Under its current strategic framework, and its People and Communities programme in Northern Ireland, BIG is seeking to fund schemes that work in this manner because of their firm belief that it leads to better outcomes. Chair of Big Lottery Fund NI Julie Harrison said as much on Monday at an event organised by Amplify NI and the Young Foundation.

And it was no coincidence that she was saying those things at this event. Amplify NI was at Ulster University to outline their work helping to grow ideas from within communities and see them brought to bear.

Their Accelerator Programme, in particular, has helped some wonderful organisations grow into providers of excellent services – including CLARE CIC in North Belfast and the Gortilea Social Farm and Hippotherapy Clinic, which provides two types of service: helping people get employability skills on the farm, and using horses as occupational therapy to assist children with autism.

Amplify NI’s approach

There are several strands to Amplify’s approach. One of them is Appreciative Inquiry, which aims to tackle issues from different angle than is traditional, and is based on the idea that people’s thoughts and actions are shaped by the questions they are asked.

The theory is that asking people what their problems are, or about the problems of their local area, can limit the possibilities they can imagine for change.

Instead it is more productive to encourage people to think about and talk about the things they values, enjoy or are proud of, and this can lead to better and more creative ideas – which can also dovetail with some of the angles Amplify takes on inequalities, and how these can best be tackle takes on inequalities, and how these can best be tackled.

Furthermore, when it comes to considering the issues of the individual as compared with the issues faced by places, the methodology seeks to find as little difference as possible, by asking those seeking solutions to personify towns, villages or communities, asking questions like, if Belfast was a person, what would it be like? Who would it be friends with, what values would it hold, what are its main worries for the future?

Taking this sort of tack can be dismissed as flighty or fatuous by the cynical but the success and power of initiatives that have been through Amplify NI’s Accelerator Programme provide evidence that this can really lead to transformative thinking.

The Big Lottery Fund’s community focus

As well as reaffirming the things BIG is looking for when it funds projects, Chair Julie Harrison also said that they were also keen to see people use principles that mirror those of Amplify, particular in terms of Appreciative Inquiry.

She told the audience at UU: “We thought it might be useful to share some of our thoughts and aspirations on the power of collaboration and how we as a funder are looking to put people at the heart of what we do, and focus on great ideas that really matter in communities. We are obviously learning and on a journey and probably three years ago now we began to start conversations about exploring different way to support change within communities.

“At the heart of it is the belief that people know best about what works in the community and people directly involved are much more likely to come up with effective ideas. From us as a funder we are learning that if projects and organisations really stop and think ‘Who can we work with?’ there is so much more impact for the people we want to support.

“We have also realised that we probably have a responsibility to make sure we are asking the right questions. Like lots of other funders, we used to ask ‘What’s the matter with the place you live? What are all the problems?’ and actually what we want to ask is ‘What matters to you?’ It seems like a subtle change but actually we are finding it radically changes the conversations we have.”

There are lessons here for everyone in the third sector, or even people with ideas or aspirations for social innovation that have yet to get off the ground.

It is a sign of the strength of the sector that even its funders are making huge efforts to refine and improve their own approach in order to see the best results for the bottom line – which is social change.

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