5-4-3-2-1: a community round-up

This is a slightly edited version of five posts I wrote whilst at the RSA, to put down in words everything I knew about community, which I used as a basis for a CharityWorks talk in January 2016. It is quite a long read, but should be an easy one!


Making Community?

“Social Mirror has made a massive impact in my life because when I moved here I had nobody and nothing. Going to groups through Social Mirror started the ball rolling….”

Introducing Social Mirror from The RSA on Vimeo.

In my time at the Connected Communities team, ‘social networks’ went  from ‘huh?!’ to buzzword by way of Facebook and Twitter. This is a good thing. Feeling supported, connected, needed and part of a community is essential to doing well and to be able to turn your aspirations and ideas into reality. However, what is missing is a concrete sense of the theory of change behind a networks approach: amongst all these calls to set up time-banks and end loneliness, what does a social networks-based approach look like, if you look it in the eye?

Here are my Five rules, Four principles, Three approaches, Two caveats, and One request.

Five Rules:

5Whilst lead researcher for the RSA Connected Communities team, I oversaw a lot of work on how people’s connections influence their life outcomes, how they feel, and their ability to turn their ideas into reality.

These rules are a further iteration of my earlier ‘five community questions’. I hope they will be of interest and use to anyone who does voluntary or community work, or for anyone working for or with organisations that work with people and/or communities at a local level.

  1. People are better, connected.

RSA Connected Communities research highlighted the importance of feeling connected and supported across the board. We surveyed 3000 people in seven areas to assess the impact of social and community inclusion on mental wellbeing. We found that people who do not have others they feel close to, tend towards reporting lower feelings of meaningfulness in their lives; those who do not have ready access to practical help, such as help around the house or picking something up from the shops, tend towards reporting lower life satisfaction.

You may not feel this applies to you. The RSA-supported Talk to Me London project sparked quite the Guardianista backlash – “Talk to people, in LONDON?!”  However our findings show that on average, being locally supported has a marked effect on doing well. Trusting people locally and feeling like your local community is friendly are well-used markers of social cohesion. Maybe having a natter with your neighbours may be more important than you think.

A local pastor in New Cross, London, highlighted that it was the middle classes who were often at risk of low wellbeing in his parish: many of the problems he comes across involved the ‘incomers’  middle class, new(ish!) arrivals who buy/rent in the area but have family roots elsewhere and work in central London – when these people lose their jobs or have a personal crisis they don’t have a local support network and become isolated.

2. Vulnerability is a life-stage, and it changes depending on where you live.

Wellbeing depends on where you live and what life-stage you are at. People can be vulnerable in ways that are area –specific, and different groups of people are vulnerable at different stages in their lives, such as when being unemployed, having a long-term illness, raising children (especially as a single parent), or after retirement.

These interactions between area and life-stage will not always be obvious to outsiders: contrary to all national trends, we found that in the L8 postcode area of Liverpool – at the time, an area of 40% unemployment – those with qualifications at A-level and above had lower life satisfaction than those who were less qualified. In Tipton, Midlands, we found that the unemployed with higher qualifications faired far worse than the unemployed with no qualifications. Whilst single parents in New Cross tended towards higher than average life satisfaction, we found that in the village of Murton, County Durham, single parents had far lower life satisfaction and mental wellbeing.

My hunch is these differences all boil down to what you were led to believe your life would be, and about what you think is ‘normal’. In an area where it is ‘normal’ to be unemployed, being highly qualified may actually lead to lower life satisfaction. You might feel stuck and like you are fighting a losing battle: this was not the local economy that your education had led you to expect.

Similarly, our findings about single parents in Murton came as no surprise to a project partner who, coincidently, was originally from the Murton area but now lived in New Cross: she explained that in the village she was from, being a single parent was hard, and a real source of stigma. In New Cross, being a single parent is relatively ‘normal’ and there is a lot of support out there.

Indeed, for the majority of these groups, social support acted as a ‘buffer’ to the low life satisfaction and wellbeing scores they were otherwise likely to experience. In Murton, Durham, the more community and social connections single parents had, the better their life satisfaction. In New Cross, whilst generally doing well, both single parents and those over the age of 65 did very badly if they did not have any social support.

