It’s time to admit, there is no miracle cure


We love what we do in the sector. We’re rightly proud of what we do and are generally happy to evangelize about our successes. Who wouldn’t want to extol the virtues of our particular approach and the difference it makes? [I should point out that this is not the same as being good at quantifying the value of what we do, where the not for profit sector is sometimes pretty weak.]


However, spend a few minutes listening to someone from the not for profit sector talking about their way of doing things and you could be forgiven for coming away with a fairly warped perspective of the world.


For over 15 years I’ve worked with a range of participatory tools and community-led approaches that can, and have, made a difference to the lives of marginalised and deprived communities. They range from Speakouts for homeless people and Timebanks, to credit unions and Community Led Planning. All have their benefits and can be used to make a huge difference in communities. For as long as I’ve been working with these approaches, people have been quick to ask me to ‘give them the tools’. My response has always been to resist and to focus instead on the principles that underpin participation and inclusive and empowering community-led activity.


I’ve seen too many people use tools in inappropriate situations – becoming too interested in usig a particular tool than in assessing its suitability for a particular situation. I’ve trotted out the phrase ‘when the only tool you have in your toolbox is a hammer, it’s funny how everything looks like a nail’ too many times than I care to remember.

There are two mutually reinforcing problems here. The first is that we are too often drawn to the shiny and new methods without really stopping to think about how they work, when they are suitable to use and what we are attempting to achieve through them. We move from one exciting trendy new approach to another far too blithely (and I’m as guilty as the next person of this – and so too, in a big big way, is government….remember Community Empowerment Networks?).


The second problem is that within the not for profit sector and in particular the field of social innovation, we are not honest enough about the limits of our preferred approaches. There are understandable reasons for this, in particular the need to secure investment or to attract people who will adopt and apply it. But the fact is we are too ready to talk about particular tools or methods as if they were a panacea for local communities – something that can be universally applied in precisely the same manner wherever we go. Everyone loves to say how ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ but we then go on to act precisely as if it does.

Even for approaches that could be universally useful, they won’t be done in quite the same way from place to place and group to group. In fact, part of the beauty of community-led activity and participatory tools are the way they can be tweaked, altered, refined and improved to meet the very particular local circumstances and needs.




Urban Forum has just published a new Community Guide to resilience – with information on over 20 different approaches and methods that communities can use to make their communities stronger, and better equipped to withstand external shock. No one of these is a miracle cure. None of them are a panacea. But all of them are things that might be right for a particular community’s needs and aspirations. Our desire, in bringing these different approaches together into one place, was to encourage a more holistic approach to regeneration and tackling deprivation. There’s enough silo working in the public sector, the last thing we need is to replicate this in the voluntary and community sector too.

Urban Forum are not claiming to be the experts in these different approaches – in fact we did not write most of the Guide’s text, we approached the expert practitioners of these approaches and asked them to write it for us. What we do know however is that circumstances vary greatly – needs, ambitions, skills, interests and capacity all vary from community to community.

What local people need is an honest appraisal of the respective merits and allowable weaknesses of a particular approach in order to assess whether it’s right for them or not.

It’s time we admitted more openly that there is no miracle cure, however attracted to the latest shiny idea we might be.


One thought on “It’s time to admit, there is no miracle cure

  1. Hi TobyThis is a helpful reflection, and I really like Urban Forum’s community guide to resilience. I think that as well as shiny and new tools being attractive of themselves for people who like to try new things, as a sector we’ve been subjected to funders who generated a demand for ‘innovative’ projects and activities. So over the last 15 years (maybe more) we have included shiny new tools in funding bids, because many funders wouldn’t go for activity that was pure and basic community development, seeking to build on what is there and challenge structures, behaviours and people which maintain inequity.And as you say, care is needed to ensure a given tool is appropriate in a given circumstance. One of the key things I learned 3 or so years in to working with communities was that Planning for Real (at the time a shiny tool) is pretty pointless unless the most senior decision-makers in the area you’re using it a signed up to it and have a pretty hefty budget behind it. Much as we celebrated the outcomes for tenants and residents that we involved in a 2 year process using Planning for Real, the desires of those people for the areas they live in remain undelivered, written up in reports that have been collecting dust for over 10 years. Waving the reports around in frustration didn’t make a jot of difference, the middle-managers who had applied for the funding and managed the project simply didn’t have the sign-up of senior officers, and weren’t honest with tenants that the only way to achieve what was wanted was to vote yes to transferring housing stock (which they didn’t). So I’m never surprised when local people are not impressed at the offer of a shiny new tool – they know that the tool is unlikely to alter power dynamics or bring resources to improve the place they live in.

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