21 Feb 2022

Research digest: ‘Variety is the spice of life’  

Richard Harries, Associate Director, Institute for Community Studies, summarises the latest research on community power.  

Good news! If you’re looking for a break from endless critiques of the government’s Levelling Up White Paper, you’ve come to the right place. This series of research digests is all about taking the longer view and making sense of the latest research on community power. Last month, I ambitiously attempted to summarise all 11 publications added to the Institute for Community Studies’ repository over the final quarter of 2021. My task this time is somewhat easier, delving into five reports, albeit on a wide variety of topics ranging from the lessons learned from a decade of community organising to the lived experience of ethnic minority students in higher education.   

The first of these reports has the somewhat enigmatic title Thematic Paper: Sector & Community Businesses. It is a slim, 15-page document by the research team at Renaisi that goes back to basics and asks what we mean by the term ‘sector’ and how it should apply to community businesses in England. As the authors note, for some of these businesses 'offering a wide range of services is part of their ethos and approach to supporting the community’, whereas for others ‘operating across multiple sectors is central to their business model as it generates multiple income streams’. It seems that, a bit like Saint Peter’s conception of Christian love, the term ‘sector’ can cover a multitude of sins. The authors opt for a pragmatic solution, recommending that funders continue to use sector typologies whilst not letting an over-rigid approach hold back essential market development. 

This blurring of the boundary between community businesses and other types of organisation is also reflected in Pat McGinn’s report, Models of Value that Community Organising Generates for its Adopters. The field of community organising has developed substantially over the last decade and McGinn explores its use as a tool for communities to tackle local issues. His report highlights 'the strong social value of community organising through its potential to build personal agency and grassroots leadership, strengthen local identify, support cohesion, create bridging relationship across sector boundaries and affect change through collective action’. McGinn also examines the challenges of financing the approach, noting the limited ability of some community hubs and anchor organisations to secure income through market-based activities. 

Another community business sub-sector that can struggle with financial sustainability is community energy. Evaluation of the Next Generation programme for Community Energy – innovation, by Mary Anderson and Bill Kirkup, charts Power to Change’s recent efforts to develop new sources of income following the withdrawal of government grants and subsidy schemes such as the ‘Feed-in Tariff’. Such innovation is essential if communities are to have any meaningful involvement in the government’s planned transition to 'net zero’ by 2050.

Our next report, Better understanding the financial impact of funding programmes through the ‘Year Zero’ approach, by Mahdy Alraie and Sarah Thelwall, introduces a brand new data reporting approach ‘to better understand the financial impact of funding and investment programmes on community businesses (and other trading organisations)’. This work, which comes out the evaluation of three very different grant programmes, in theory allows funders to track the impact of their investments on the subsequent financial performance of their grantees in a way that does not put an undue burden on those grantees. As Alraje and Thelwall note, ‘While the “Year Zero” approach cannot establish causality of impact, it does increase the potential to attribute change in key metric[s] to [the] intervention of a funder’.

The final report in this month’s digest is Understanding the lived experience of ethnic minority students in postgraduate research, which presents the findings from the first qualitative research on the experiences of ethnic minority postgraduate research students studying at smaller and specialist higher education institutions. Co-authored by a team of peer researchers trained by the Institute for Community Studies – and supported by the Institute’s Civic Scholars and in-house researchers – the report is intended to contribute to the anti-racism work of GuildHE, one of the three representative bodies for UK higher education. 

And that’s a wrap for this month. I hope you enjoyed this brief tour of the latest additions to our repository. We’re always adding new resources so if you have a publication you want to submit, or if you have suggestions about how to make the repository more accessible, do drop me a line at richard.harries@icstudies.org.uk