Economic democracy – why some ideas take centuries to progress

It is a simple enough idea. Just as the governance of cities and nations has shifted from systems of inherited control to systems of democratic accountability, so we could move over time to systems of economic democracy.

I have written a blog for the democracy charity Involve as part of its series on the future of democracy, under the simple title of ‘one worker, one vote’.

Quotation - An emerging culture across society of participation and openness...

If so, if part of future democracy, it will have taken a long time – perhaps the longest running social change campaign I have ever been involved in.

We have seen co-operative models over time with stakeholder ownership and the encouragement of a healthy growth of employee ownership alongside this in more recent years. These are aligned with an idea which was, a century ago, widely canvassed. The phrase ‘Workers’ Control of Industry’ was coined in the years leading up to the First World War. But this too drew on a longer history, which in the UK included attempts to run union shops and Exchange Bazaars in the century before.

In 1912, the pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step set out options for future action by miners in South Wales and concluded with a vision of future society in which “every industry thoroughly organised, in the first place, to fight, to gain control of, and then to administer, that industry.”

The trade union activist and leader Tom Mann, who himself started working in mines at the age of ten, was a key advocate. He defined what he called syndicalism in the following terms: “a condition of society where industry will be controlled by those engaged therein, on the basis of free societies; these co-operate for the production of all requirements of life in the most efficient manner, and the distribution of the same, with truest equity.”

For him, economic democracy would not just complement political democracy, but even in time overtake it, removing the need for state action to act as a counterweight and a corrective to the markets that generate inequality.

For James Connolly, the Irish republican and trade union leader, the purpose was to build an “an industrial republic.”

You can see why this vision might take time to realise – it is a call for a new economy, based on a far more equitable and distributed pattern of ownership. And yet, looking forward, this is exactly what is still needed – a new economy in which we can all participate, to meet our key needs and to create value within the constraints of our biosphere.

Arguably, many of the experiments we see in participatory practice, sustainable business and social enterprise today are pathfinders for something like this tomorrow.

If so, the case for economic democracy has never been more compelling… or more hopeful.

Charities are not just for Christmas

Christmas is a time for charity and who can doubt the need for it right now? Whether it is more homelessness as the cold weather comes, more domestic violence as COVID keeps people at home or more loneliness for people who are elderly, there are such inspiring charities and social enterprises who are working to support vulnerable people in need – and to challenge the conditions that put them there.

So, whatever the season means to you, of one faith or of none, charity does appear to talk to us all. We can all learning anew that in giving to others, we discover that we gain ourselves.

The fact that so many cards are sent, to raise funds for charities, so many Christmas appeals are made by newspapers – to help create some good news – is heart-warming.

In Sefton, the Venus Centre is collecting presents from local businesses for children who would miss out otherwise. In Smethwick, the Dorothy Parkes Centre is doing the same.

Small charities like this are engines of social participation and of wider voices. I recall Howard Glennister of the LSE saying that a distinctive advantage of charities is our ambiguity – that people who are service users become volunteers and trustees, that volunteers become staff and vice-versa.

I have had the privilege this year of seeing our contact with both Venus and Dorothy Parkes and with over a hundred and thirty or so more charities.

What a job I have. Pilotlight operates as a charity itself with a distinctive role, to allow people to give their skills and not just their money to good causes – working in the process with wonderful individuals, charities and businesses. My thanks to all of you, our trustees and our partners for your engagement over 2021.

I do see the challenges and scourges that communities face. I also see the stress and stretch that charity staff and volunteers experience. But, in their response, I also see the true potential of our society to be more inclusive.

We help people do more for their world. I sometimes think that if we could bottle hope, we could sell it on every corner.

Charities though are not just for Christmas.

We are here all year round. If we could just spill the goodwill of the seasonal break over 2022, the year ahead, then we would genuinely be creating new constituencies for social justice and new waves of the hope that is in need.

Tomorrow’s communities

Two ideas that have taken very different turns over the last forty years are the nation and the community. Nationalism has re-emerged as a potent force across Europe, quite a reverse from the post-war understanding of the need to limit nation states in order to keep the peace. Community, however, has been on the wane.