 3. Feeling part of something bigger than you, is better for you.

Our research in Blackburn highlighted that those who ‘feel part of something that [they] would call a community’ had higher life satisfaction, mental wellbeing, area and health satisfaction,  as well as reporting better levels of social support. This is further bolstered by our mental wellbeing and social inclusion work, above, where we found that having aspirations that lined up with and were supported by your local area was fundamental for you wellbeing and life satisfaction.

We are further developing our research in this area in all the evaluations of projects piloted as part of our mental wellbeing and social inclusion programme << see the Community Capital report you are currently reading for the results!>>: for example, in our evaluation of the digital social prescribing ‘Social Mirror’ pilot, we have found Social Mirror increased a feeling of ‘knowing what is happening in the local area’ for every 6 people in 10 users (62%), and increased their feeling of ‘feeling part of the community’ for 3 out of 10 users (32%) – nobody reported negative effects (phew!

4. Everyone needs a voice and access to their own Agency

As a rule, having access to those in authority or who can get things done locally is very good for you. Being ‘known’ locally tends to be associated with higher wellbeing and life satisfaction scores. However this ‘voice’ needs to be meaningful: it is accepted that feelings of control and ‘efficacy’ are a fundamental component of good mental wellbeing. Consultation without action can damage both the wellbeing and local trust of residents.

Our work highlighted that those who were connected to local power holders without having access to social support actually had lower life satisfaction across the board. It is not enough to know that you could go to your councillor, or to know so-and-so at the police: you need the support system around you to make use of these useful connections.

5. Barriers are bad. 

One of the most common links between wellbeing and social connections in our research was the link between lower life satisfaction and either feeling that there were things that stopped you feeling part of the local community or identifying places you tried to avoid.

These means that is important to listen to complaints: it does not matter if it is litter, or an annoying neighbour or poor transport links that are blocking you: any blocker is bad and should be taken seriously.


Four Principles:

What makes something work? What makes an Incredible Edible that is not in Todmorden, or an UnMonastery project that is not in Matera? We have found that the community projects and initiatives that work best tend to follow something along the lines of these four principles: locally specific, co-produced and collaborative, asset-based and aiming towards resilience.


1. Local: based on local data and knowledge.

Projects need to make sense where there are based: a great idea in one area will not necessarily work elsewhere. This is often the great failure in trying to make an innovative success story work elsewhere: what made it work in the first place, and how do you translate that for its new context?

However beware the fetishisation of local: local does not mean reinventing the wheel and it does not mean not bringing in external experts. You need to have an offer if you are to bother people and take their time.

In practice: in our work on the Social Inclusion and Mental Wellbeing project, we have worked with local stakeholders to co-produce projects in each area that are based on local data.

In Knowle West, Bristol, our co-production of the final results honed-in on data that showed that people relied on service providers for advice, and that there was a wide-spread feeling that nothing good ever happened in the area- this led to Social Mirror and a local place-finding project.

In Murton, Country Durham, the finding that really caught local stakeholders attention was that  single parents had the lowest life satisfaction and mental wellbeing was lowest, and that the data showed that they responded very well to increased social connections – this led to Murton Mams.


2. Co-produced: collaborate, do not ‘provide’.

It is important to ensure that you work with local people and stakeholders in planning projects, on an equal footing. This is not the same as consultation: “you told us, we did”, is not good enough. I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard local authority figures complain that they are providing ‘n’ service or ‘n’ event and people “just don’t turn up”.

However: co-production is not always appropriate. There is a scale that runs from long-term condition to one-off crisis, intersected by one that runs from infrastructure to social structure.

The closer you are to longer-term condition and social structure the more co-production is appropriate, the closer you are to crisis and infrastructure, the more ‘the-state-as-responsible-adult’ is appropriate: if you are having a heart attack you will need a non-co-produced state-led intervention to save you; to ensure you live beyond fifty, community-based services and a co-produced approach to managing your lifestyle will be most appropriate.

In practice: our community partner, the New Highfields Resident’s Group, is very effective at delivering youth and parent-and-toddler services as they do very intensive work to ensure that local residents shape their offer. It has required a lot of work to ensure that the local services see this as an asset, instead of viewing them as ‘competitor’ service providers who only have high footfall as their services are free.

