Building the Rebel Alliance

How community power and insight are driving change in Norfolk

Back in May, 850 innovators from the public and voluntary sectors descended on London’s Guildhall for New Local’s Stronger Things event.

We spent the day exploring and celebrating the concept of ‘community power’, the idea that, to create the change that’s needed in local areas, we need to ensure that power and agency sit in the hands of the people that know those areas best – local communities.

In an event full of inspiring speakers and examples, the phrase that perhaps resonated most came from New Local’s Chair, Donna Hall, who called for a ‘Rebel Alliance’ of people who believe that community power is central to change, now and in the future.

“At Norfolk Community Foundation, we’re two years into building our own quiet rebellion, challenging the status quo that says that quantitative data and evidence is the only route to understanding communities and that solutions to local challenges are best developed by policy makers and change experts.”

We have shaped our work on two of the county’s biggest challenges – food insecurity and young people’s mental health – in a fundamentally different way to ‘old power’ traditional local grant making.

Our starting point is detailed insight into what’s wanted and needed in a local community.

This has included spending time with and listening to local voluntary and community sector organisations to understand what they are seeing in the communities they work with and directly talking to local people about their experiences, challenges, hopes and ambitions. As a result, our Nourishing Norfolk food hubs are located in areas that might not always meet a simplistic criterion of ‘most deprived’ but where our community knowledge and insight tell us that poverty can exist side by side with affluence and people will benefit from support.

Secondly, we’ve recognised that solutions are best generated by people and organisations that have deep roots in their local area. We’ve avoided taking a project that works in one area and scaling it across the county, instead starting by having conversations with established voluntary and community sector organisations to understand local assets, local needs and what’s going to work. This means Nourishing Norfolk looks very different in different communities, from a mobile coastal community supermarket in North Norfolk, to food pantries in rural Feltwell and Kenninghall, to a food club co-located with the Shrublands community centre in Gorleston. There are now 19 unique hubs responding to specific local issues and offering affordable food to over 20,000 people across the county.

Finally, we’ve taken a networked approach to enable organisations with a shared purpose and focus to share knowledge and learning as they develop practical solutions to local challenges. Through the Sir Norman Lamb Coalition for Young People, we have convened over 50 Norfolk-based voluntary sector organisations that support the wellbeing of children and young people aged 0 to 25. In addition to supporting organisations with grant funding and other resources, the Coalition is helping to build a movement for change, raising the profile of preventative youth work and making the case for investment in the future of Norfolk’s young people.

The next stage in our work on community insight is to explore how communities can have the power to shape how local funding is allocated and services and programmes are designed and delivered.

With funding from UKRI’s community research network programme, we are working with two of our Nourishing Norfolk food hubs, run by The Feed and Shrublands Youth and Adult Centre Charitable Trust, to test different ways of building the skills and confidence of people involved in the hubs to design and conduct research themselves.

Through this work, we hope to build a case for change, where:

  • The knowledge and insight generated for, by and with communities is recognised on an equal footing to statistical data when decisions are made about funding and service design.
  • Community-driven, hyper-local approaches are taken to innovation, rather than the scaling of a single solution to multiple areas.
  • A stronger commitment is made to asset-based community development across all local partners – starting with what’s strong in an area and building solutions from there.

By taking this approach, we hope to see a future that is truly community-powered – where devolution doesn’t end at the town hall, insight guides action, and rebels become the mainstream.

This blog was written by our Director of Programmes and Insight, Katy Rutherford.

Published: 9th August 2023