An infrastructure for and an understanding of community development that had been commonplace before has been allowed to erode. It is true that the call of localism has been heard over all that time, on grounds of sustainability and on grounds of participation and democracy. But this call can also be seen a retreating, rallying cry against more central forms of political and economic power and organisation – a process that Karl Polanyi, author of ‘The Great Transformation’ would call a ‘double movement’.

And yet even so, over that time there have also been extraordinary changes and examples of success for exactly the forms of community development that were being pushed to the margin.

This is the theme of a new book that I have contributed to, Tomorrow’s Communities – published by Policy Press and edited by Henry Tam – along with a range of distinguished practitioners and academics in the field.

In the opening chapter that I have co-written with my longtime friend and collaborator Pat Conaty, we explore the field of community economic development – the idea that local people can shape their own economic futures through their own endeavours.

The Western Isles in Scotland are an outstanding example. The Highlands and Islands Development Board under the distinguished economist Sir Kenneth Alexander after 1976 was the first UK state body to recognise the relevance of the community led approach, focusing on the needs of the Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan a-Staigh and Na h-Eileanan an Iar).

Conventional thinking had been that the islands were on the periphery of the periphery, distanced both from mainland Scotland and from wider Europe, so that what was needed was to connect up the island economies with a wider national economic agenda – in short, to reduce the pace of falling behind. Alexander saw it differently. He decentralised development support and planning and gave backing to community initiatives, including enterprises for service provision and cultural events and programmesdesigned to give confidence and identity to a region long seen as on the fringe.

Over time, the population outflow from the islands was stemmed and new initiatives gave life to the local economy, from the University of the Highlands & Islands through to community enterprises such as Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise Company. Community owned land has become commonplace, with pioneers such as the islanders of Eigg following the example of the Assynt crofters of northwest Sutherland who, in 1993, had jointly purchased the North Lochinver Estate. The Isle of Eigg was purchased by the community from a private landowner in 1997. I remember talking at an event to raise the capital, organised by the inspiring Alastair Macintosh.

Before this, the islanders had little say in how the island was run, but after the purchase, efforts were made to attract newcomers, to improve the housing stock, to encourage enterprise and to invest in renewable energy, for security of supply, lower costs and energy efficiency.

Compared to a decrease in the Scottish islands’ population over the ten years to 2001, the number of islanders grew by 4% between 2001 and 2011. Since then (the time of the ten-year Scottish Census), evidence points to further population growth and the reason, according to one workshop set up to explore this in 2019 is a policy framework that is “founded on community ownership of the development process.”

Today, half the land mass across the Western Isles is now under the control of residents – and some three quarters of people live on community owned tracts, where they have a say in the running of the estate. More widely across Scotland, there has been a tenfold increase in community groups owning assets over the last decade.

This has been helped by a progressive policy environment in the form of Community Right to Buy legislation and financial support through the Scottish Land Fund. Even so, of the 209,810 hectares of land in total across Scotland that is now in community ownership, the largest proportion of this land (70%) is located in the Western Isles.

More widely, Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, which are home to less than 10% of the country’s population, account for 22% of its social enterprises. Uist and Lewis were recognised earlier this year by Social Enterprise Scotland as among the most successful in the country.

A second example of the transformation that community development can bring is the Meadow Well estate in Tyneside. In the book, Pat and I write about the experiences of the area in the 1980s and the inspiring work of the community development pioneer Tony Gibson.

More recently, Pilotlight has been working to support the community organisation, the charity Meadow Well Connected, which emerged from those struggles and under the leadership of Mandi Cresswell and the trustees, provides a range of key services, from a local cafe through to a joinery workshop, specialist alcohol support and an after-school club to a bustling community.

The team at Meadow Well Connected

You can see a drone camera flight over the area on the website of Meadow Well Connected. It captures the area, the building but while you have a sense of the whole area from it and a sense of its identity, the people that make a difference, that make it a community, are hard to distinguish.

Tomorrow’s Communities is a great collection of stories, data and evidence on the power of these people. It demonstrates that we do know how to harness such community action – it is both a science with knowledge and expertise and an art that requires patience and participation. The ‘community economies’ that result are diverse, for sure. But arguably such diversity is an asset in the post-pandemic and climate stressed times ahead.

Over time, community development remains one of the most effective and sustainable ways to improve lives and promote well-being.