However, when there are safeguarding issues, it is most appropriate that there are channels between service providers and community activities to ensure that the appropriate response is followed: this is articulated by community youth workers having self-help sessions with local council practitioners, and clear lines of communication with service providers such as care workers and the police.


3. Asset-based: trust your people and trust the process. Really working in an asset-based way is hard, and it often requires that you check your own assumptions. There is a need to link to what is already working and enhance it, and to then plug gaps or improve whatever is missingThis often takes time, and working in a truly asset-based way can be painful for local providers as they need to let go of control.

In practice: the Social Mirror project acted as a broker between local people and existing services. We used digitised Social Prescribing to link local people to community activities and groups that are already happening in their local area.

Now, post-pilot, the key question will be whether the project will manage to properly integrate with existing processes, eventually becoming locally owned.


4. Resilient: build for resilience and sustainability. Projects need to ultimately be owned by a broad enough range of local stakeholders to ensure their survival over the medium to long-term. In ecological terms, resilience is the capacity of system to withstand shocks. In network terms, resilience means that the key players and drivers around a project need to be sufficiently intertwined and diverse that people – and funding streams! – can come in and out of the fore without the project falling over. A project with one key person driving it forward is just as fragile as a project with only one possible revenue stream.

In practice: our research in Littlehampton highlighted a handful of key community players who were known to get things done. By working with the national Community Organisers programme, 5 local people were recruited to door- knock locally over a year, engaging with around 500 people each and aiming to surface and jump-start civic activity. By the time the first year was up, a local resident-led campaign to challenge housing being built on local green spaces was just one of many different projects that spun out thanks to our organisers.

Three approaches (and when these are appropriate):

Above, I outlined the idea of a scale that runs from long-term condition to one-off crisis, intersected by one that runs from infrastructure to social structure. This is sketched out in the image below, and is intended as a work-in-process idea that I am very happy for people to take apart!

The thinking is that the closer you are to longer-term conditions and social structures, the more community-led and co-produced approaches are appropriate; the closer you are to crisis and infrastructure, the more state or centre-led approaches are appropriate. If you are having a heart attack you will need a non-co-produced state-led intervention to save you; to ensure you live beyond fifty, community-based services and a co-produced approach to managing your lifestyle will be most appropriate.

The state-led to community-led continuum


For projects and initiatives that address and are linked to social structures and social norms; or that are linked to managing long-term, chronic or lifestyle-related issues, we have found the following three approached to be useful. This covers anything from the community management of assets such as libraries, to key approaches that could be useful for a care worker who is working with a client to ‘knit’ them back into their local community.


Three approaches: capacity building, network weaving and brokering.


1. Capacity Building: it is not enough to ‘hand over’ power or control; local people and institutions need the knowhow, abilities and support mechanisms in place to keep local projects running: this can be anything from wellbeing to fundraising training.

A capacity building approach seeks to understand what blocks people and organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors from realising their economic and social aspirations, whilst enhancing the abilities and skills that will allow them to succeed.

A healthy heart?

A capacity building approach to cardiovascular health might involve:

  • training local practitioners on how to co-produce healthy eating or healthy living plans with their clients;
  • training local people to act as ‘community champions’ or ‘health champions’, linking people at risk of heart disease to exercise programmes such as walking groups, or food initiatives such as allotments or ‘bake your own bread’ clubs;
  • working directly with people at risk of poor heart health, maybe giving them wellbeing training, offering community cooking courses or health advocacy courses.

2. Brokering: often people and places contain everything that is needed; they just need to be joined up better. In our work in deprived areas around England, we often found a split between local people who do not feel anything good happens in their areas, and local activists and service providers who work incredibly hard to provide little-used local groups, activities and amenities. Brokering approaches are about signposting and linking to existing resources.

A healthy heart?

A brokering approach to cardiovascular health might involve:

  • Offering exercise on prescription, or social prescriptions  more generally;
  • Training local practitioners in approaches such as social prescribing;
  • Promoting signposting to local groups.

