Category Archives for "Feedback"

Relationships in Community and Marketplace

This post is a deeper  reflection on a comment  I received in a recent post about needs assessments.  A question raised was about my use of the word ‘client’ and the comment made the point we should be aiming for active citizens and not clients (who have things done to them).


Whilst this post will clarify terminology, there is an underlying issue about the types of relationships we build either in real life community organisations and marketplaces or online.

I want to challenge the idea of community.  It is a word that apparently has over 100 meanings and in my experience its use is generally misleading.

For example, I avoid using “community” when I mean a geographical area, preferring “neighbourhood”.  “Community” implies relationships within a neighbourhood and in my experience these are often ideals projected onto a neighbourhood.  These days I prefer to substitute “marketplace” for community.  A thriving marketplace is evidence of a strong community.  If there is no unstructured place where people can naturally meet, then it is difficult to see how there can be community.

Community arises from the interactions in a marketplace and does not existing independently of it.

Active Citizens

So, active citizens are  equally those found behind the stalls in a marketplace and those setting out their stall by offering products, services or leadership to further a cause.  Voluntary or charitable activity happens in marketplaces, if only because the market is where they find support.


Perhaps at the other extreme, there is the client.  The client has no direct voice in the delivery of the service they receive.  Usually clients are the beneficiaries of services financed from elsewhere.  Accountability is to the funding body or donors.  Clients may provide feedback but changes to the service must be agreed with the funding body.  Services for clients usually collapse when the funding runs out because the clients are not organised.

Customers and Consumers

Another word used to describe relationships is customer.  This word has suffered from right-wing rhetoric.  First, it is a better word than consumer, which implies the role is to consume and requires no relationship.  Any business person knows the difference.  A customer is a relationship built over time, and a customer will return and make more purchases because they trust the business.  Consumers make one-off purchases and then disappear.  Whilst their money might be welcome, there is no ongoing relationship.

I purchased a suite (sofa plus armchair) about 20 years ago.  I still receive mailings by post from the business who produced it.  I have never responded but at the least it means I remember their name and might recommend them to others.  Presumably some people do respond to their mailings.  They see me as a customer after all these years.


Another relationship important to businesses is the prospect.  These are people who have expressed interest but have not committed to a purchase.  They can support a business they like even if they never make a purchase, by spreading the word.  The aim though is to build a relationship and hope trust will lead to the prospect becoming a customer.

Customers and prospects have a say in the business.  Their needs (and wants) are important to the business and the best businesses will respond to them.  They develop new products and services in response to feedback from customers and prospects.  This is not the same as a client relationship because there is direct interaction.  Of course the business is not a democratic organisation.  The owners make their own decisions about the products and services they develop but they depend upon their customers and prospects to inform those decisions.


Another word I use is “consultor”.  This is a particular relationship between a consultant and their customer.  Some consultants treat their customers as clients.  They will always need feedback from them but they are there to deliver expertise their customer lacks.  For non-directive consultancy, however, the starting point is the consultor has the expertise.  The role of the consultant is to help them think through their problems.  Sometimes, for example, a problem has an emotional dimension and the consultor needs someone who is not emotionally involved to help them see things in a different light.

So, some of these are roles an active citizen might choose.  They might choose to be a prospect, customer or consultor, because they need to take part in something.  They are less likely to choose the role of client or consumer, although they are roles we might take on where nothing much is at stake.

Do you use other words to describe relationships?  Let me know in the comments.

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Institutional Development

A friend asked me to answer some questions to help him write an essay for his MSc in Development Management, “Why should development managers attempt to bring about institutional development?”  It’s quite likely I haven’t got a clue about institutional development but my response is below and he seems happy with it.  He will combine my reply with others and consider them for  part of  his essay.

The reason I’m reproducing my reply here is because I think it is relevant to the thread I’m writing about the nature of third sector organisations.  Whilst in my answer I refer to large organisations, perhaps it equally applies to small organisations that become bureaucratic.  What happens when small young organisations become institutionalised?

The headings are his questions:

1. What is an institution?

An organisation that is designed to be sustainable.  This means its continuation is not dependent on its leaders in the sense that when they leave there are always people available to step into their shoes.  This implies a high degree of bureaucracy.  The continuation of the organisation takes precedence over staff and clients’ needs.  Check out HMRC’s telephone helpline service if you don’t know what I mean.

2.  What is institutional development?

The big headache in institutional development is changing organisational culture.  It will tend to be highly stable and difficult to change.  I worked for an institution that had a complete change in top management at the same time.  Six managers left (were slung out actually) and were replaced by four new managers with new job descriptions.  This made no difference whatsoever to the institution and the new managers soon behaved in similar ways to the old ones.

3. What is the purpose of institutional development?

This rather depends on what you want to achieve.  A business may need to respond to its markets and can lose its way if the market changes and the institution can’t change with it.  HMV is an example of a business that had difficulty adapting to downloadable music and videos.  HMRC on the other hand does not need to change the way it does things as we’ll always need taxes.

4.  What activities does ‘doing’ institutional development involve?

Banging your head against a brick wall!  You’re not going to see rapid change.  Effective actions might take a long time to take effect and if the long time is longer than the lifespan of the person leading the change, then the policy might change before the previous policy had an effect.  Any proposed change is likely to be resisted.  Superficial changes can go through because they don’t touch the culture of the institution.

5.  What management skills does institutional development require?

Listening – to staff and especially junior staff rather than managers.  Many junior staff are likely to have been around for a long time and they understand how things work.  Many will have been around longer and understand more than the managers.

Listening to customers or clients – complaints and complements can be helpful and where appropriate good complaints procedures can help.  But also in-depth interviews with typical customers or clients might help.

Patience – it will be slow work!

So, what do you think?  Can small young organisations become institutionalised?

Needs Assessments and Audits

About 8 years ago I worked for the national office of the Methodist Church in the UK.  I was responsible for £1 million per year of grants for Methodist Churches and one of the issues was encouraging applicants to plan their work and think critically about their plans.  We designed our grant application forms to encourage applicants to tell their story and show they could deliver their objectives.  Needs assessments like this are common in grant applications.

So in 2006 we published a CD-Rom (remember those?) called “Building Confidence”.  These days it would be on a website and we did consider that as an option but decided that at the time many member churches did not have access to broadband.

The CD-Rom included a document called “The Hard Questions Workbook”.  The idea was you would attempt to answer its questions after you had designed your project.  It aimed to encourage project managers to take a step back and look critically at their plans before they applied for a grant.  I would have preferred to publish it on cheap paper like the old children’s dot-to-dot books.  Then a small group could have sat around and scribbled their ideas on it.  We were very excited by it in the office but I don’t remember anyone ever claiming to have used it!

Needs Assessment Questionnaires

Earlier this week I heard a story from an experienced web consultant who had struggled getting his clients to complete questionnaires for needs assessments or audits.  The questions switched them off and he was losing friends as a result!  This conversation was in the context of a massive new questionnaire a group of us are working on to help organisations design their websites for conversion.  This, supported by a team of consultants, will be a powerful tool if we can persuade clients to use it!

I too have a needs assessment questionnaire and have found it switches off my clients.  By off I mean really totally and completely off.  I mean so far off that I have not been able to gather any helpful information about what the problem actually is.  It seems people do not like being asked about their organisations.  They do not like having to think carefully about what they are doing.  Whilst I have no doubt at all this accounts for why so many websites and real life projects are a bit rubbish, I am at a loss to explain why there is such adamant resistance.

I love going deep into organisations and don’t find deep analysis at all threatening.  Experienced consultants can charge thousands of pounds because there are plenty of big businesses who understand the value of it.

Reasons Third Sector Organisations Reject Needs Assessments


  • don’t trust their consultant and / or are suspicious of consultancy in general
  • have emotional investment in their organisation and fear uncovering its faults
  • find such questionnaires daunting and don’t have the time to do it justice (they are daunting)
  • can’t cope with large quantities of potentially contradictory information
  • don’t see the relevance to website design and think they can sling any old things together without reference to their organisation’s purpose
  • reject the idea a website is an ongoing investment of time and money
  • don’t understand what they’ve taken on and so react against it when they encounter it

These are all guesses.  Maybe some apply in some cases and maybe there are other reasons I have not picked up.  What’s to be done?  What we have is a product few people want and many organisations need.  I think there are three things needed to help organisations take up this approach.  We need to

  • understand why in-depth questions about organisations are such a big turn-off (preferably not by use of a questionnaire)
  • design more accessible approaches that are fun to do, perhaps in a collaborative way (my dot-to-dot book approach might have performed better than the pdf on a CD-Rom)
  • market the idea more effectively so that organisations can choose to take it on when they are ready for it

Have you encountered similar problems?  If so leave a comment.  Thanks!

Grant Funding is No Long Term Solution

I’ve been taking part in an online conversation: “If more funding were available for your community; how would you like to see it spent?”  I replied:

I think this question is the wrong way round. We had £50 million spent in my community in Sheffield UK, over 10 years, with a final evaluation in Jan 2012. At the start we had a community forum and a community trust. The New Deal funding had some good revenue results but when the money ran out the partnership dissolved. The capital spend fell foul of the recession and so we have no legacy funding. The Trust and Forum have both collapsed. Other neighbourhoods in Sheffield with similar demographics have Forums and Trusts. If I were offered money for my community I would send it back and ask it is spent where communities come up with viable projects. And yes several of the replies above this one are concerned the most disadvantaged don’t get access to funding. I think that concern illustrates the problem with making money available in this way, it goes to groups that have plans but actually substitutes for mainstream funding. The partners left because they had to chase the next pot of funds. Despite what I’ve written I am optimistic because I think with the recession we’re going to need to re-think our approach to community development. Small businesses, including but not restricted to social enterprise are the solution, not government initiatives.

You can read the story of Burngreave New Deal for Communities here (scroll down to the first, published on 11 November 2013).  I wrote this passage on the fly about 3 months ago and perhaps my point could be clearer.  I’ve seen the cycle many times over the years; a group has an idea, gets funding, has no incentive to build anything sustainable, usually provides a valued service, then the money runs out and the funding body goes away chasing the latest innovation, project collapses, the people involved move on to another project, usually in a different neighbourhood.

A direct reply from Ken:


I have no solutions, just agree with you, and raise more questions.

My limited experience in the last couple of years leads me to agree wholeheartedly that grant funding is no long term solution to building the capacity of the community to determine its future. However it can prime the pump, and no doubt we’ll all keep trying.

Naive to think it but what about working firstly on the overlying problems in the UK of:

  1. Achieving consensus about the level of government services versus the reliance on an unprepared and under resources community.  There’s so far too little recognition of the need to fund and build sustainable not for profit organisations which take on more responsibility at local level. (Though Locality is doing a wonderful job to raise profile of the problem and find more solutions), and
  2. National leadership to act in the national interest and achieve stability for business and the community. Should we any longer accept a system that swings from left to right and back in a generation?

A good start might be the example of good leadership, and for the performance at Westminster at to be transformed into a serious play. Until our leaders in the UK set themselves a priority for stability, cooperation and a single vision, the future seems very bleak to me. (And I’ve always been and remain an optimist!).

Past generations emigrated when things looked better elsewhere, and I can only see that continuing.

Regards, Ken

To which I replied:

I agree there is a place for grants in terms of pump priming.  However, beware “pump priming” is a metaphor and we need to ask about the nature of the pump.  The problem in the UK is since the seventies community development has taken an anti-business road.  It is possible to be anti-capitalist without being anti-business but you wouldn’t know it.  Go back to the century from about 1850, and disadvantaged communities were highly creative through mutuals.  We’ve lost all that and the upshot is communities are forced to accept other people’s agendas through the grants industry.

We need to work out new ways to do business in the local economy.  If a local business has customers and can show it has a social purpose, then it might qualify for grants.  But what all small businesses need, whether or not they are mutuals is investments and they are much more valuable than grants.

We’ve experimented with working with local government as a part of the voluntary sector.  Local residents in a community group are not volunteers.  We need to change the mindsets of local activists to see local trade as one of things activists do.

Ken is right to say he has no solutions; no-one has solutions.  To find something new we need to understand the inadequacies of the old approach.  This blog aims to explore alternatives to grant-aided funding.  This is a desperately important debate, which never seems to get off the ground, presumably because so many projects experience grant dependency.

How effective are grants and what are the alternatives?

Asset-based Planning, Research and Negotiation

If you subscribe to this blog, you used to receive an email sequence about Real Community Development.  This Monday I referred to a model I use in the sequence, about three roles of community groups; representation, planning and delivery.  Mark Woodhead has responded to my email about planning (number 10 in the sequence).

You are quite right about different organisations having their own plans. However, they ought to be willing to take local residents’ plans seriously. I encourage local people to take approaches to developing their own plans that are participatory and empowering – approaches such as participatory appraisal/participatory learning and action, and Planning for Real. Yes, think about how you are going to present the plan, but also, at an earlier stage, think carefully about how you put the plan together, in a way that gives a voice to quiet/marginalised people and not just to people who are articulate or just plain loud. Tony Gibson, who invented Planning for Real, summed up such an approach in the words ‘eyes down, hands on, rubbing shoulders, a lot less big mouth’.

While there is some truth in saying ‘you won’t have a lot of money or assets compared with other partners’, it is nonetheless worth taking some time to think about or to discover what assets you do have in your neighbourhood, paying particular attention to such things as skills, local knowledge, experience, and networks. These are assets. Use them. Value them. See, for example, The Asset-based Community Development Institute.

Two Stages to Community Planning

There are always two stages to community planning. The local plan is a small part of it, although central to community development work.

  1. Each potential partner (local authority, NHS, police, businesses, etc) prepares their own plans. This must include local residents if they are to play a meaningful role in community planning.  This is a research stage and for local planning as Mark says it should include participatory methods. This means voices not normally heard are able to make their contribution.  If the local plan shows who has contributed, it has more credibility.
  2. In my email I dwell on the second negotiation stage. Here the various groups get together and work out an agreed community plan.

Take care you don’t confuse these stages.  Mark’s emphasis on stage one is important.  If it is under-resourced the chances are the local plan will lack credibility.  Other plans from the agencies are likely to cover a larger area, such as the local authority area. So they will not solely focus on the assets within the neighbourhood.  So, the plan can be promoted on the grounds that it has those assets.

But most people seem to use the word “assets” to mean buildings (which are often liabilities) and not the skills, experience,  knowledge and relationships of local residents.  So, you see a well researched local plan brings something of great value to the negotiations.

I would love to hear about your experiences developing this type of plan and especially if you used online resources to help with the research.  A major issue is exclusion of people who are not online.  How do you make sure this does not happen?