We need to reassert the case for tomorrow’s communities.

Communities that are more sustainable fared better over the pandemic

One of the most profound thinkers on community development is John Turner, now retired on the South coast of England, whose work on housing in Latin America and India turned conventional wisdom on its head.

“What they thought was the solution (slum clearance) turned out to be the problem” he told me many years ago “and what they thought was the problem (informal settlements) turned out to be the solution.

I was reminded of John’s words when chairing a session earlier this Summer for researchers on rural development across the world, Regions in Recovery Global e-festival organised by the Regional Studies Association.

For years, rural areas have been seen as a problem in terms of economic development. Policy at national and European levels characterise rural areas as ‘peripheral’ regions that are backward and needing to catch up with the centre. Across the OECD, rural regions account for 80% of the land mass and are home to 30% of the population. The challenges are characterised as scattered people, population decline, poor access, distance from markets and low diversity.

But how have these peripheral areas fared under COVID-19?

A team of researchers across a range of European countries, including Scotland, Ireland, Finland, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada came together to examine this, funded by the (European) Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme. Appropriately, many of the researchers were bringing their own lived experience to bear and the research was coordinated from the Outer Hebrides by CoDel, Community Development Lens. 

The research findings were that rural areas were both advanced in terms of their sustainability, but also organised and effective in terms of responding to challenges, with more positive health and economic outcomes.

  • Cohesive communities and responsive local governance found local solutions, for example to implement test and trace systems effectively, to shut down community transmission swiftly and to vaccinate local populations rapidly. 
  • There had been extensive community engagement and participation, volunteering and generosity expressed in practical action to help the most vulnerable.
  • Over half of the entrepreneurs surveyed, consider that COVID-19 brought about new business opportunities.

The presenters of the research included Mads Randbøll Wolff who has been a leader in rural sustainable development, new Nordic food and bioeconomy action in Denmark and Liam Glynn, Professor of General Practice, School of Medicine, University of Limerick. Liam helped to lead the inspiring community campaign, ‘no doctor, no village’ and is Chair of the organising committee for the next World Rural Health Conference in June 2022.

As a practising GP alongside his academic research, Liam concluded that “the resilience shown by rural and remote communities during Covid-19 has been a testament to the inherent engagement, cohesiveness and flexibility of these communities.  The pandemic has generated a renewed vigour in re-imagining life on the periphery as a very attractive place for people and businesses to come, work and live.”

Theona Morrison of CoDel suggested that the the social and economic infrastructure of voluntary organisations, social and community enterprises have proved critical for island and rural communities during Covid. And her colleague Thomas Fisher, stressed that “this builds on 40 years of practice among island communities such as Uist in delivering to community needs, building community wealth, and developing our islands as attractive places to live and work.”

This includes efforts around culture and participation, such as this wonderful poster coming out of a Scottish Rural Parliament.

Perhaps in recognition of this, earlier this year, Uist and Lewis were named as Social Enterprise Place award winners by Social Enterprise Scotland. As Thomas says “at last our island communities are being more fully recognised for their dynamism, enterprise and resilience.” Things are starting to change.

Similarly Patrick Krouse, CEO of the Scottish Crofting Federation commented in the research that “I really do believe that crofting, and rural and island, are coming into their own. I have noticed that policy makers are looking at crofting a lot more as a way forward, rather than an anachronism, as they used to.”

At the heart of this is a recognition that many rural communities are at the forefront of the shift towards a more sustainable economy, using natural resources with care, encouraging a diverse micro-enterprise base and recognising the scope for community action and ownership.

Covid-19 has also shifted how people view the attractiveness of rural living. There are signs of people leaving cities and buying properties in rural areas and islands. Ironically, of course, this in turn can lead to tensions around housing, with some concerns of a new ‘economic clearance’ if local people are priced out and forced out of their own communities.

As John Turner might conclude, with a wry smile, the problem has again become the solution. The rural, the sustainable, has become the place to watch.

What did you do during the pandemic? The inspiring story of one food bank in Liverpool

As the next faltering step passes on the roadmap to a life after pandemic, we can start to imagine the question “what did you do during the pandemic?”

