Inside out. rethinking inclusive communities

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We reprint the executive summary of this (2003) report by Tom Bentley, Helen McCarthy and  Melissa Mean. It argues that community-based organisations (CBOs) could be damaged by attempts to co-opt them as instruments of government policy; and that a ‘new middle ground’ needs to be created which allows CBOs and statutory services to work together more effectively.

contents: preface · introduction · rethinking inclusive communities · the goals of inclusion · capacity-building for inclusion · tensions · practical challenges · areas of priority · how to cite this piece

Community-based organisations (CBOs) have developed vital trust in communities they serve. However the emphasis on formal partnership working in area-based initiatives to tackle social exclusion can create difficulties for small organisations. Tom Bentley, Helen McCarthy and  Melissa Mean explore their contribution and the extent to which they can be subverted by too closer relationship with government.

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Of related interest: social capital · civic participation · community · association · community development · community centres and associations · settlements and social action centres


This report was undertaken for the Barrow Cadbury Trust to help review the context in which it undertakes its grant-making programme. The report focuses on the challenge of building inclusive communities, and addresses both the public policy and the organisational challenges of investing in community capacity to encourage inclusion in diverse communities across the UK.

The research has involved a review of national policies relevant to social inclusion and community development. In addition, there has been qualitative fieldwork with organisations that have been funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust (BCT) to ascertain their experiences of working with local communities, with government and the public sector and with other voluntary and community-based organisations (CBOs).

Rethinking inclusive communities

The role of communities in tackling social exclusion is high on the political agenda of Western governments, international institutions, civil society organisations and grant-making bodies. The challenge of developing ‘community capacity’ is one that has long applied to governments of all political persuasions, and the discourse of ‘community’ is an important strand both in current public debate and in the UK government’s social policy agenda. It is particularly prominent in the National Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy, but is also obvious in a host of other policies – from education and health reform to local government, and in initiatives such as local strategic partnerships.

The government’s current approach to this issue involves several strands of policy and many different types of investment and intervention. Alongside income redistribution through the tax and benefits system, several major programmes are designed overtly to tackle the problems of multiple deprivation, or social exclusion, in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Reducing exclusion and improving outcomes for those who are worst off is also an explicit objective in several mainstream areas, including health, education and employment policy.

In several of these areas, ‘building community capacity’ is a priority, either implicitly or explicitly, and government has introduced a number of smaller funds and programmes to boost the capacity of locally based community organisations.

However, relatively little is known about the complex processes by which policies based on inclusive values such as participation and partnership achieve in practice the full engagement of local communities and the diverse groups and individuals within them. The experience of BCT-funded community projects is instructive in helping us to understand these processes better. Using in-depth case studies and qualitative survey findings, this report assesses the role played by independent grassroots-based organisations in facilitating capacity-building and leadership in the communities they serve.

The goals of inclusion

Demos identified three key dimensions of ‘inclusion’ relevant to the work of community-based organisations.

The first of these is access to social goods. This involves ensuring that all individuals and groups, including those in the most marginalised communities, have equal access to collective goods that represent the citizen’s basic social entitlement, such as welfare, housing, legal advice, social services, public transport, training and employment. Many BCT projects provide services and support to hard-to-reach groups, therefore identifying and filling service gaps where statutory agencies struggle to achieve effective impact.

The second dimension is empowerment. Many BCT projects aim to transform relationships of dependency into individual and collective capabilities for autonomous action. These CBOs go beyond service provision by developing leadership skills in individuals and within groups, thus building the capacities required to demand real change in the balance of power between citizens, government and employers.

The third dimension is institutional trust. The findings of this research suggest that the current government’s emphasis on participation and user engagement has not yet achieved the conditions for effective institutional collaboration to solve common problems. In the experience of many CBOs, the new local governance arrangements – built primarily around multi-agency partnerships – do not give central place to the real experiences and concerns of communities. The survey and interviews found that BCT project leaders are often dissatisfied with formal structures for participation at local or regional level, such as local strategic partnerships, domestic violence forums and consultation processes, finding them time-consuming and often unresponsive. The general culture and level of professional jargon surrounding these formal structures can make them inaccessible to the socially excluded individuals and groups served by BCT community projects.

Capacity-building for inclusion

These three goals – access to social goods, empowerment, and institutional trust – can best be achieved by taking a ‘capacity-building’ approach to developing communities. This concept has gathered growing recognition from policymakers, grant-making bodies and international development agencies in recent years. It rests on the principle that investing in the human and social capital of marginalised individuals and groups enables them to develop the capacities needed to thrive, and to play an autonomous role in developing and renewing their communities. The case-study projects achieved this through:

  • acting collectively to demand change from others, such as local officials or employers
  • generating change internally to strengthen social cohesion and empower marginalised sub-groups, such as women or youth.

This approach contributes a valuable perspective to the mainstream public services reform agenda, which has tended to frame citizens as consumers of services, albeit from an increasingly diverse and responsive state. The capacity-building work of CBOs offers important lessons for the government in its plans to enlarge the role of the voluntary sector in service delivery and to develop its thinking on building public value through user engagement and ‘co-production’. However, it also suggests that, for sustainable social inclusion to be achieved, a layer of independent civil society organisation must be nurtured and supported to generate trust and mutual understanding between different social groups across particular local communities. Government cannot achieve this directly, and very often large public-sector providers have difficulty in developing ongoing, responsive and high-trust relationships with citizens, particularly among some client groups. In light of this, Demos identified three key conditions that need to be fostered if CBOs are to carry out successful capacity-building work:

Longevity – the importance of staying power for community organisations hoping to gain and keep the trust of the communities they serve. This is facilitated by sustained commitment from staff over a period of years and by a stable relationship with funding bodies that cover core running costs as well as project work.

