By guest editor Dr Brendan Murtagh, Urban Planning, School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen’s University
The suspension of the Assembly has left many businesses, state agencies and the wider public feeling frustrated and disillusioned. The community sector knows the feeling. We have no asset transfer or social value legislation, no dedicated funding for social enterprises and no overarching strategy for the development of the social economy. This has not stopped the finger-wagging. Third sector organisations need to get their act together, stop relying on grants and become more business-like and sustainable.
What is fascinating about Building Change Trust is its experimental quality – decent investment, a long period of delivery, an acceptance of risk and even failure, a capacity to innovate and learn and a genuinely creative attempt to self-assemble an enabling environment that government simply has not.
The Big Lottery Fund is to be congratulated for the vision to support it, and the Trust and partners for their capacity to deliver it. In a period of short-termism, obsessive regulatory checks and an understandable but sclerotic obsession with auditing, the focus on systemic change is refreshing.
The scope of the work and its integrated nature has been the key strength of the Trust. They have been instrumental in developing the supply of social finance but also strengthening the investment readiness of organisations to use it. Creativity has extended to new instruments, including supporting community shares, better understanding the demand as well as the supply side of finance and testing out the potential of small unsecured funds, where much of the need is concentrated.
The sector has been challenged and challenged itself to think about its shape and structure and ultimately who and what it is for. Here, the Trust has generated a (not always easy) debate on mergers, colocation and a better-networked approach to build impact and organisational resilience.
But it has also helped the sector to think about where it is going and the importance of creating genuine innovation to address a range of more complex social problems. The importance of technology, smarter ways of working and creative thinking are building a Social Innovation Ecosystem that has produced practical outcomes as well as setting a vision for the future. The sector has often been long on claiming all sorts of impact, but short in showing where and how they happen. In a sense, the Inspiring Impact strand completes the circle by producing a mix of methods, ideas and toolkits to build a better and more valid evidence base of the value of community development.
It is this integrated approach that supports skills, finance, how to better restructure the sector, think about its digital future and justify its impact that makes the Trust both different and successful. The ecosystem is a nice way of thinking about it and how the collective strengths of the third sector can make a genuine difference to people’s lives.
There is then, credibility in offering ideas, engaging with political spaces and creating independent critical debate on policy and politics in Northern Ireland.
The Creative Space for Civic Thinking initiative is probably needed more than ever, but the approach has been clear not to displace politics or politicians.
Instead, it is a sensible forum that offers some fresh thinking about the issues that matter to local people and how to address them in a collaborative way.
This is far from a grant reliant, dependent culture but evidence of a capable sector, able to make its own choices and design its own long-term solutions. Maybe the legacy of the Trust is to suggest that it is time for partners in local and central government, political parties, universities and even the private sector to join them.