Kevin Peacock has an answer and it is an extraordinary one. He is CEO of St. Andrews Community Network, a charity caught up in the heart of action around the COVID-19 pandemic and one that at Pilotlight we have been working to support, indeed throughout the pandemic.

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Kevin describes how this started on a date etched in his memory – Saturday March 14th 2020. “Those days are etched in our brains now as important to us, the early days of the pandemic. We would have been getting ready to collect food at home games for either Liverpool and Everton around twenty five per cent of the food we collect came from games at the two clubs. Instead, football was cancelled under government orders and we were meeting to discuss that as we wouldn’t be able to collect food in the same way.”

“Our local MP had been in a parliamentary briefing. He advised that the restrictions wouldn’t be short term, wouldn’t be over quickly, so we needed a plan. So that morning, we sat down and we made a plan.”

St. Andrews Community Network is a small charity which originates from a church project. It coordinates North Liverpool Food Bank, connected to the national Trussell Trust, which is a network of eleven churches and community organisations delivering food, with around 400 agencies distributing vouchers that refer people into the food bank. The charity also provides financial and debt advice, regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. At the start of the pandemic, they had around 200 people help out as volunteers.

“The plan that we made on that same Saturday” says Kevin “and evolved as we went through was to switch our donations base as we knew that people wouldn’t be going to supermarkets, to be able to drop off at our door or collect at football matches. So, working with our friends at Fans Supporting Foodbanks, we published instead options for people to give to us financially. By the end of that first Saturday, we had raised £8,000. People were incredibly generous. Over the twelve months, we have raised £180,000, just by inviting people to give what they would normally have given in food.”

“We also recognised that our normal distribution systems wouldn’t work in the pandemic. People would normally come to the food bank, sit and have a cup of tea, gather their food and take it away in person. So we moved to an online voucher issuing system, we pre-packed all our food, commandeered some community centres and put our volunteers to work to do this. We put out a call for help in April and by the end of the month, we had another two hundred people to add to our midst.”

“We also contacted all of the people we were supporting with money advice. In general, things were quieter for them, because they couldn’t see face to face advisors and equally creditors couldn’t chase them in person for repayment. We still needed to make sure that we were contacting people.”

The big change for Kevin and the team was that the charity became a core part of the emergency response in the city. To begin with, the city council and other partners struggled to adapt, to respond even as people were short of food and queueing in supermarkets. Kevin was able to say that the charity had been doing this for years. And he made a simple offer “how can we help?” Some of the help was about clear thinking – who needs food, why do they need food and how do we get to them. And some was very practical help. The charity had foodstocks, vans, volunteers. It could do what was needed in terms of legwork on the ground.

“Because we acted with generosity in those early days”, says Kevin, “We have adopted a role which was unexpected for us, which is much more strategic.” Kevin has been on the City Council’s COVID Recovery Group and now chairs a Food Insecurity group, to make sure that what happen to people without food in those early stages doesn’t happen again.

One of the results was a rapid growth in the charity itself as it stepped up its services in collaboration with others in the city – growth in demand, services and donations.

“We have grown from an organisation that would ordinarily normally turn over £300,000 to just over one million this year, so huge financial growth. We have added seven staff over the period of the year, four since January to focus on debt advice and benefits advice post COVID recovery.”

In this context, the support from Pilotlight was perfectly weighted. “The thing that I really valued about our Pilotlight involvement over this period was focusing on mission. So, yes OK grow, but don’t become distracted by the things you weren’t there to do originally and focus on the people you were there to serve. Growing and staying focused on mission is quite a challenge, but we have done it.”

Cutting across all of Kevin’s story is incredible staff and volunteer dedication. “We very early on stated that COVID safety trumped everything – we gave people the choice to opt in or opt out. By and large most people opted to stay involved. This kind of empowerment and choice really stood us in good stead through the pandemic. Many of our people, staff in particular, have worked outside of job descriptions for an extended period of time in order to make happen what we needed to make happen.”

An example is one of the charity’s debt advisers, who is a retired fireman. Having done some health and safety training, he quickly became a guru at COVID safety, to the extent that the materials that he wrote around risk assessments became adopted by Public Health Liverpool as best practice for other to adopt. “We were acting beyond our authority” explains Kevin “but based on something that was quite instinctive and reactive for us”.