3. Network Weaving- sometimes brokering is not enough: in social prescribing, for example, the big question is not around how you spread information, but how behaviour change happens. Network weaving is an approach where connections are built over time: this can be between people; it can be helping to build better working relationships between existing local group and/or service providers.

A healthy heart?

network weaving approach to cardiovascular health might involve:

  • Working one-on-one with people to weave them back into their local community: health trainers will have six sessions with an individual to co-produce a plan that links them back into their local area;
  • Hands-on approaches to initiatives such as being a community or health champion, that involve going to local activities with people, until they are comfortable going alone;
  • Working to network local organisations together, such that they can offer a better and more integrated response in areas with high risk of lifestyle-related cardiovascular disease.


In practice: social inclusion for mental wellbeing

Very few projects will use just one approach: the projects that we have trialled as part of the seven-site social inclusion for mental wellbeing have tended two building on our findings, community rules and principles by using a blend of the above approaches. Talk for Health is a way of building local capacity by training people in lay mental health counselling. It ensures sustainability through encouraging (or ‘network weaving’) densely-knit support networks between project participants.

The Murton Mams project emerged due to local data that showed that local single parents were at risk of low wellbeing and that having community and social connections helped them do better. It started as a nomadic social group, moving from community centre to community centre, as our data showed that different local resources had different cliques around them. What started as network weaving – linking single parents to each other and giving them a taste of the different resources available in their area – quickly became capacity building: the mams have now secured their own funding, which will allow them to take the group in the directions that they chose.


Two and a half Caveats: 

  1. Change can be painful.
  2. Never forget the fun vs. need continuum.

       2½. Have an offer and be patient with it.


  1. Change is hard, and that means you too.


“If you’re not in the arena with the rest of us, fighting and getting your ass kicked on occasion, I’m not interested.”

Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

If we are to move from a state provision model to a relational state model, a lot of things will have to change. That includes the ground you are currently standing on. Working relationally – where value is linked to the interactions and exchanges between actors – is a whole other ball-game compared to working with and within institutions, where value is linked to status and hierarchy.

As my colleague Dave Yates has highlighted elsewhere, true resilience is not the ability to weather the storm and emerge from changes unscathed and unbeaten; true resilience is the ability to change in the face of changes in your environment. A resilient society is one that has accepted that the rules of the game have changed, and that is therefore changing its own rules, its norms and its incentives structures.


Changing Health?

Let’s look at health. Psychosocial factors (e.g. work-related stress), life-style related conditions (e.g. obesity linked to poor diet and inactivity) and demographic changes (e.g. older person isolation linked to changing community structures) account for a massive proportion of the local burden of ill-health. Not wishing to conflate issues too much: i) theWorld Health Organization estimates that by 2030 depression will be the leading global disease, with the UK Home Office assessing its economic and social cost as greater than that of crime; ii) lifestyle-related diseases represent one of the world’s key challenge as they account for almost 60% of all deaths worldwide; iii) loneliness is as deadly as smoking, witheffects ranging from depression to cardiovascular disease.

As ill-health is massively affected by psychosocial factors, life-style related conditions and demographic changes, it should be obvious that giving pills and acting the expert is not going to be enough. Conditions that have routes and consequences in people’s social context, community and  employment status, need to have responses that also sit there. If a medical practitioner, a public health system and statutory bodies are to start co-producing relational approaches to these problems, then it is not just their toolkit that needs to change: their roles and their relationships with the people they are working with will also need to change.

This is really hard: it will require new training, new incentives and new norms. I would suggest that, as with co-production approaches, the test must be linked to the one-off crisis to long-term axis, and the infrastructure to social structures axis. The closer you are to crisis and infrastructures, the more you need the professional to be the person in charge – I am happy for my cardiovascular surgeon to be as in charge as s/he likes.  The closer you get to long-term and social structures/norms, the more there needs to be  a facilitative, co-productive approach: maybe being referred to a heath trainer who will work with me over six sessions (capacity building) to develop a plan around how I will engage with my local community’s exercise and healthy eating facilities more (network weaving).


2. Fun vs. Need

Nobody is sitting there, waiting for your change to come; the world is not waiting for you to innovate it out of its “wicked problems”. We tend to do things because they are the done thing, because we think we should, because we think we need to, or because they are fun.

