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Shifting Decisions to Camden's communities

“The best way to predict your future is to create it”. I read this the other day and thought, although that may seem obvious, for many individuals in Camden it’s not that simple.   

A significant number of people who are affected by inequality in Camden face barriers that are often out of their control and prevent them from creating the change they want. To put this into perspective, Camden is home to some of the UK’s wealthiest individuals yet a third of young people live in poverty; it has the second highest number of businesses in the UK yet 7% of jobs go to local people; and although  it’s one of the busiest destinations in the UK it’s one of the loneliest places to live. So, just think for a second. If you are affected by poverty even when you have a job, you’re living right next to opportunities on your doorstep that seem unattainable, or you do not have close social networks– how do you take the first step to create positive change? At Camden Giving, we believe that by giving people the right tools, a voice and a platform is a simple, effective approach towards creating the future they want. Almost two years on from giving out our first grants, we have invested £1.5million into 55 projects. But we haven’t done this alone...  

Place-based participation is at the heart of Camden Giving’s approach. We incorporate community-inclusion into the development and delivery of all our grant programmes, so that those who it aims to support are included in co-creating funds that are authentic, relatable and accountable from the start. Funders often have the power to dictate what services are provided and grant-givers often lack lived experience of the issues facing communities. But every single grant we give, whether it’s £1,000 or £100,000, are decided by community-led panels – not our staff or board members – because, who is better placed to decide which charities receive funding than those who are affected by these decisions? We recruit residents from across Camden to sit on our panels. Below are our reasons for doing this:

Alongside the community members on two of our biggest funds sits cross-sector representation, which helps to create enlightening and dynamic dialogues when awarding grants. One of our youngest panellists, an 18 year-old, chaired a recent panel meeting. This was an extraordinary and inspiring moment in our grant-giving, to see the group respectfully listen and cooperate to make the best decisions for the community, despite the age and experience of the Chair. She said “Young people are not taken seriously enough, often shut out of decisions that affect us and not trusted with managing money. I feel it’s so important that people like me, a young person from Camden, to be part of the solutions to create a safer and brighter future for everyone.” During a time of such political turmoil and uncertainty, it’s a privilege to witness people who have contrasting opinions, come together, put aside their views and make brilliant decisions for the community. 

This approach to funding enables social mobility and community cohesion through legitimate devolution. It provides an exclusive insight into roles that exist in civil society – which aren’t always widely known about or considered a ‘career choice’. Decisions about funding are often a little mysterious so it’s a fresh way to introduce what goes on “behind the scenes” of a funder, providing increased transparency with how we give our grants - especially in a time where people are somewhat distrustful of the voluntary sector.  

Unlocking potential is also key to our holistic approach to participatory grant-making. We are up-skilling and empowering people who sometimes feel shut out from decisions and accessing opportunities. We equip them with transferable skills that aren’t often taught in education or even employment, such as effective communication, increased confidence and social awareness. But we also try and help community panellists beyond their role with us by removing barriers that may be blocking their route to their ambitions and supporting them to create their own change. We try to find ways they can develop skills and enrich their experience, for example we recently connected some of our young grant-makers to work experience opportunities in industries that they might not be aware of and are not seen as ‘traditional’ routes. I believe that a thriving, diverse civil society is key to the future success of our borough.

Each of our devolved panels are unique and reflect Camden’s diverse communities and voices which are so vital to making the most informed and meaningful decisions. It is also a powerful approach to enhancing social cohesion and providing opportunities for peer-learning, by bringing together ‘unusual suspects’ and people who may not have otherwise crossed paths. Across four separate funds is a broad representation of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, physical and mental abilities, age, gender, geographic residence, local knowledge, personal experience and expertise. Groups who are often under-represented in decision-making roles, who feel they are not in control of choices that affect them, make up the majority of our panels. We’ve seen that handing over trust to local people is an important step in enabling change from the bottom-up because they know what is best for their community. People are given a sense of control over their future and their community and are empowered to take responsibility for where they live. In the words of one panel member, “ This is an opportunity to drive change where I know it is needed the most and lead by example by working with others to help our neighbours and give back to our local community.” 

Residents bring a unique perspective to the conversations through their deep understanding of the challenges their neighbourhoods face and who often themselves have first hand experiences of these challenges - something traditional grant-makers can rarely replicate. Those with a genuine connection or access to the lived experience of the communities our funds seek to serve is key to the success of our decisions, impact, and legitimacy. 

We are proud that most of our funding is invested into small organisations that are at the heart of Camden’s communities, have a real sense of community ownership and often led by residents themselves. This is down to local representation on the panel who know these organisations, which are often underfunded but oversubscribed, so they have a desire to invest locally. The combination of community-led decision making plus local people running life-changing projects is powerful.  But sometimes these grassroots, local initiatives or small organisations lack resources and often need extra guidance. As a result, our support does not only come with money, but from specialist support and capacity building opportunities from employee-volunteers. We always make sure our support gets to smaller organisations who need it the most. 

This year we will continue to enable participation and inclusion to be at the forefront of civil society in Camden and bring even more people on the journey with us. 2019 will be a year full of more enriching participatory grant-making as we launch two brand new funds: The Future Changemakers Fund and The Inclusive Community Fund, both co-created and delivered entirely by Camden residents with lived experience of inequality. We are focusing more and more on how we can include Gender Equality in every aspect of our grant processes too, from holding baby-friendly grant drop-ins to covering childcare costs for panellists. Our mission is to build more resilient communities and a stronger Camden and this can only be done collectively and in a holistic way. So, I’m delighted to work with 23 local residents who will invest a further £2million to charities this year and create positive community-led change together!   

We’d love to hear your thoughts on how you think we can empower more local people to make decisions that will help create a fairer Camden for everyone. Or if you would like to contribute to an existing fund, or be part of setting up a new fund, you can get in touch by emailing: [email protected] or messaging us on twitter: @camden_giving or   instagram: camdengiving