The way that staff and volunteers acted was no accident. “We already had a culture of responsibility” says Kevin. Throughout the process, the charity ran on open, participatory lines, giving responsibility to staff and asking questions like ‘what do you think?’ and ‘how are we going to deal with this?’. This approach allowed staff and volunteers to share their concerns and worries as well as generating mature conversations around how to get things done rapidly at a time of risk and uncertainty.

In return, Kevin and the trustees focused in on the little things that make a difference in terms of people’s well-being. “We have periodically offered £50 wellbeing pick me ups, no questions asked” comments Kevin. One staff member bought garden furniture, another a painting by numbers kit. It was what was needed.  Staff went round to the house of a staff member had been furloughed, to leave a birthday cake on his doorstep. “He had felt bad about being on furlough as he had to stay indoors,” said Kevin. “We made him feel part of the team and he really valued that.”

Generosity is a value that Kevin stresses. “Whenever we have come up with an idea, or had a plan, we have shared it with others. We have not kept it to ourselves. Our risk assessments for example have been used by multiple charities across the city. With our food stocks, we were sharing and passing food between people, genuinely working in partnership with others, giving away where needed because we realised that to come through this pandemic, we needed a joint and collaborative approach. We were really generous all the way through and I am really proud of that” he concludes.

“One of the reflections from our Pilotlighters which I really valued” he continued “is that we could be agile in a way that other organisations couldn’t easily be. I could get people together to say OK what are we going to do about this and then things would happen.” This was being clear as a leader, but not being dictatorial, instead finding ways to talk things through, to consult and then to get to decisions and move to take action at speed and as a team.

That first weekend in March 2020 set the tone. “We met on a Saturday morning, set a funding platform set up and had donations in by 7pm in the evening.”

What did Kevin and his colleagues and neighbours in the St. Andrews Community Network do during the pandemic? They provided lifeline services to people in Liverpool at a time of extreme vulnerability. And they did so at the right speed, acting as fast as the crisis itself was unfolding.

Morgan Stanley Strategy Challenge – teams competing for the joy of social change

Can social change be joyful? Well, I have now had my first encounter with one key initiative here at Pilotlight that shows how.

Strategy Challenge is a pro bono programme run by Morgan Stanley, with support in the UK from the team here at Pilotlight. This year was the seventh annual Strategy Challenge in London (it has run in New York since 2009).

Our colleagues have worked with a wonderful set of talented colleagues from the bank, supporting them to collaborate together in teams to help six charities on the challenges that they face. Drawn with different skills and from different parts of the bank, the employee teams work together with the charity they are supporting over nine weeks to come up with creative solutions and actions. Everyone comes together to present and report back – with one of the teams selected as the year’s winner. It is co-operation, it is a competition and it is all for a cause.

The challenges set for the teams are practical and pressing. Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity want to know how to improve their support for parents and families through a more strategic approach to their property assets. Every day 619 children and young people arrive from across the UK at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

The Felix Project asked for a delivery model for their new East London depot, to address hunger in the area – over 1.5 million people in London now are reported to be at risk in terms of their food insecurity. The City Year UK social enterprise, which places coaches into schools to help pupils from disadvantaged communities, asked if it should expand to more cities, and if so how. The health volunteering charity Helpforce, just four years old and supporting around 10,000 volunteers, wants to identify the most effective business model for it to succeed over time.

Barnardo’s asked the Morgan Stanley team for support in researching, developing and promoting a new product suitable for its potential market of 18 million UK families.

Perhaps the most remarkable – and uplifting – story of a charity facing challenges is NHS Charities Together. The charity was formed in 2008 as a collaborative alliance of health charities and was at the helm of the COVID-19 Appeal launched in 2020, which raised over £100m in just six weeks. Led by Ellie Orton, the charity had gone in twelve months, from a turnover of £400,000 to one of £150m and from 100 member charities to 241, with the staff growing from four to twenty two. 

The team supporting City Year UK received the prize for outstanding work, but there was overwhelming agreement that all teams delivered incredibly valuable outputs to the six charity partners.  As Mark Curtin, CEO at The Felix Project said “in my twenty year career in the sector, this is by far the most valuable pro bono programme I have ever benefited from.”

