Why community groups are more energy waves than organisational matter

The recent workshop we held on People Powered Change with Big Lottery Fund gave me a chance of catch up with Eileen Conn, and talk more about why the conventional distinction between top-down services (government, public agencies) and bottom-up voluntary and community action isn’t a good enough way of viewing the world. Instead of thinking how they might just join up, we need to work on how they might dance together.

We also need to consider more deeply how to nurture small groups … and that may not be just by giving grants that are challenging to manage. Eileen suggests that one other way BIG might best help is through indirect support for “back office” services, provided by large local organisations for smaller ones.

I chatted previously with Eileen at the Beyond the Radar workshop in July, which explored how community groups (often not officially recognised) could be better supported, and make their voices heard. As you can see, Eileen is a little unusual in being a community activist, in south London, who also worked for many years in Government, and has developed theoretical and practical work on social dynamics and complex living systems.

Eileen suggests we should consider the distinction in physics between matter and energy waves – where organisations with staff are the matter, and informal groups are more like energy. Drawing on complexity theory, Eileen suggests thinking about a “social eco-system dance” in which some relationships are primarily vertical hierarchical, and others horizontal peer-to-peer. That may be more useful than bottom-up and top-down.

Challenging stuff – but I think Eileen puts it across with great clarity in the brief interview I did at the workshop. You can find a more detailed explanation in this paper for the Third Sector Research Centre.

In the interview Eileen says that between half and three quarters of civic activity is not countable – it is below the radar. That’s not just because the activities are small, but because they are different. It’s a bit like physicists spending years looking for the smallest piece of matter, then finding it is better seen as energy waves.

In the community we look for small groups and expect them to operate like bigger organisations who have paid staff and vertical management systems drawn from the world of work. But in fact the small groups operate through the energy of person-to-person horizontal networking.

That doesn’t mean they don’t need support – but it is different. The professional voluntary sector works within a system of grants and contracts drawn from the world of work … and this doesn’t fit well with the horizontal systems of small groups where generally people are not employed.

The workshop was part of our exploration with BIG of how they can do more than operate as a funder. Eileen suggests supporting some pilot experiments in which local anchor organisations provide back office support tailored to the needs of small groups.

That prompts a further thought: if the vertical and horizontal system need to dance together, do we need a choreography? Strictly for community engagement …

I asked Eileen for a few paragraphs to back up the interview, which I have drawn on here.

“In this interview, Eileen Conn explained how small groups – which the Lottery might support – operate very differently from larger groups with paid staff, and how this affects the support that they might need. The distinction she draws between the world of organised work, which is like matter, and the horizontal peer world in communities like energy waves, is further explained in her recently published paper ‘Community Engagement in the Social Eco-System Dance’ , which can be downloaded from the TSRC website. Further link here.

Eileen has submitted short papers to two official enquiries using the model outlined in the paper:

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