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14 December 2012 - press release

New research by the Third Sector Research Centre finds that learning and skills-development within small community groups has little to do with formal training, but more to do with learning from similar groups and social networks.

Research with ‘below the radar’ community groups, that have very low or no income and are volunteer-led, shows that people learn by ‘seeing and doing’. Groups were good at using social networks to identify and attract the skills they needed. They often learned by visiting other organisations that could teach them what they needed to know. Skills, such as fundraising, were often gained through trial and error, or by identifying someone in their social network with the appropriate skills.

Many community building or engagement initiatives have focused on formal training and systems. But community groups in TSRC’s research did not identify formal training as necessary to develop their skills, and often saw it as ‘patronising’ or ‘not useful’.

Relationships were key to accessing support. Relationships were largely built with individuals rather than organisations – whether in government departments, voluntary service councils or other groups.

Capacity building programmes have often assumed that community groups need specialist technical skills to flourish. But our research highlights the importance of interpersonal and transferrable skills gained from work or other experiences.

Angus McCabe from TSRC, who conducted the research, said ‘There has been significant investment in recent years in a range of community building and community engagement activities – from Change Up, Capacity Builders and Community Empowerment Networks under New Labour, to the Community Organisers programme funded by the current government. Many of these programmes are underpinned by the assumption that communities need ‘skilling-up’ to engage with policy or provide services. For small ‘below the radar’ groups, formal training and systems may not be the best way to do this. But we could think more about how networks that support and share learning within and between communities can be nurtured.’

Many of these programmes have tended to define community organisations as smaller formal voluntary groups with a few paid staff. Community groups and activities that operate ‘below the radar’ with very small incomes and no paid staff have not really been considered.

TSRC’s research involved interviews and focus groups with small, volunteer based community groups and activists. All of the groups involved had started ‘below the radar’ – but moved on to gain some kind of legal status. They had all become highly visible within their communities, and were arguably examples of successful community organisations.

For more information contact:

Naomi Landau, Knowledge Exchange Team 
020 7520 2421