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The Morgan Stanley headquarters in Times Square, New York lit up to celebrate the 2021 UK Strategy Challenge Winner

It was a joyful event and to convey and share the sense of this, here are some quotes that I took from people contributing to the day:

Ellie Orton, CEO NHS Charities Together

“This has made a huge difference to our organisation, the consultation has been invaluable. The balance of tactical and practical inputs and solutions is perfect. I often describe us as flying the plane whilst still building it. The team understood the human factors of our organisation and the emotional well-being of our team. They have empowered us to make the business case for the changes we need to make. Thank you to Morgan Stanley and Pilotlight. For us, for me, the timing could not have been more impactful. It will make a real difference to how our organisation is shaped and grows in future.”

Kevin Munday, CEO City Year

“You have answered the question, done a thorough review of what we do. From September we can target more schools and help more young people. On your approach, you got to know us and became part of our team. You worked in a way that skilled us up. You have provided us with practical tools not just ideas. I have experienced many pro-bono projects in my time – one management consulting firm left us with a long slide deck but a year later there was nothing to show for it – and this is by far the best.”

Mark Lever, CEO of Helpforce

“We are a small team with only 11 staff, this work has massively impacted our ability to review and respond to our challenges. You have helped us to see how we can leverage our small team and contacts to have a huge impact. We saw a diverse range of charities and challenges and superb impact from Morgan Stanley for the sector, expertly supported by Pilotlight. Thanks so much.”

The benefit to the charities was tangible, but the Strategy Challenge was clearly also important to those who took part with such commitment for the teamwork and learning that they took away. As one said with joy at the close “we have seen our firm’s core values played out in what we have done.”

What have we learned from online volunteering during the lockdown?

This has been a year of experiment, and it is natural to reflect on what we have all learned and what we should take with us in future, rather than simply reverting to what we did before. These thoughts below come out of our work at Pilotlight and focus on the shift of our work from face to face to remote volunteering online.

For me, I learn first through doing and second through conversation, so I would warmly welcome hearing of your experience and your thoughts.

Pilotlight is a charitable social enterprise that curates pro bono volunteering programmes in support of charities across the UK, drawing in over six hundred senior volunteers from business (we call ‘Pilotlighters’) and using their skills to provide organisation development support free for small charities.

Because our services are about relationships, we could and did move it all online. And we kept a close tab on this all through a systematic approach to impact assessment, sensing and adapting as we went along.

Looking at the impact data for 2020 as a whole, we can see that the move to virtual delivery, from face to face before, was as successful as before in terms of the direct outcomes for charities and the experience of volunteers. But it was also less effective for some indirect, relationship and network benefits to volunteers and to the charity leaders that they are supporting.

The levels of satisfaction with the Pilotlight Programme were very high, in line with ratings before for 2019 (see chart 1). Charity leaders were particularly positive about the way in which Pilotlight had managed the move to virtual delivery and the skill of the project manager in ‘re-calibrating’ project aims where necessary.

Chart 1: satisfaction with Pilotlight Programme 2020 and 2019 (out of 5)

“Pilotlight pivoted on the spot and did not miss a beat but smoothly moving things online.”

However, in terms of indirect benefits, the percent of charity CEOs saying that their involvement had increased their professional networks was significantly down from 98% in 2019 to just 50% in 2020 – an indicator of the increased challenge to relationship building in a virtual environment.

“The process was great, the only reason that it didn’t exceed my expectations was due to the pandemic and the restriction that it placed on human contact. I do believe that the connection would have been far stronger earlier on if we had have been able to meet in person.”

“The more stilted nature of zoom engagement meant that the relationship building took longer than would have been the case with more face-to-face interaction.”

Similarly, the percent of charity leaders saying that their involvement had increased their career development was down from 68% to 50% – even if this is not surprising, perhaps, in the context of an economic crisis threatening jobs in the sector.

For the Pilotlighters, 96% felt their involvement with Pilotlight had increased their understanding of other perspectives, 91% felt it had increased the awareness of different leadership styles and 79% felt it had increased their personal wellbeing.

Mirroring the findings on impact on charity leaders, there was a fall in the percent of Pilotlighters working in a corporate setting who see their involvement as benefiting their career development (down from 81% to 66%) and professional networks (down from 89% to 73%).

