The first Better Way Gathering 7-8 June 2017, London

This gathering was a chance for people from the different Better Way cells across the country to come together to strengthen our collective thinking and evidence base, build an agenda for action, and shape the future direction of the Better Way initiative.   

 Over dinner on 7 June, 30 people came together to share ideas about the future, informed by an opening speech by a guest speaker, Julia Unwin, formerly CEO of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Julia is currently Carnegie Fellow and Chair of the independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society established by the Baring Foundation and a consortia of other charitable foundations. 

Speaking about the Inquiry, Julia said that the intention is to open a national conversation and stimulate fresh thinking and practice, not simply to produce recommendations to government. Julia invited members of A Better Way to take part in the debate and began herself by making the following points:

  • Our society is ever more divided – not least generationally; in terms of education; across different UK nations; and cities versus rural.
  • We should not waste too much time defining civil society.
  • We know that people and place mean a great deal. Everyone needs somewhere to live, something to belong to, someone to love. People also need a sense of control.
  • Difficult times lie ahead but civil society can help people create a stronger and positive sense of identity and community and help people take back control. 
  • Civil society has never been better placed to step in. It has an impressive history but it must look forward and must be imaginative, not be content to do the things it has always done.

A lively discussion then took place over dinner, and this continued over the next day at a workshop where members shared what they had learnt so far, generated ideas and identified network activities for the future.  In discussion, here are some of the points made:

  • Our task is to take the Better Way propositions and ‘convert common sense into common practice’.  It is useful to remember that ‘the future is on the periphery’ - we must be future focused but must not forget about the inspiring examples in our past and in current practice and in particular the transformative power of community based action and mutual support.
  • We must look to ourselves, not others for change. In an uncertain political and economic environment, it is all the more important to unlock the energies of ourselves and of our people and communities rather than simply lobbying for change in government.  Too often accountability in the voluntary sector has been seen as an upwards exercise to government, because of the money they have given, but the Better Way model must be mass participation and accountability to people and communities.  There was an interesting discussion re the Dutch Buurtzorg model of neighbourhood care and why this is proving difficult to replicate in the UK context, where so much is controlled from the centre.
  • Putting the Better Way propositions into practice unlocks new energy and resources locally. We heard from activity in Hastings, Taunton and Coventry, where in places which have suffered many unsuccessful attempts to tackle inequality and deprivation, change communities of residents and front-line workers are taking action, in line with the Better Way propositions, pushing at the boundaries of conventional thinking about communities and services.  The Heart of Hastings Community Land Trust is taking a mass participation approach to tackling dereliction and building community capability in the Ore Valley. A micro-provider network in Taunton has created opportunity for local self-employed care providers to provide services to local people in their community for a modest fee, with accreditation from Community Catalysts, keeping skills and wealth circulating within the community.  A ‘mind the gap’ initiative in Coventry takes public sector leaders and decision makers out of the ‘dead spaces’ where decisions are usually made, into walk-and-talk sessions in parks and city centres with front line workers and residents.
  • The stories we tell – and how we tell them - really matter. Telling the story is a key way forward to make the Better Way real, to unlock belief, commitment and action.  By drawing on the rich and positive experience around us we can ‘give ideas friends’. We also need to be willing to be braver and more outspoken in what we say. We can learn from the public narrative model of storytelling, starting with the self, then us, moving to why this is urgent now and ending with a call to action. This is more dynamic than case studies, which all too often remain "on the shelf". 
  • Understanding the barriers to change is important and we need to do more of it. For example, the scaling up model is wrong and we should stop defining success by size but rather by the extent to which we are building the conditions for human relationships to flourish – ‘good rather than big’.  Another example is that we need to unlearn almost everything we are conventionally taught about leadership - the role of social activists is to grow the capacity for change making in others, not simply to lead the change ourselves.  And we should give much greater prominence to the role of the front-line, and encourage the blurring of lines between service users and paid workers.
  • The Better Way propositions are often given lip-service but not followed in practice -  we are beginning to develop pointers for applying them well.  For example, on co-production, we have started to evolve a litmus test (questions to ask: is people’s time valued; does everyone have the same information; who makes the decisions; does change happen as a result?).  We can also develop distinctions that will help develop better practice eg between self-efficacy and co-production at a community level to create co-design.
  • Organisations as well as communities and services can be transformed by the Better Way propositions and become beacons.  In discussion, we started to builda shared sense of what makes for a Better Way organisation- eg clarity of purpose; an ability to describe desired change; deep listening to service users/customers and other stakeholders; walking the talk in everything we have control over; generous and collaborative leadership where the common good is put before institutional interest; a practice of sustainable development; permeable models which allow users, staff and others, to play different roles at different times; honest story-telling which may include for example a collective-impact narrative which acknowledges that positive change is usually the result of several agencies working together; and radical transparency which provides insight into the benefits and disbenefits produced by an organisation.  

