In the third of my series looking at how community builders and managers are keeping their communities vibrant during lockdown, I spoke to Chris Johnes, CEO of BCT Wales. The work that BCT do is really impressive, and it’s nice to hear about it in more detail.

I’ll let Chris explain… 

“The thing that we spend 90% of our time doing is running something called the Invest Local program, which is a mixture of funding and support for 13 communities spread across Wales. Each community gets a million pounds over roughly a 10 year period to spend on whatever they want to do to make their community stronger. In most cases that involves some sort of investment in local community organizations – either making the existing ones stronger or building new ones”. 

And what did that support look like, before Coronavirus changed everything?

So, in each area they’ve got a group of local people that come together to actually manage the program. They might be residents who aren’t involved in anything else. They might be the secretary of the local football club and the treasurer of the local community association. Or somebody from the local church. So it could be quite a variety of people, and our job, in a sense, is to help them work effectively together and help them reach out to the wider community. It’s all about advising them, supporting them, sometimes challenging them, and also making sure they have access to wider information in order to help them draw up plans for spending. Finally, we are very keen on a focus l on evaluating the work that’s done, but again, what communities decide to prioritise for monitoring and evaluate is very much up to them

We’re not hands on community development workers. Our job is not about telling people what they should do, but it’s once they’ve decided what they want to do, helping them do it as effectively as possible.

And what changes have happened for BCT and your supported communities since the advent of the current crisis?

Very simply, everything has been turned on its head. And it all turned on its head in about the space of a week. The shift has been dramatic and complete. 

If you roll back two months we were very much focusing on longer term development; building organizations, running programs which address, say, wellbeing in isolation of older people, development and informal learning for younger people, some social enterprise development, some environmental projects. And suddenly now there is a focus on food provision. There is a focus on ensuring there are enough local volunteers to provide support for isolated people. 

It’s very much become locally focused, with very short term needs now being prioritized. In a sense everything else has gone onto the back burner. 

Mostly it was all led by the local residents. They said, right, we’re going to do this and they’re going to say to us, how can you help us? 

Finally, we had to look at the way we dealt with finance. Normally the funding systems meant that money had to be part of a wider plan. What we’ve done now is just say, right, this is the money for coronavirus. Have what you want, and tell us what you did with it afterwards. In a couple of places we had to release new money, and we did that in about three or four days.

And outside of the finance and the best practice, how else are you supporting them? 

One of the things we have been doing is facilitating people to actually make decisions, because they can’t get in a room together, and meet. So, we’ve been trying to make sure as far as possible they’re linked In to what’s already going on through things like County voluntary councils, local authorities, town community councils, so that what they are doing in their localities is as joined up as possible. The last thing we want to do is have duplication.

You mentioned that most of the projects have gone from long-term to short-term focuses. Have there been any other strategic changes like that?

Many of the projects are mutual support groups, mostly looking inwards providing services and activities for their members. And they’ve suddenly started reaching outwards to provide external support. One group of women, which is in some ways an economically vulnerable group but they’re healthy and quite resilient. Most of them are relatively young, and they don’t feel under threat themselves, so they’ve then reached out to other people who might be more vulnerable in this context.

They run an informal cafe where a lot of mothers with young children would come together, cook, and socialise. And that was largely around tackling their isolation, and a route into training in areas such as childcare. 

But because of Coronavirus what they’ve done is shifted to using the kitchen facilities to providing food for old and vulnerable people on the estate. And because they can do it very locally, the GP surgery is also willing to say who might need their support. So they do cooking in the morning, and then they walk around the estate dropping food off to people on their list.

What’s been really interesting about chatting to you, is hearing of those two clear strategic shifts. Firstly, from a long-term focus to a short-term one. And then, in some cases, those groups going from inward looking, to outward looking.

Yes. In one or two cases they were also reacting to government changes, particularly on things like children’s meals at school. But in the majority of the areas they almost did that instinctively. They said “we’ve got to change, we’ve got to do new things”. And they did.

If you’d like to find out more about the work that Chris and the team do at BCT Wales, then check out their website, and their Twitter (@BCTWales). Also, this ITV news article is also informative.

If you’d like to read more of my blogposts about community during Coronavirus, you find them here…

Welsh ICE & Platfform

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