Many of our Pilotlighters are or go on to become trustees on their journey into social engagement. For charities looking to attract people to these roles, there is a great new resource published today – The Trustee Recruitment Cycle.

Produced in collaboration with Getting on Board, Association of Chairs and Small Charities Coalition, this resource provides practical help and inspiration to charities to recruit openly and inclusively – from an initial dialogue about board composition through to evaluation of the process. Equity, diversity and inclusion are embedded through every stage of the cycle, with tips, tools and insights from other charities.

Charity Commission research shows that over 70 per cent of boards still recruit their trustees informally, using their own networks. As a result, boards often lack diversity and skills in key areas like lived experience, marketing and digital.

We are still collecting impact data and feedback ourselves, so these are interim findings for an age of social distancing. Over the Summer, around our annual event on June 1st, on the theme of The Power of Charity, we will publish our overall Impact Report, as feedback and a tool for learning and accountability for our members and partners.

Now, more than ever, we need to know what works.

Is it just me or are some things shifting for the better?

The Mayo family always looks for silver linings. It is not a great tendency, because at times, we just avoid hard truths, swerving away in the hope that something positive might emerge. But it is an ingrained habit.

So naturally I was pleased to see this finding from a new Demos report from its Renew Normal Commission on Life After COVID:

“On every issue we researched, from finance to friendships, healthcare to hunger – some people’s lives got better, and others got worse. But on average: things got worse. On almost every topic more people said life had got harder, with only two exceptions: connection to community, and connection to family. While mutual aid groups were established in streets and estates across the country, and community organisations mobilised to look after millions of vulnerable people, it is clear that community organising was not a universal experience. And yet, where it did happen, it was one of the few sources of hope and optimism in an extraordinary year.”

These connections to community and family translate into a practical, personal sense of well-being. Around three million people who had nobody at all before to turn to for help, now feel that they do.

The Demos research did not, as far as I know, ask about our connection to nature – that would have been interesting too. But, again positively, green space did top their poll of issues that have become more important as a result of the pandemic

I am told that whenever crisis, war or disaster has hit over the last century, around three or four out of five people volunteer to help. It is who we are. Polling from King’s College back in April 2020 found that 60% of people had offered help to others, while 47% had received help from others.

A connection to community, of whatever form that takes, is the bedrock of social action and improvement. So is this something on which we can now build?

With my friend and colleague Pat Conaty, I worked with Tony Gibson on the Teviot Estate in East London twenty years ago and with him, we developed an early training course on community economic development. It was called Nutshell – one of Tony’s acronyms, which stood for ‘neighbourhood use of time, space, homes and environment for livelihood and leisure’. Rather than start with money (the conventional economic or philanthropic route), Tony guided us to start by matching local resources to local needs. Nutshell was the potential for great oaks in every tiny acorn, as if every seed has a dream.

Although there are programmes of work today on high streets and on the needs of market towns and coastal towns, the community component is an afterthought, at least in England.

One exception is the ten-year pilot programme, Big Local. In Plymouth, the Big Local community work over COVID has taken on a dreamer’s objective, that people know everyone’s names in their streets.

In the West End of Morecambe, Lancashire, their goal in this year of the virus is for the neighbourhood to smell better. 

Can we feel some slivers of hope emerging from all of this COVID shit?

Can we have a year of empathy?

What do you think comes next? After a torrid year of social and economic pain and inequalities, is it possible that we can see a great rebalancing, with a year of empathy?

I have always believed in the power of empathy – a willingness to connect with others – and its potential too, if we could only nurture the conditions for its encouragement.

I have suggested some actions to build empathy coming out of our work at Pilotlight.

Here are my five favourite authors and quotes on empathy:

1. “Without the capacity to put ourselves cognitively and emotionally in someone else’s shoes, to feel what they feel, to be interested in their fears and motives, longings, griefs, vanities, and other details of their existence, without this mixture of curiosity about and emotional identification with others, a combination that adds up to mutual understanding and sometimes even compassion, Homo sapiens would never have evolved at all.” Sarah Baffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others

2. “Society depends on a second invisible hand, one that reaches out to others.” Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy

3. “Empathy moves as a form of contagion, like a game of emotional tag.” Marc D. Hauser, Moral Minds

4. “People’s capacities for cooperation are far greater and more complex than institutions allow them to be.” Richard Sennett, Together

5. “If every human life, the species as a whole, and all other life-forms are entwined with one another and with the geochemistry of the planet in a rich and complex choreography that sustains life itself, then we are all dependent on and responsible for the health of the whole organism.” Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilisation

Let’s build this conversation and focus on what matters – the foundations for connection and social co-operation.