A question to explore further is how best to encourage organisations to align their princples and behaviours along these lines while avoiding the kinds of standard-setting or quality assurance mechanisms which too often produce ‘gaming’ rather than real change - and which in any case others might do better.  Another concern is that we become too focused on improving and preserving existing organisations when real change may be generated in other ways, and by very different groups.  Indeed, we should be encouraging the breaking down of institutional walls and boundaries – permeable platforms may well represent a better future than many current organisational models.  Possibly we can make progress by preparing ‘provocations’ designed to stimulate organisational reflection and change, but which are not prescriptive.

  • We must widen the network.  This must include bringing young people with us, but not in a tokenistic/’bussing in’ way.  We must go where the energy is but should try to stop the network becoming a civil society one alone and make it (naturally) more diverse.  We should also welcome people into the network who can bring insight into ways in which emerging technology can help to advance the Better Way propositions
  • We want to build collaborations across the cells and the network will develop the IT support ("the scaffolding") to facilitate it.  There is a real energy and interest within the network in working on certain areas, such as developing the stories that will be the foundation of a future call to action, new models of leadership and how to ‘bite the hand that feeds you’.

In conclusion, it was agreed that (subject to resources for the network continuing) the network will take action as follows:

  • We will set up a working group on the narrative, which will develop contagious stories that illustrate the propositions (and may potentially also point to what makes organisations embody A Better Way). 
  • We will also set up inter-cell groups on leadership and on ‘biting the hand'.
  • We will put in place IT to allow for a better exchange of thinking across cells. 
  • We will look for groups that are exemplars, including people we can invite into the network.   
  • As we develop the network we will seek to broaden diversity in the broadest sense, including involving more young people.


Participants at the gathering (dinner or workshop or both)

Everyone attended in a personal capacity.

Geraldine Blake, London Funders

Richard Bridge, Independent, formerly Community Matters

Libby Cooper, Independent, formerly Charities Evaluation Services

Kathy Evans, Children England

Colin Falconer, Independent, formerly Foyer Federation

Jake Ferguson, Hackney CVS

Andy Gregg, Race on the Agenda

Athol Halle, Groundswell

Rick Henderson, Homeless Link

Peter Holbrook, Social Enterprise UK

DannyKruger,  West London Zone

Rebekah Menzies, Carnegie UK Trust

John Mulligan, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation

Andy Mycock, University of Huddersfield

Polly Neate, Womens Aid

Liz Richardson, University of Manchester

David Robinson, Community Links

Chris Setz, Independent, Hornsey town hall campaigner

Philip Sharratt, Kjelgaard, Taunton

Caroline Slocock, Civil Exchange

Jane Slowey, Independent, formerly Foyer Federation

Jess Steele, Jericho Road, Hastings

Sue Tibballs, Sheila McKechnie Foundation

Julia Unwin, Chair of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society (guest speaker)

Jennifer Wallace, Carnegie UK Trust

Clare Wightman, Grapevine Coventry and Warwickshire

Richard Wilson, OSCA, and formerly Involve

Karin Woodley, Cambridge House

Chris Wright, Catch 22

Steve Wyler, Independent, formerly Locality