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Coming out of the shadows

The switch from public body to charity has been a challenging transition for the Community Development Foundation. But boss Alison Seabrooke tells Clare Goff it’s given the organisation a new lease of life

Alison Seabrooke CDF

‘I’m not the sort of person who likes to be a victim. I believe that you should deal with the circumstances that arise and just get on with it.’

Alison Seabrooke, chief executive of the Community Development Foundation (CDF), has, in the last two years, had plenty of practice in dealing with challenging circumstances. The organisation she heads up discovered it was to lose its public body status in the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ in October 2010.

In the space of five months she had to close down offices, make redundancies and change the constitution of CDF. At the same time many of the organisation’s programmes were coming to an end and new ones – including national programmes the Big Local Trust and Community First – were setting up.

‘We were shutting down one thing, starting up something else and trying to deliver work while reducing staff and keeping an eye on the future to ensure CDF could continue to work in a very different environment,’ she says.

Seabrooke was not totally unprepared for the changes, having taken CDF through a series of scenario planning exercises during 2009. But in reality it was the most extreme scenario – the loss of the organisation’s public grant as well as the loss of many of its programmes – that happened.

‘Even if you’ve planned for it nothing prepares you for it when it actually happens, but psychologically we had gone there.’

With possibly one of the most difficult 18 months in CDF’s history behind her, she can now reflect on the benefits of those changes in the context of the now 45-year-old organisation.

She is excited that CDF can now work with a much wider range of people and organisations than it was able to as a public body. Recently it has begun partnering with corporate organisations, including Asda, which is supporting the Community First programme through its local branches across the country.

Being relieved of its public body status means CDF is now able to make decisions about its future without asking permission or ‘looking over its shoulder’, and can lobby and campaign on issues. Seabrooke says that the changes – shifting from a public body to charitable status – have allowed CDF to lift its head above the parapet.

‘If we hadn’t changed, we would have stayed below the radar. It’s exciting to have a voice and to be able to say what you think.’

So now that she has the chance to be more outspoken, what does she have to say about the government’s approach to community development?

CDF has been one of the winners under the new government, being awarded the contract for the Community First programme, an £80m programme to fund community groups through a mixture of small grants and an endowment match challenge, in which £100m of local and national philanthropy will be matched with £50m of government investment.

‘To do something prescriptive
that says you will be able to do
this within a certain amount
of time and this is what it’s
going to look like is naïve and
counterproductive.’
While Seabrooke believes that many of the initiatives, ideas and innovation coming from central government are ‘spot on’, she fears that their delivery mechanisms are, in some cases, problematic. ‘The issue for me is that there is an expectation that you can deliver these programmes, programmes that require a multi-faceted approach and lots of support, as if they are something you deliver transactionally,’ she says.

‘Working with communities is about relationships, it’s about trust and it’s about support. It may sound woolly but it’s the way that we all know works. But unfortunately the costing and the way everything is now forced down a procurement route makes it very difficult for programmes to change and adapt to local needs.’

CDF has delivered more than 20 grassroots programmes in the last five years and knows the dangers of trying to impose a one-size-fits-all approach.

‘To do something prescriptive that says you will be able to do this within a certain amount of time and this is what it’s going to look like is naïve and counterproductive,’ she says.

CDF designed the Big Local Trust programme itself based on its knowledge and understanding of how community development works and the type of support it needs, and was given a lot of time to ensure it got all the elements right. Bidding for the Community First programme however, it went through a rushed tendering process.

Her views about the commissioning and procurement process are echoed across the sector and she is confident that the government is listening and taking on board the criticism.

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