Some projects work because they are enjoyable. Talk to Me London – disclaimer: of whom I was a trustee at the time of writing this – managed to whip up a week’s worth of fun, community-minded, pro-social activity through arts-based interventions in the New Cross area. Someone sleeping on top of your bus-stop is bound to get you talking!

Generally however, we are very busy.  Fun is not always enough. Most often projects will work because they obviously respond to a local need in ways that do not stigmatise people. With the Social Mirror project  where an automated app ‘prescribed’ local activities based on people’s answers to a short survey  we found that the activities that were most taken up by people were the ones that were obviously useful: walking groups, lip-reading, basic computer skills groups and children’s activities. Sure archery (fun!) got a buzz, but we do not have any evidence of people having actually gone to it.

Need to be active? Try this free walking group. Losing you hearing? Try lip-reading. Grand-kids have got you a tablet computer but you can’t make neither heads nor tails of it? Try the computer class; Have young kids? Try the toddler groups.

As a participant told us:

“Social Mirror itself has made a massive impact on my life, especially purely because when I moved up I had nobody and nothing, so when I went to the GP surgery and I was approached by Social Mirror, they asked me questions about me and what I would like to do, what sort of thing I wouldn’t like to do and they put me into contact with things within the area and with that, I then received all the information I needed, groups and things like that for us to do. So, from there, I went along to these groups and once I went, that started the ball rolling if you like. I was going to groups for my children, for myself, and from there I have made friends, I know the area better, and my life is a lot more happier and I don’t feel so lonely.”


2½. Have an offer and be patient with it

This is less of a caveat and more just obvious. Talk is cheap. Actually put out something in the real world that people can see and touch, and people may just come. This could be:

–          planting (and re-planting and re-planting and re-planting) the first propaganda seed garden that eventually helped spark Incredible Edible.

–          opening a small-grants community seed fund in an area where you are failing to get local buy-in and traction: £5000 goes an incredibly long way on the right hands.

–          building the tool first, and accepting that for a project ‘to be locally owned’ it needs to exist first.

Be patient with it, change can take time:  half a year is nothing in the arc of someone’s life, but it is a very long time to be overdue on a project plan, or late on reporting your evaluation figures.

Interviewer: So, how long do you think it took between doing Social Mirror and doing activities?

Participant: I don’t think it was that long to be honest. Couple of months at most.

Interviewer: And between starting the children’s activities and doing [activities] for yourself, how long do you think that might have taken?

ParticipantA couple of months again, sort of thing. By the time you go and get to know peopleThose people then suggest things because they have got to know you. Stuff like that, so it was a couple of months between each stage.

My one ask is: Ask Better Questions.

1. Local-level practitioners should be using our 5 community rules.

For example, when you go to see a GP, they should be asking about your social connections. Do you have any? Can they link you to local groups? Do the connections you have already have the capacities to help you?

2. When local authorities make service allocation decisions, they should be informed by a holistic understanding of impact.


This could be using something like our 5 community rules to ensure that new policies don’t negatively affect someone’s social contact availability, doesn’t harm the already vulnerable, makes people feel more part of a community and not less. So, does closing down a post office remove an elderly person’s only source of social contact; does moving a young family to an area of cheaper rent remove the social support that make being a single working mum feasible; does driving vans with “Go Home or Face Arrest” achieve anything other than making people more divided than before?

3. Everyone else should think about sharing their own ‘best practice questions’.

I’ll show you mine, please show me yours.

I argue it’s good to have an offer: these are the questions that I would ask – of a policy, of a person registering at their GPs – based on the work we have done with 3000 people in deprived areas of the UK. What would your burning questions be?


About gaiamarcus

Hi, Welcome to this little internet slice of me. I do a lot of work around social networks - not the Facebook kind - human rights and what to do to ensure that people can fulfil their full potential. I'm the social networks analysis 'expert' at the RSA, and tend to have a couple of pet projects on the side: currently Social Mirror and Edgeryders. I cook real good, sing real loud, and frequently contemplate when on earth I shall bite the bullet and return to my beloved trapeze.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: