Things We’ve Learnt and Shared

Wizards and muggles: finding our way with terminology

Birmingham Community Matters is a small charity and, as a team, we’re learning as we grow. One of several challenges we face is effectively communicating what we do.

When we commissioned a review of our pilot phase last year, one of the areas flagged up for improvement lay in helping people to understand our approach more easily. This was no surprise. We had long been grappling with the language we were using – particularly around our surgeries and the people who attend them.

Let us explain . . .

Surgery comes from the tradition of face-to-face consultation: seeing one’s GP or MP to raise an issue. We borrowed it from social media surgeries, upon which BCM’s approach is based.  Maybe surgery sounds a little clinical, but we think it conveys the idea that people can drop in to get support, and that someone knowledgeable will be on hand to talk to them.

We wrote a blog post to explain what happens in a Birmingham Community Matters surgery. We hope it helps people who have never attended one before.

Where we feel we didn’t find the right words was in surgeons and patients, describing the people who attend our surgeries to give help and those who attend our surgeries to get help. Not only do the two words have medical connotations, they also imply an unequal relationship between the two groups of people. This conflicts with the idea that BCM nurtures peer-to-peer relationships; that everyone who attends a BCM surgery, in whatever capacity, will benefit.

We believe everyone has something to learn and everyone has something to teach.

Nevertheless we’ve always needed, for practical reasons, a way to distinguish between our more experienced volunteers who are offering their expertise, and people seeking support as they start out on their community journeys. So surgeons and patients stuck for a while, although – believe us – we have really wracked our brains for better alternatives. Suggestions included peers and helpeers; helpers and helpees; even wizards and muggles.

We still haven’t struck upon the perfect pair of words (your ideas will always be welcomed) so for now we’re talking about people who come along to give help and people who come along to get help. Not very catchy, perhaps, but it’s working.

We’d love to know: what are your thoughts around terminology in your community group? Have you, like BCM, been finding your way as you go, or did you set out formal guidelines from the outset? Are you bogged down in acronyms and jargon? Tell us your thoughts – join in at Twitter or on Facebook.

See our forthcoming surgery dates.

Local Innovation Fund: how we used our grant

In September 2017 Birmingham Community Matters was awarded a grant from Birmingham City Council’s Local Innovation Fund.

Now closed for proposals, LIF was a city-wide initiative which aimed to devolve decision-making to neighbourhood level, encouraging groups and projects to do things “differently in neighbourhoods to make better places to live”.

LIF’s awarding officers were looking for projects which supported the city’s four main priorities: children, jobs and skills, housing and health. The initiative encouraged new approaches to investment, active citizenship, projects that contributed towards clean streets, and the improvement of local centres. We thought BCM could meet all of those aims by nurturing the skills, resilience and sustainability of community projects and groups through collaboration and peer-to-peer support.

LIF money was allocated by ward. In our application we put forward our ideas to hold Community Matters surgeries in Bournville, facilitated by a paid surgery manager, delivered by volunteers, and with specific support on fundraising from bid writing experts Get Grants. BCM was started by volunteers living in this area, and our registered address is Stirchley Baths, so it seemed the logical place to start.

Between surgeries (which you can read more about here), we planned to hold ‘homework’ sessions, allowing groups to get together and talk about their mutual progress.

BCM’s ideas around peer-to-peer collaboration and support were found to be innovative – and we were delighted to be awarded a LIF grant.

We set to work building partnerships with local community hubs that included Bournville Hub, Cotteridge Church, Stirchley Baths and Masefield Community Hub, where we could hold surgeries and homework sessions.

Thanks to a further grant from the National Lottery’s Awards for All we were able to run surgeries more widely across the city, creating opportunities for people from different areas to meet.

With just our LIF grant we were able to hold 12 surgeries (September 2017 to September 2018), supporting 44 unique attendees. The Awards for All money and some ‘mini surgeries’ we held at funding fairs took the number of surgeries (up to 17 November 2018) to 25 and the number of unique attendees to 67.

We are a learning organisation. One of our early realisations was that we would need a critical mass of people engaged in the surgeries prior to holding homework sessions, in order to make the latter an equal success.

In the future we may run initial engagement events in new-to-BCM areas of the city to determine who is interested in surgeries, and then run surgeries (and possibly homework sessions) in response. Indeed, an Introduction to Fundraising workshop we held with Get Grants in September 2018 was fully booked and hugely successful, so this kind of event would be valuable in engaging new people.

One of our proudest moments came from supporting an exciting project in its infancy. ROAM facilitates children’s access to ‘unsupervised’ and unstructured play in the natural environment. Through a BCM surgery we were able to introduce ROAM’s founders to Business in the Community who put them in touch with a lawyer to help with their disclaimer form. They also met Emma Woolf, BCM’s chair, who was able to facilitate a special partnership between ROAM and Cotteridge Park.

Naomi Fisher, ROAM co-founder, said in a tweet after attending a BCM event in October: “Walking into [a BCM] surgery was a watershed moment for our @Roam_kids project. Thank you and keep it up”.

We have learned so much from our engagement with local community groups, active citizens and volunteers, and from our collaborations with host venues. We have seen partnerships form and flourish – and we are just at the beginning.

Thank you to Birmingham City Council’s Neighbourhood Development and Support Unit which managed the LIF programme. Many thanks also to Awards for All, and to everyone who accessed our surgeries either as a surgeon or patient (or both). Together we have developed an innovative, informal approach to supporting community groups, that is easily replicable anywhere.

Read about our forthcoming surgeries.

Power of Little: the first 18 months of Birmingham Community Matters

As we neared the end of BCM’s pilot phase we wanted to find out how well our approach is working. With funding from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, we commissioned the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC) at the University of Birmingham to review our work, asking:

    • What support is available for micro community organisations? How does it sit within a political and policy context?
    • What have been the benefits and value of BCM’s approach, and how effective is it?
    • What else is needed to achieve BCM’s aims and intended impact?

