Resourcing community-led initiatives
Resourcing of community-led initiatives usually depends on a combination of monetary and non-monetary inputs, with voluntary labour key among the latter. Specific CLIs adopt a range of strategies, from minimal or low reliance on monetary resources to entrepreneurial approaches where CLIs, or key projects within them, operate as forms of social, solidarity and/or regenerative enterprises. All approaches raise pervasive dilemmas, on which different CLIs adopt diverse positions.
Although operating on a ‘not-for-profit’ basis, and in many cases predominantly relying on non-monetary resources, CLIs do need to cover expenses associated with their activities and ensure they are financially sustainable. In a survey of the financial performance of CLIs undertaken in the TESS project, the majority of initiatives (76.19%) reported that they had managed to cover their costs during 2014, compared with 23.81% who did not. Of those who reported they had covered their costs, more than half held a financial surplus, while a third did not.
CLIs investigated in the TESS, ARTS and PATHWAYS projects approach income generation in diverse ways. Most report difficulties in accessing public funding, and financial stability to rely extensively on contributions from members, including keeping costs down through voluntary labour . According to TESS report:
- 41.0% of the CLIs reported that they rely on internal sources of revenue, usually in the form of fees, subscriptions and membership charges;
- 31.7% reported that they charge annual fees;
- 17.5% that they charge membership fees;
- 12.7% that they ask for additional contributions from members;
- 46% reported that they did not request any financial contribution from members;
- 27.5% reported reliance on external sources, including cash donations, inheritances and the like, along with sales of good and services.
Of 20 networks documented in the TRANSIT research project, most reported membership fees to be a source of income. Other funding sources reported included private donations, project-based grants and/or subsidies, governmental and/or intergovernmental funding, sales of products and services and revenues generated through events. For some networks, revenue generation is integrated into the work of their member initiatives (e.g. rental for co-housing projects, banking and financial services for credit unions.
These projects reported mixed findings concerning the relationship between ability to raise external funding in order to secure financial sustainability and other measures of success. Economic success was often achieved at the cost of becoming less responsive to the needs of the local community. In addition, reliance on grant funding from whatever source in many cases led to grant dependency, making projects and initiatives vulnerable to withdrawal of funding, change in funders' requirements, interference from investors and the effects of policy constraints. Many TESS case study initiatives reliant on financial or in-kind contributions from participants and/or community members noted that this increases their accountability, as those contributing this way wish to know the organisation is effective in accomplishing its goals.
In a 2013 survey of Transition initiatives 60% of respondents said they actively raised funds. Those doing so did this in one or more of the following ways: grant applications, lotteries, public or private sponsorship, fundraising events, or the sale of self-produced goods. 49 initiatives reported that they received external funding from local authorities, 46 through donations and sponsorships, and 35 through fundraising through events and sale of self-produced products. Those without external funds usually reported a reliance on voluntary donations from members.
CLIs studied in the TESS project consistently reported a preference for income-generating projects over grant-based funding. Some reported a clash between the time and effort required for fundraising and associated administration and delivery of their core work; some Romanian initiatives resolved this by deciding against pursuing funding for projects. Others for whom project-based funding is an important revenue stream, especially in Scotland, Spain and Finland, experienced tensions between the high levels of technical planning necessary to deliver tangible outcomes and the ongoing engagement necessary to remain responsive to more general community needs. Some CLIs, especially in Italy, seek to avoid use of money altogther in favour of free, solidarity-based access to services, in order to maximise inclusion, particularly of economically disadvantaged people.
While many CLIs rely on grant funding, or express an interest in accessing it, actual experiences of receiving funding are mixed. This is true both in terms of the experience of individual CLIs, and at the level of the funding programme.
Reviews of several major government schemes to make grant funding available to community groups suggest that demands arising from the programmes' internal monitoring and evaluation measures pressured participating CLIs to work in particular ways. In-depth ethnographic research with two Scottish CLIs funded by the national Climate Challenge Fund (CCF), identified three main sources of this: funding timescales (and the demands for tangible achievements within these), administrative demands, and competition for funding.
CCF funding was awarded over one to three years, with an expectation that within that timescale groups achieve direct and measurable emissions reductions, other social and/or environmental benefits, and some sort of tangible ongoing legacy. However, the groups themselves considered their true ambitions of enabling long-term changes towards more sustainable communities to be achievable only over far longer timescales. Nonetheless, reliance on grant funding led applying groups to focus on short-term technological measures able to deliver concrete results within project lifetimes, often at the expense of ongoing work towards deeper structural, behavioural and cultural change. This further reinforced a common perception among wider publics not directly involved (although potentially among the beneficiaries) of CLIs as ephemeral and lacking genuine long-term commitment to the communities in which they work.
Observation further suggested that the administrative demands of accessing grant funding affected CLIs' activities in problematic ways. In addition to the time necessary for making applications, receipt of grant funding required regular monitoring and reporting; if funds were used to employ staff this raised further administrative demands. This visibly detracted from the time and energy available for practical and hands-on work, distancing CLIs from their wider communities. It also raises the general risk that allocation of funds reflects differences in the will and capacity of CLIs to locate, access and administer grants, rather then the quality and importance of their work.
Reliance on grant funding also stimulated competition among CLIs and related organisations. Consequences included a proliferation of funded groups with overlapping remits, siloed working, unecessary duplication of effort, and in some cases secrecy and distrust among organisations and projects targeting the same funding sources. The overall result is that funding and other resources are deployed far less effectively, overall, than could be achieved via coordination and collaboration.
