How Participatory Grantmaking has a role in ensuring levelling up lasts the distance.

This was co-written by Cassie Robinson and Hannah Paterson.

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

In the report published yesterday by Onward they analyse the records of different regeneration schemes since the 1960s. It finds that “the most successful regeneration schemes ensure communities have a stake in the regeneration process, including by putting local people in charge of priorities, devolving budgets, and building new community-level institutions.” As a result they make a set of recommendations that include “ensure neighbourhoods can take a more active role in supporting local regeneration through the levelling up agenda.”

Similarly, a recent report released by the Institute for Community Studies found that prevailing approaches to economic regeneration and transformation are not working for communities, with on average no measurable change for the most deprived local authority areas. At the same time, it found that there had been no meaningful or sustainable involvement of communities in the majority of community economic regeneration interventions since the turn of the millennium; and where communities had been involved, interventions had failed to engage with decision-making centres and structures, thus failing to enable any meaningful empowerment or change. The lack of community involvement and failure of regeneration go hand in hand.

With various government funding programmes aimed at regenerating and levelling communities up in train — some already happening and others’ soon to be launched — we believe that several of the funding approaches we’re been using at The National Lottery Community Fund are especially relevant for this. Both the Emerging Futures Fund and participatory grantmaking ensure a different story can be told, about and by local communities. In this blog post we’re focussing on the latter.

For example, The Levelling Up Fund, worth £4bn in England and £800m for devolved administrations will focus on capital investments in infrastructure at the local level. By investing in transport, culture and town centre regeneration, it looks to bind communities together with priority given to areas of ‘low productivity and connectivity’. The Community Renewal Fund, on the other hand, is largely focused on revenue, providing £220m of funding for ‘innovative pilots’ that focus on building skills, supporting local business, community and place-based interventions, and supporting people into the labour market. These pilots will test and learn more in advance of the launch of the Shared Prosperity Fund in 2022, which will be worth £1.5bn every year.

These Funds aim to grow local economies and local opportunities, and give people pride in their local communities — particularly in those areas that have been left behind. The Community Renewal Fund and Shared Prosperity Fund place a strong emphasis on empowering localities to explore for themselves the best ways to tackle local challenges and define what’s right for their area in terms of building communities where people want to live, work and visit.

A third Fund which is relevant here is the Community Ownership Fund — a UK-wide fund worth £150m announced earlier this year. While more details are yet to be announced, we know the goal of the fund is to tackle the long-term trend of community assets falling into decline or being taken over by corporate interests. To this end, the fund will enable community groups to bid for up to £250k match-funding to help buy or take over community assets — seeking to overcome the high capital barriers to entry that often stymie successful community ownership. In each case, towns, cities and neighbourhoods awarded funding through these funds could learn and benefit a great deal from both participatory grantmaking and community-led foresight and imagination.

At its most simple, participatory grantmaking is an approach that sees funder staff devolve the power to make decisions about funding allocation to the community affected by the decision. This can involve inviting communities to help set funding priorities and strategy, to join the decision-making or advisory committees of the fund, conduct research, and make decisions on the allocation of funds.

Here at the National Lottery Community Fund, we have been experimenting with PGM over several years, working with colleagues across the Fund to implement participatory approaches in different ways, depending on context. We believe that PGM can improve our grantmaking in many ways — by drawing on the collective wisdom of communities and supporting them to thrive, making the fund more accessible, and simply making better grants.

By involving them in decisions that affect them — particularly decisions as fundamentally important as the allocation of resources — PGM is one way funders can give communities and community members a sense of agency, pride and power in the process of levelling up. Onwards’ 2020 State of Our Social Fabric report argued that “building local institutions, seeding local networks, empowering local leaders and devolving power — real power — to places” is the key to achieving the kind of levelling up the government wants to see. This also reflects what people in the communities who are the target of levelling up want: the Local Trust’s recent research into the issue found that 59% of people in ‘left behind areas’ want more control over local levelling up funding. Yet despite these clear connections between levelling up and PGM, it has not yet been articulated by many people or organisations working in the ‘levelling up’ space.

At the National Lottery Community Fund, we want to build on the work we’ve done on PGM, developing it further to understand how to involve communities not just in co-design or consultation but in anticipating and shaping the future and making funding decisions.

Through our Leaders with Lived Experience Programme , Mind Our Futures Programme and The Phoenix Way we are exploring and testing ways to build community power and leadership through PGM approaches. By creating the opportunities and conditions for people to make informed decisions about their lives we can create long lasting change and legacy for communities with solutions that work with and for their context, history and strengths. Not only do PGM approaches diversify what is being funded but they ensure that what is funded is relevant and impactful, helping to remove the barriers that are often misunderstood, imposed or ignored by those outside the communities. PGM helps to develop stronger local connections, knowledge and engagement enabling people to build confidence, connections and pride in the incredible work being done by local people.

We’ve also recently started to explore how to make better use of digital, data and tech in relation to participatory grantmaking, as we believe this will lead to more effective and efficient ways for communities to shape their places, spaces and futures. For example, we recently commissioned Collective Tech, a project which explored how technology can be used to support collective design and decision-making. It developed an ‘end-to-end’ prototype platform which shows how an organisation could enlist local people to make decisions to award a micro-grant, developing the strength of the community by working and making decisions together. By thoughtfully deploying technology, the project showed how decision-making could be made more transparent, inclusive and accessible, as well as making decisions easier to peer review and enabling better communication between communities and funder staff.

It is of course important to recognise that participation is not a panacea, particularly not in all guises. Participatory grantmaking can involve a range of different participatory mechanisms, and be implemented at a range of different stages of the grantmaking decision process. If participation amounts only to brief inclusion or consultation at the point of the final decision, once the relevant issues have already been decided upon and the framing has been set, then it can amount to little more than a box-ticking exercise. But, done well, participatory grantmaking could be the key to the creation of a whole new approach to funding communities, which empowers them to make choices about how best to level up and regenerate their places.

We’re starting to explore what PGM means in the context of social investment — and Gemma Rocyn Jones is leading this at the Fund.

Hannah, Conor and Ashar are our leads on PGM at the Fund.

We’re also slowly growing the resources about PGM on our website. We’ve a lot more to add, it’s just taking a while to get them online!

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Cassie Robinson.

Cassie Robinson.

Working with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, EarthPercent, P4NE, Policy Fellow IIPP, Co-founder Point People, Founder Stewarding Loss, International Futures Forum.