Organisations without walls 

Better Way roundtable, 16 May 2019


Caroline Slocock from Better Way identified the problem: organisations can operate as if they are an end in themselves, erect walls between people and between organisations, hoarding rather than sharing power, failing to collaborate.  They can build a poverty industry, seeing their business as achieving delivery targets, and people as units of production, or as the problem. But of course there are many counter-examples, as articles in our Insights for A Better Way document and blogs on the Better Way website illustrate. Many of these are focusing on building communities not services. At their best they engage all elements of a community and unlock its power.

  • Karin Woodley, who reminds us to keep our organisations ‘personal’ and practise ‘radical listening’: communities should be seen as partners, not consumers, and be representative of those they serve.

  • Clare Wightman, who demonstrates that people in the community can sometimes provide better support than that provided by organisations and services.

  • Ollie Batchelor, writing about how they’ve established a food co-op, rather than a foodbank service, in Gateshead, who says it’s a community ‘where every person matters and brings their own strengths and qualities to the table’.

  • Sona Mahtani, who explains how the Selby Centre in Tottenham brings a diverse group of people together from right across the community and ‘unleashes creativity, opportunity and energy people create themselves’.

Radical listening

Karin Woodley from Cambridge House described how our sector has been walking a path towards self-destruction.   We have broken down service users lives into disconnected problems, and as a result have stigmatised users and failed to combat oppression, serving instead the patriarchal requirements of funders and stakeholders.  We undervalue lived experience, and constantly marginalise people. Our models of tackling exclusion have become complacent. 

But a practice of radical listening can help organisations to become authentic change-makers, transferring control back to the people we work with, bringing people with lived experience to the fore, and stimulating outside-in continuous improvement. 

Organisations need to act boldly to change their own composition. At Cambridge House the CEO decided that for six months the only people to be recruited were those who had been in prison, and made it happen.   

To become radical listeners is a real challenge. Our support models imply that service users are not as capable or as confident as us. Our communication is undermined by saying too much. We need to get much better at engaging people we work with in conversations where we listen rather than talk.  

We need to learn, in group and one-to–one meetings, how to place the emphasis on questions rather than propositions. We need to stop ourselves recapping what has been said, making generalisations, categorising, joining the dots, proposing solutions.  Only in this way will we create space for authentic insight to emerge.

We need to develop a theory of change which is based on the agency of the people we work with.  We can only succeed in this if we liberate our front-line delivery staff, stop undertaking short term projects, and see ourselves not as in the service of the state but rather as radical activists for change.

A community not a service

Clare Wightman from Coventry Grapevine acknowledges that formal services are sometimes needed but what people usually need most is what services can’t provide.  Love, companionship, friendship.  Services are limited but what people will do for each other can be unlimited. Clare told us about a boy with Downs Syndrome and his mother.  The boy was locked out of school, left in the playground in the rain, punched someone and ran off.  Services were offered – counselling, a parenting programme – but this help didn’t help. Grapevine connected the boy and the mother to people who were prepared to help as friends, who would be there for them in tough times.  At school the boy had been rejected for the school pantomime, and failed the literacy requirements for the drama courses, but it turned out he had acting skills, and, encouraged by his friends, is now a successful actor and dance artist.  

Coventry Grapevine received funding to help 1,000 people to become physically active.  Rather than a project or a programme, they build a social movement, mobilising people in the community to mobilise other people, leading from the back.  They ignored the targets, in the expectation that the numbers would look after themselves, and they did – and moreover, four of the six initiatives that people set up as a result are still going.  

The difference is this. A service model usually means providing limited help for people who need it, focusing on a particular problem. A community model is fundamentally different. It taps into richness and abundance, with multiple mutually beneficial relationships, producing lots of additional support and activity.


Community is what we do and how we do it – not simply a synonym for place.  Community models can enhance accessibility, especially where people are free to act on their own ideas and run with them, rather than fit into a pre-set model.  But we do need to acknowledge that not all community models operate in accessible ways, and some groups can be made to feel unwelcome in some community settings, because of race, or class, or other characteristics. 

Some of us feel that there is an important and legitimate role for government, to help society become fairer, and kinder. Others that government will always be an impediment because it cannot listen well, it always tries to control and direct.

Our responsibility is to be catalysts for change, not produce the change our leaders want to see. 

Radical listening can be informed by the practice of coaching, or of action learning. It requires more than passive listening, for example asking questions in the spirit of inquiry. 

Most forms of ‘co-production’ fall short of radical listening. Radical listening implies a shift away from services, and towards the practice of mobilising people to mobilise others. It implies that design and decision making should be much closer to those affected.  Using techniques such as community organising can make subsidiarity real. 

In the field of homelessness for example, people can become institutionalised by the charities, separated from wider society.  The task must always be to reconnect people to society.

How can we nurture more radical listening, and bring about a shift from services to community? We need a national narrative to promote these ideas.  We need better mechanisms to help people determine the outcomes and benefits which matter most to them, rather than being expected to conform to those established by remote governments. We need to find ways of creating space and time for people to come together to make the difference they want to see.  We need positive ways of dealing with negative community behaviours. We need to reward bravery, courage, the entrepreneurial spirit. We need more charitable trusts and foundations and public institutions willing to think in this way.