      Power of Little event
      In October 2018 we held a workshop at Stirchley Baths to launch the report and gather ideas for BCM’s future.

Keen for insight from a broad range of people, we invited our trustees, volunteer surgeons and other representatives of community groups and funding organisations from around Birmingham.

It was a rainy afternoon, so we were delighted to welcome a full house of attendees to Stirchley for the ‘Power of Little’. People’s energy and enthusiasm were palpable, and many valuable conversations took place between sessions, which is exactly what BCM is about.

Our chair, Emma Woolf, thanked our funders and gave a brief introduction to the beginnings of BCM, our ethos, and our figures to date (42 surgeries held since January 2017, in 26 venues, with 133 patients supported by 65 surgeons: “Quite an achievement from a standing start!” said Emma).

BCM in a policy context
Angus McCabe, Senior Research Fellow at TSRC, gave a presentation on BCM in a policy context. He included points about:

  • Government cuts and their uneven impact on the voluntary and community sector – with increasing income gaps between larger players and smaller organisations
  • The loss of infrastructure support for this sector
  • The change in focus from capacity building (organisations doing more) to building capabilities (organisations doing better)
  • Hyperlocalism: driving policy delivery down to local level and asking communities to find solutions to problems.

In small group discussions, our Power of Little delegates generally agreed that Angus’s presentation gave an accurate reflection of what is happening. We talked about the opportunities and threats created by the current political landscape, and how we could use these to refine BCM’s approach:

– For local groups to work on solving community problems
– For collaborations between local groups and bigger organisations
– To centralise information and resources to maximise their value
– For companies to use corporate social responsibility programmes to support the voluntary and community sector
– To rework the relationships between councils and communities.
– Increased stress on individuals
– Knowledge being lost due to cuts and individual burnout
– Communities being forced to squeeze more out of resources
– Groups and causes competing for funding
– Without support, groups are further disadvantaged by paperwork.
BCM could …
– Give ongoing support with funding applications
– Offer themed surgeries – eg: around funding or legal structure
– Facilitate further networking opportunities
– Use social media to help people make connections.

Evaluation of BCM’s approach
At Power of Little we launched TSRC’s evaluation report on BCM [you can read a summary in PDF form here].

In brief, it shows that BCM is reaching its intended audience of small and emerging community groups, and individual active citizens, in the areas where we provide surgeries. It shows that we have achieved this, to date, on limited short-term funding.

It suggests that the informality of our approach at surgeries is valued, as is the absence of a pre-determined agenda in the support we give.

One recommendation for improvement lies in refining our terminology and helping people to better understand our model.

BCM: what next?
We asked our Power of Little delegates to respond to the evaluation and share their ideas for developing BCM’s approach. This was wonderfully insightful. We will consider the ideas generated as we consolidate or grow BCM’s offering.

[You can read the text on the above sticky notes from this PDF.]

Thank you to everyone who contributed to Power of Little – and to everyone who has been part of BCM’s story to date.

Resources from the Introduction to Fundraising workshop

Thank you to everyone who attended our Introduction to Fundraising workshop at Stirchley Baths on Wednesday 19 September. We hope you found it useful and that it will inspire you onward with your plans.

Feel free to send us your feedback, and do look out for other events and surgeries we’re holding in the coming months.

In the meantime here are the resources we promised to share with you. You can view or download them using the links below:

Evidence of Need handout – useful links [from Get Grants]

Info and booking form workshop DISCOUNT Sept 2018 [special offer for Get Grants bid writing training]

Top Tips handout [PDF]

What happens at a Birmingham Community Matters Surgery?

“The surgery cleared up a lot of things in my mind around the structure of what I want to do. It’s been amazing” – Samina, Serenity Housing.

As you may know, Birmingham Community Matters helps people who want to start or develop small community and voluntary groups in Birmingham, operating for the benefit of people in our wonderful city.

We call it a peer-to-peer learning network, and most of what we do involves face-to-face support.

At our Community Matters Surgeries, held in various venues around Birmingham, volunteer ‘surgeons’ are on hand to answer questions from people who are interested in starting or developing a community group or project.

BCM surgeons are people with relevant experience and expertise, which they may have acquired through running community groups themselves, or in a professional capacity.

Our surgeries are free to attend, and informal. To say we sit around eating cake and drinking tea would belie the valuable conversations and exciting ideas we hear at each surgery. But a smiley greeting and refreshments are very much part of our welcoming ethos.

People – ‘patients’ – are welcome to drop in and talk about the kind of support they need. Perhaps it’s related to setting up a group, buying equipment, working with volunteers, or accessing grants and other funding. It doesn’t matter where they are in the process: mere acorns of ideas are as valued as the plans of fully formed organisations looking to branch out.

We will listen to patients’ initial queries and aim to match them with the surgeon who is best placed to help. Then patient and surgeon can work through questions and ideas together. There are no formal talks, agenda or presentations.

We’ll aim to keep in touch with patients afterwards, so we can follow up with further support, and hear the outcomes of their ventures. BCM patients may even be able to use their experience and knowledge to become future BCM surgeons – and help others on their way to success.

Come and see for yourself what we do: our forthcoming surgeries and other dates are listed here. Also follow us on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for email updates.



Questions and a few useful links

Here are a few links and a few questions that popped up at Holloway Hall on the 30th Jan with more to follow.

Should our group be a CIO (charitable incorporated organisation) or a CIC (community interest company)?

You can check out the pros and cons at these two websites:…/charity-types-how-to-choose-a-structure


Where can we get help with keeping accounts?

This organisation has a series of workshops – at subsidised prices – for small groups: