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Scaling the SRG Movement: Lessons for Transforming Practice

As part of Nesta’s series of blogs on people-powered approaches for better financial wellbeing, Michael Little from Ratio and Noel Mathias from WEvolution reflect on their work of the past year, scaling a relational movement which aims to create unexpected entrepreneurs. They also discuss the learnings from this process, useful for practitioners and the wider civil society engaged in reimagining a new normal in the post-COVID-19 society.

The human spirit is indomitable. But let’s face it, we are in the shit. In the economically advantaged world, things were coming to a head pre-pandemic. Hyper-individualism. Populism and its bedfellow nationalism. Climate change. Multiple inequalities.

The pandemic confined many public services to the barracks and in their place citizen action flourished. Mutual aid, a readiness to help and to being helped, boomed. People stopped bothering public systems, A&E being a prime example, and public systems, focusing on responding to the immediate needs of the crisis, began to devolve power to front line staff and look to communities for increased collaboration.

Do these changes indicate how we get out of the mire? Possibly.

The long hours of lockdown gave us time to read Thomas Piketty’s latest magnum opus Capital and Ideology. It can be read in many ways. One is to accept that we cannot continue to rely on rich people to innovate our way out of the crisis. We need to draw on the capabilities of all and not just the few.

Piketty has one equation for releasing capability, which is mainly focused on the young. There are others. Our interest is in the potential of women, specifically women whose poverty or situation has caused them to become stuck. Previous Nesta blogs have described the movement of SRGs around the world (also called self-help groups in Asia and Africa) and how organisations like ours, Purple Shoots and Church Action on Poverty have been supported to grow the reach of these groups across the UK.

So what is an SRG?

SRGs are informal groups of people (4 to 10) who come from a shared economic and/or social background to support each other and develop friendships. They meet regularly and agree to start saving, rotating leadership and responsibility, learning together and sharing skills. Many of them start a small business which, in time, will help them earn an income to support themselves and their families.

At WEvolution, we have learned a lot from this work. We come at the challenge with lots of experience of working in economically disadvantaged communities and technical know-how about scale and measurement. But it was the women in SRGs that shaped the strategy.

In our old model, NGO staff found the women, linked them with others, nurtured the SRG and encouraged them to stay on course. At WEvolution we also provided hubs, co-working and incubating spaces designed for enterprising women. It was a face to face, arm around the shoulder approach. And not without success.

But what about women living miles away from the NGOs? For them we applied a scale model developed and applied by Ratio in other relational contexts. It asks that the core of an innovation - the things that make it work - are placed in a box. (The box is a metaphor. It could be a camper van, it could be an app. In our case, it was a box and an app). A potential member of an SRG can open the box and start a group without any external help. But if they need help, they can call on an ‘Avon Lady’, the second part of the scale model, somebody who will say more about how to get the most out of the box. (The Avon Lady is also a concept, it needn’t be a person never mind a ‘lady’). The third component of the model are stories of women in SRGs told to people who might join those groups. Not linear stories of rags to riches but up and down stories of tried and failed, tried and failed again, stories of the world as it is.

Twice a year, a couple of hundred women from SRGs around the U.K. come together to share their experiences as ‘unexpected entrepreneurs’. We asked them about the SRG in a box idea. They loved it. They bombarded us with ways of making it real. They set up a design group to refine the best ideas. Then they started testing the prototypes. And in the process they asked us ‘wouldn’t we make good Avon Ladies?’

Women hugging

Then the pandemic. We couldn’t meet in person. The hubs were closed. The NGO staff furloughed. But the women in the SRGs would not be defeated. They live with stress day in day out, they know how to deal with a lockdown, and they are determined to bring their ideas to a wider audience.

We are there to support them remotely, but it is the SRG members who have been resilient and carried on, finding new solutions in their communities. The SRGs truly belong to their members. We are not face to face yet so it feels a lot like their arms are around our shoulders.

Theirs isn’t the only solution to this mess any more than Piketty’s. But the supported learning process we have been through this past year, supported by Nesta, suggests there are roughly a million women in the U.K. whose capabilities could be released by SRGs. So, there’s still much that can be done to tap into those capabilities. The women in the movement will now get the chance to apply their learning to realise this promise in the post-COVID19 world.

There’s learning for everyone here:

  1. Scaling relational work, like SRGs, into a movement can be hard and demanding of those who find it difficult to stop fixing or cede control.
  2. Focus on the context, not the individual. The SRGs are not a solution. They are a context for people to find their own answers to getting unstuck. Tend to it.
  3. Trust in the capability of all people. Everyone is a producer and an unexpected entrepreneur.

Want to know more about where we are taking this movement? Get in touch with us here.

graphic with quote


Noel Mathias

Founder & Managing Director of WEvolution and is responsible for introducing the Self-Reliant Groups (SRGs) to the UK

Michael Little

Michael Little works at Ratio, a decade long inquiry into the way relationships change human health and development.