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Social innovation, over time

Community activists tend to seek urgent solutions, but a new study from the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation emphasises how patience is essential for cross-sector development work.

hourglass of time slipping away

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people working in community organisations are not known as the most laid-back or patient of people – as they tend to be proactive types eager to throw their energy into solving an urgent problem.

Yet a new study from the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School, based on nine UK development trusts in deprived communities, underlines how “immense patience” is required to achieve both financial and legitimacy sustainability – which are two key elements for successful cross-sector work in the development sector.

Neil Stott

Dr Neil Stott

“A key theme is that development trusts don’t want to be the ‘the pet’ of a more powerful partner,” says study co-author Dr Neil Stott, Co-Director of the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation. “Although working with other organisations is vital for development trusts, it’s also important that they enter into partnerships from a position of strength.”

In terms of sustainability of legitimacy, all nine development trusts studied had experienced conflict with government, often in attempting to save a building or service, so they tended to develop “restrained assertiveness” in order to be seen as relevant and better positioned to create “negotiated solidarities”.

The study examines development trusts in communities such as a former mining area in Scotland, poor urban estate in Scotland, inner-city neighbourhood in Wales, rural district in Wales, and urban area in northeast England. Such community groups have been hit hard by funding cutbacks since the financial crisis of 2008.

The study – entitled “Playing well with others? Community cross-sector work in poor places” – will be discussed this week at the Rethinking Cross-Sector Social Innovation conference at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The study is co-authored by Neil Stott, Michelle Fava, Paul Tracey and Laura Claus, all of the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation.

Co-author Neil Stott discusses some of the study’s other findings:

Community organisations tend to share three interconnected features. These are intimacy stemming from close ties between staff, boards and communities, which requires perpetual effort to negotiate solidarities; patience when investing in long-term social value; and incubation in nurturing people and groups within the community for long-term sustainability, which includes “nesting” community members and other activists within partnership structures across sectors.

Most literature in this sector has assumed, too simplistically, that goal and identity conflicts can be overcome with good leadership that leads to collaboration. We believe that the situation is far more complex in practice, with an ebb and flow in activity that supports and detracts from collaboration depending on the particular issue, its history, and how it unfolds over time. There’s clearly room for more research into how actors who seem to be opposition can learn to collaborate over time.

Frustrations and other “brakes” on community organisations can benefit them over time. Hard-won assets such as land and buildings secured by community groups serve as a source of pride and reinforce the determination to achieve financial independence, so many successful community organisations approach projects in a measured and relatively low-risk way – underlying again the importance of patience in achieving long-term goals.

Partnerships are often “coalitions of the unwilling”, so inter-organisational animosity never really disappears. While organisations learn to cooperate and co-exist, this is often a fragile truce rather than a warm embrace. To help overcome such tensions, many development trusts have embraced “bottom-up” partnerships in which they nurture a good idea and thus play to their advantage in seeking negotiated solutions.