Cities defined by generosity - a vision that's just a few years away?
We’ve been in Bristol over the last two days, connecting with the 7 towns and cities that have each signed up to be a UK City of Service. Of course they don’t call it that locally. Their campaigns to get more people in their town or city giving time to their neighbours are called Love Where You Live (Barnsley), Our Plymouth, Portsmouth Together, I’m in Kirklees etc.
So after launching their campaigns and service plans 6 months ago, where are we?
Well the cities have mobilised 1600 people to volunteer, giving their time to grow food for foodbanks, hear children read in schools and to visit and befriend isolated older people. It’s a great start, but not huge numbers to date – and we’re fine with that because our focus is on impact volunteering.
Too often funders like Nesta can push people to scale and volume too fast. When we set this programme up we were clear – this is about impact volunteering, engaging citizens to give an hour a week or a few days a year to their neighbours knowing that what they are doing is making a real difference.
It’s easy to assume that hearing children read one-to-one for example will make a difference to them academically but unless we test the principle with a small group and measure the impact it has on their attainment or behaviour, how do we know? It might be that the volunteers enjoy it, but the intervention is too short to impact grades. Or that the same 30mins spent one-to-one working through a behaviour management coaching session would actually help young people to concentrate in class which in turn would have a greater impact on their reading grades.
(NB If you want to read some scare stories about well-intended interventions that actually led to the opposite result have a read of this).
So we’ve asked each of these cities to start small - testing which interventions make the biggest difference with thorough impact metrics – and then scale these up. By the same time next year I hope we have mobilised tens of thousands of volunteers, each giving their time to opportunities we know work.
I was reminded in our workshop that the only way we will get to this vision of tens of thousands is by not just starting great initiatives, but making people helping people normal. The funding and resources we have to encourage volunteering and neighbourliness is just a drop in the ocean – we simply can’t run enough initiatives ourselves. So if we want to create cities where service, or helping others, is a normal part of being a proud resident then we need to convince city leaders that people powered public services are part of the answer and we need to empower citizens to help where they see a need – to not be afraid of being sued for gritting a drive or giving first aid, to feel comfortable asking an elderly neighbour if they need help or sharing their stuff more.
They’ve nailed this in the US, where service is a big part of the culture (although admittedly perhaps middle class culture). It’s taken 20 years to be embedded and it needs leadership - Obama launched the Serve America Act in 2009 to make it easier for US citizens to give their time by increasing incentives, expanding eligibility, and providing funding for organisations to create opportunities.
What would it take in the UK to create a similar surge of generosity in time given to help others? I don’t think we’ll ever adopt the term ‘service’, but turning the 44% of people who volunteer once a year into people who give their time each week is the prize.
Culture change is never easy but slowly but surely our 7 cities are bringing neighbourliness up the agenda in their communities. Here’s hoping we have good news to report back on in 6 months’ time.