A community-centred approach is not business as usual – are we ready?

Deeply listening and understanding. Doing with, not for. Enabling communities to create their own change. That’s what ‘good’ community development is meant to be about.

Yet when it does happen, there’s no linkage to inform social policy, planning and service delivery – the very systems that can scale social change in Australia are often deeply disconnected.

How might using a community-centred approach help social purpose organisations and government to scale social change in Australia? Here are a few FAQs we’re often asked:

What does a community-centred approach ‘look like’?

  1. Starting with community, not just policies and programs, when planning services.
  2. Supporting community to run their own projects, instead of or in addition to engaging them in our work.
  3. Adapting planning, project management and other tools to involve community members. For eg, in selecting the most meaningful indicators to assess outcomes, and in governance of initiatives

Why use a community-centred approach?

  1. The existing approach – disconnected organisations delivering ‘off the shelf’ programs and learning not fed ‘upwards’ to government – isn’t working. Despite enormous effort and investment, little or no progress is being made in many communities on indicators from domestic violence, to trust and belonging, and physical and mental health.
  2. It’s ethical. With the best of intentions, those of us working in social services often fall into the trap of treating people as objects. We should never catch ourselves saying ‘I know what the community needs’. Community members, and communities themselves, are all unique. A truly community-centred approach demands more than adjusting language. It’s about understanding that all community members have something to give, and listening, facilitating and enabling these contributions.
  3. Respecting and involving community members fosters local ownership, and strengthens the community’s capacity to act. This helps to focus local effort, and increases sustainability and impact.

Is the social purpose sector and government using this approach already in Australia?

If we reflect honestly on this, the answer is not broadly, for two main reasons. Using a community-centred approach assumes solutions reside within the community, which means our role changes from ‘experts’ (with answers) to ‘facilitators’ (of community and other resources). Linear plans developed in offices just don’t respond well to dynamic community environments, which require an adaptive approach.

Secondly, a rigid funding environment. The expectation to specify clear, measurable outcomes in funding applications, before engaging with communities, must be declared an unsuccessful experiment. Programs, services and organisations need to either be developed locally or, at minimum, selected on their fit with locally determined gaps and priorities.

Internationally, Jim Diers has done a great job of incorporating a community-centred approach in Seattle. Abundant Communities offers many examples of this in action. At United Way, we continue to learn and adapt after transitioning to a community-centred approach because we believe bringing pre-formed programs won’t solve complex social issues, but the ideas, commitment and resources of communities will. Our work in Mt Druitt NSW, the City of Casey VIC and Goodna QLD now draws on a community-based approach, principles of Collective Impact, co-design, and traditional tools such as impact maps.

But to really mainstream a community-centred approach in Australia, we must go beyond individual programs and services. We need to deeply embed the approach within organisational values, structures and plans across the social purpose sector. This will ensure services, programs and policies truly respond to communities’ aspirations, strengths and concerns. And it’s far from ‘business as usual’.

I challenge you (and myself) to print this out, stick it on the wall, and spend 5 minutes each day, for one month, reflecting on its implications for your work.


About the author:

David Lilley is Senior Manager NSW at United Way Australia, and the founding Director of The Hive Mt Druitt, a Collective Impact initiative in Western Sydney, co-founded in 2014 by United Way Australia, the ten20 foundation and NSW Family and Community Services.

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