Similarly, longitudinal research with a Transition initiative in a suburb of Edinburgh showed the consequences of receiving CCF funding. Although this allowed the group to employ paid staff and step up certain activities, and greatly raised their profile, it also sapped the energy and enthusiasm of the group. Central to this shift appears to be the CCF's requirement for quantitiative evaluation of emissions savings, leading to an instrumental focus on carbon reduction and decline in attention to wider contextual factors and a generally jaded feeling among both staff and volunteers.
Generalising over the CCF overall, Taylor Aiken claims that it led to a (perhaps unwitting) top-down imposition of both the belief that community is the appropriate locus of action on climate change, and of a particular model of community. Because the funding and evaluation processes assumed 'community' to have particular qualities - and funded groups that matched these assumptions - models of community action emerged and spread that matched this normalised and governmentalised concept, rather than the full diversity of possible forms.
Such effects appear to be common to many forms of public funding for CLIs. Experiences over a range of funding programmes available to CLIs in Scotland, from local to international levels, show they consistently come accompanied by managerial and technical demands that favour some forms of CLI, and some activities, over others, and hence often undermine the more general activities and benefits of CLIs and many of their long-term aims. Evaluation of both the CCF and another central government funding programme in England/Wales tends to confirm this: both reported that participating CLIs tended to focus on narrow technical measures and showed little evidence of stimulating wider changes in perspective, understanding or behaviour in their communities.
Research in the TESS Project on CLIs in Berlin and elsewhere suggests that the ways involvement in funding programmes affect CLIs may be part of a more general phenomenon, known as coercive isomorphism, in which the demands of incumbent regimes in which CLIs operate constrain or otherwise shape their structure and activities. Resource dependence is a major factor: if CLIs wish to receive and deploy funds, they must usually adopt some sort of legal form, possibilities of which depend on what is legally available. Maintaining any legal form implies particular administrative demands, to which the CLI must now respond, requiring certain skills, knowledge and levels of capacity, and perhaps themselves creating resource demands, for example if necessary administrative or legal support must be paid for.
Pressures of all these types are experienced by ECOLISE, whose form of legal organisation is a not-for-profit association under Belgian law. They can be exaggerated by its central role in policy advocacy, which forces it to engage constructively with the political mainstream, and to a lesser degree its collaborations with universities and other large institutions in the field of knowledge and learning. The result is a constant and often creative tension between the requirements of sustaining a functioning organisation in relationship with often powerful regime actors, and the need for consistency with the aims and ethos of member networks generally committed to inclusive and non-hierarchical ways of working. One mooted strategy for navigating this tension derives from the Three Horizons model: operating as a Second Horizon organisations able to mediate constructively between Third Horizon organisations representing outcomes of transformative processes and First Horizon organsations committed to business as usual.
For many CLIs and movements, entrepreneurship has become an increasingly important vehicle for financial sustainability. This enhances possibilities for financial sustainability and livelihood creation, at the same time as directly helping to shape local and regional economies. It also aligns movements such as permaculture, Transition and ecovillages more closely with the solidarity economy movement.
The KEEP Research Project, a collaboration between the Permaculture Association (Britain) and Kingston University Business School, undertook a preliminary survey of permaculture-inspired enterprises in the UK, documenting case studies in areas such as education, community work, software design, publishing, hospitality and mental health. In terms of land-based enterprises, also in the UK the Ecological Land Co-op surveyed a number of land-based enterprises based on application of labour-intensive, regenerative methods on small land holdings (four hectares or less) and found them to combine financial sustainability not dependent on agricultural surveys with provision of a range of environmental and social benefits, in all these respects comparing favourably with large-scale agro-industrial operations.
The Reconomy project explores enterprise as a vehicle for delivery and growth of projects and initiatives in the Transition movement. A report on 20 early examples of Transition-inspired social enterprises in the UK included enterprises in community renewable energy, housing, transportation, finance, food production, and many more, with a total annual turnover of GBP 3.5 million and collectively employing over 100 people.
Many ecovillages operate as enterprises themselves, and/or host social, regenerative and solidarity enterprises of various kinds. This both provides them with financial sustainability as projects and communities, and cater for the financial and other material needs of residents.
Most networks of CLIs studied in the TRANSIT research project reported a reliance on voluntary labour. Most also offer salaried roles, though in almost all cases the numbers of paid roles, and volume of paid work, are less than the number of volunteer positions and volume of voluntary work. The networks in which local initiatives operate often provides a collaborative resource that can help generate opportunities for financially renumerated work.
On the basis of figures provided by 58 participating CLIs in six countries, the TESS rsearch project estimated that CLIs rely on an average labour input of 10 hours of paid and voluntary labour per beneficiary per month. In most cases (64%), CLIs deploy less than one hour of labour per beneficiary, in nearly a quarter of responding cases the average monthly labour per beneficiary is between one and ten hours, while seven CLIs (12%) invested a monthly average in excess of ten labour hours per beneficiary.
TESS case study research revealed a number of common tensions arising from reliance on voluntary labour. CLIs in all participating countries reported an elusive balance between the intensive work needed to bring a project to a successful conclusion (and associated risk of burnout), and the risk of failing to achieve any tangible impact when involvement is too superficial. A related dilemma, particularly noted by CLIs in Scotland and Germany, is that between relying on and giving responsibility to volunteers as opposed to the need for professional skills in key areas. This reflects a more general tension between inclusion/horizontality/empowerment on the other hand and efficiency on the other. Inclusion, supportive and empowering work environments, trust in participants' abilities and the scope to shape work demands around their interests, are all key to retaining and sustaining motivation of existing members, and recruiting new people, which are crucial to the survival and meaningful impact of CLIs, but could prejudice an initiative's ability to make and implement key decisions at critical junctures. Many participants reported a general clash between the factors that enable initiation of a CLI and those favouring its growth beyond a small founding group of like-minded individuals to a wider membership possible including people with different values and levels of commitment.
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