Dingwall: the town that is fighting back

Once the capital of its county Ross and Cromarty in the Scottish Highlands, Dingwall is a market town with a population of around 5,500 people – a number which has been in decline for years, with a struggling local economy and young people moving to Inverness and beyond. The local Edinburgh Woollen Mill shops have closed and jobs are scarce. One Tesco store is the largest private sector employer and there are few facilities for any visitors who might want to stay.

The town’s isolation is in part a by-product of regional transport planning. When the town was effectively by-passed by the Cromarty Bridge and Kessock Bridge, shops, jobs and businesses gravitated to Inverness, now within easier reach.

The town is full of life once a fortnight when Ross County, the football team lying ninth in the Scottish Premier League, play at home at Victoria Park (officially the Global Energy Stadium after the naming rights were sold for corporate sponsorship years ago). There is pride in the club and the population of the town doubles for a couple of hours, but the swarm does little for the local economy in between.

Blueprint from the work of John Pearce and Scotland’s pioneering community business sector

But the town has dreamers, and they banded together five years ago to form a co-operative whisky distillery, Glenwyvis, community owned, using renewable energy and barley from local farmers.

The last distillery in the town closed a century ago, bringing to an end a long tradition of whisky production. Dingwall was home of Robert Burns’ favourite tipple and when the town’s Ferintosh distillery closed, the poet was moved to declare:

Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost! Scotland lament frae coast to coast!”

When I was working at Co-ops UK, we published an uplifting short video shot by Blake House Media Co-op on the early years of the new distillery.

I caught up with their more recent efforts when speaking to Josh from Glenwyvis in advance of a lecture I have given recently as CEO of Pilotlight in honour of the great Scottish co-operator and social entrepreneur John Pearce – hosted by Professor Cam Donaldson and the wonderful Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health at Glasgow Caledonian University.

They power their operations using wind, hydro, solar and biomass energy. The co-op has raised funds for its work from a series of community share issues, bringing in three and a half thousand people as members to put up £2.6 million between them to invest in something that they could believe in.

While the distillery takes shape, they have been grappling with madcap local planning catch-22s that stimy their hopes to attract visitors to the distillery. The tours they plan are all for 11am, timed to release those who come to eat out locally afterwards. Their ambitions are not limited to whisky as they want to turn around the fortunes of Dingwall by attracting in tourists and developing local services to meet the needs of locals and visitors alike.

During the lockdown, they have run virtual tours of the distillery, as a taster as it were. Casks have been a good seller, with people buying them as investments and Glenwyvis is selling bottles now of their inaugural malt, for delivery by Christmas 2021.

You can join me as one of those who will open a bottle in twelve months, but you will have to be fast before this first run is all sold. We are promised “a light, balanced oak influence with fruity maltiness and a little dessert richness.”

You may just taste the community spirit too? Glenwyvis is creating a community charity for local social action, to benefit from a cut on each sale.

Or you can opt for their GoodWill Gin, a Highland premium craft product with locally picked Hawthorn berries… and available this Christmas.

“So many distilleries in Scotland are owned by huge multinational corporations and, although the whisky industry is fantastic for Scotland, a lot of the wealth is taken out,” says Cait Gillespie, local historian for Dingwall.

The tools of a co-op and a community charity, a focus for our support at Pilotlight (see for example this post – does it have to be business or charity?) are a device for dreams: for bridging the present and a possible future.

The members and their supporters have a long way to go, but as I explain in the John Pearce Memorial Lecture they are using the tools of community economic development to make that journey.

They are helping to regenerate a town which the economy has left behind. With the economic headwinds ahead, this is a story that we can all take heart from.


The 2020 John Pearce Memorial Lecture – The Power of Dreams: community economic development after the virus – is now freely available to view online.