Leadership – the quality of leadership that exists across the full range of stakeholders. BCT projects flourish under strong internal leadership, as well as by drawing on the resources of both formal and informal leaders in the communities they serve. Commitment to the values of inclusion from local government leaders and independent trusts can also enhance the environment in which CBOs operate.

Leverage – leverage on financial resources and learning opportunities. This is generated by CBOs through trust-building relationships within and beyond the community sector. Most organisations are involved in formal or informal networking activities at some level, and seek to enhance the impact of their work by building strategic alliances with others, sometimes including larger voluntary sector organisations or statutory agencies.


Clearly there are limits on how far these three conditions can be achieved in the current environment. The nature of grassroots-based projects themselves creates challenges for the capacity building agenda:

Funding – BCT projects argue that they are under continual pressure to secure funds for core running costs. As well as being time-consuming, this reduces their ability to plan ahead and to sustain the trust of user groups. In addition, many organisations value their independence from government and other large organisations, and some will avoid applying for government funding wherever possible. This contributes to their fragile financial position.

Campaigning role – many organisations participate or aspire to participate in political debate and to influence policy at a national level. This can put pressure on their role as service providers rooted in the experiences and needs of local communities.

Internal differences – the potential for successful networking and alliance-building is limited by fragmentation within the community sector. Often organisations are competing for the same scarce resources, or avoid joint working due to anxiety about losing their independence and identity.

Practical challenges

The experience of BCT projects proves that there are examples of good practice and effective capacity-building work going on in many communities across Britain. The current government’s investment in a range of area-based initiatives has provided opportunities for pockets of innovation and good practice to emerge. The challenge, therefore, is no longer to make the case for the value created by CBOs, but rather to gather and spread the lessons of capacity-building at a system-wide level.

Areas of priority

The report identifies three key areas of priority that must be addressed before such an agenda can be moved forward.

Mainstreaming across all areas of social policy. First, there must be better understanding and recognition across government of the conditions – identified through research and experience – that enable CBOs to contribute to the inclusion agenda. Second, this must be accompanied by a strong commitment to identify the lessons learnt from capacity-building work across departmental boundaries.

Recommendations: The Active Community Unit and Regional Coordination Unit should take a lead in mainstreaming community capacity-building activity in the implementation of three key policy agendas in particular:

  • the Futurebuilders Fund for modernisation of the voluntary sector
  • the Private Action, Public Benefit agenda for legal and regulatory reform of the charitable and wider not-for-profit sector t
  • he Review of Area-Based Initiatives, designed to improve the coordination and integration of area-based initiatives, including support for community groups.

Governance. This commitment at central government level must also inform local government reform processes, especially those relating to regulation of the community sector. As this report shows, a heavy audit culture often breeds an atmosphere of distrust and risk aversion, which encourages uniformity in programme design and inhibits the distinctive contribution that CBOs make.

Government policy thus must do more to encourage experimentation with new methods and structures for partnership that balances the demands of upwards accountability with the needs of communities. This might include extending and developing ‘people-based’ systems that emphasise ongoing, face-to-face contact between partners and rest on horizontal or mutual forms of accountability, or reducing the number of externally determined indicators and promoting locally determined priorities and outcomes.

There is a further role for various types of organisational ‘intermediaries’ in building the enabling middle ground through which this sort of collaboration can be successfully achieved. A key part of this challenge is to reconcile the professionalised culture of formal partnership structures with the ‘bottom-up’ orientation of grassroots-based capacity-building activity. Formal structures, such as local partnership boards and regional forums, might be better placed to address this challenge if supported by informal networks and relationships of learning and trust that provide more flexible access points for participation.

Recommendations:  The principles of two-way accountability and people-based relationships should be promoted throughout all multi-agency schemes, all central and local government funding programmes, and in the implementation of the Area-Based Initiatives Review Action Plan for Support for Community Groups.

Within the National Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy, community empowerment networks (CENs) are an area of great potential for building capacity across the community sector. However, their progress to date is unclear, and there is a danger that the opportunity for strengthening the long-term development of capacity in this sector will be lost amid the continuing pressure to deliver year-on-year outcome and service improvement objectives.

We therefore recommend that government should initiate a review of the progress of CENs, with the aim of connecting them more strongly to other efforts, across government and beyond, to build up the strategic capacity and longevity of effective community-based organisations.

Strategic role of independent trusts. While CBOs hold the potential to play a key role in improved service delivery, the distinctive value they contribute is inextricably linked to their status as a constitutive part of a rich, multi-faceted civil society. Given this, there is an important role for non-state actors in providing leadership and leverage for social change and fostering a shared commitment among CBOs for increasing the capacity of the sector as a whole.

Independent trusts are ideally placed to occupy this space if they can meet the organisational, learning and advocacy challenges of capacity-building in this sector. These challenges include:

  • developing coherence and a distinctive identity for specific grant-making programmes
  • fostering productive networking, learning and knowledge transfer across their families of partner organisations
  • supporting the dual role of CBOs as local service providers and independent voices with a wider advocacy role.

There is real scope for a community capacity-building movement in the UK today, which could take the debate to a new level and establish organisations and social outcomes that create long-lasting value. If independent trusts are to take up this challenge, they will require the active engagement and support of policy-makers, high levels of trust between all community stakeholders and a readiness to challenge conventional wisdom and established practice in many different arenas.

How to cite this piece: Bentley, T., McCarthy, H. and Mean, M. (2003) ‘Executive Summary’, Inside Out: Rethinking inclusive communities, London: DEMOS. Available in the informal education archives:

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First placed in the archives: October 2003

Last Updated on June 20, 2019 by