Lessons from abroad: community wealth building and ‘Anchor’ organisations

Where do you start when you’re presented with an opportunity to take a blank sheet of paper and design your dream research project – one that enables you to travel abroad and bring the learning back to the UK? Well, after an initial wave of day dreaming, head scratching and a long list of ideas that was slowly whittled down, I submitted an application to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and then very firmly crossed my fingers and waited.

Six months later and I am about to depart on said dream project, travelling to Canada and the U.S. this Spring, and to Australia later in 2019 to explore how Anchor institutions are using their economic power to benefit the community that they are ‘anchored’ in.  

The term ‘Anchor organisation’ has been around in the U.S. and Canada for a number of years but it is only just gaining momentum as a model that could offer new opportunities to the UK’s towns and cities. A head of steam is building:  Preston Council has been working to re-direct its spending into the local economy; there is a newly established a Centre for Excellence on Community Wealth Building run by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies; the NHS Long Term Plan name checks the term; and a recent national enquiry has explored what the concept might offer England’s Universities.

So what are the core features of an Anchor organisation?

  • They are typically – though not exclusively – not for profit organisations that are based in a city or town and are unlikely to move location, usually because their purpose and mission is intrinsically bound up in that area. Examples could include Manchester University, Bristol Children’s hospital, the Museum of London, Leeds football club or Glasgow airport. These organisations are unlikely to take flight if another city offers lower corporation tax or higher levels of productivity. They’re ‘anchored’ in these geographies and often act in service to the local community.  
  • Anchor organisations are also often one of the major players in the local economy, and can use this economic power to create wealth and improve opportunities for the people in that place. Some common strategies used by Anchors include:
    • Spend: re-directing their spending so more of it goes into local suppliers, particularly small to medium sized businesses.
    • Workforce: intentionally hiring staff from under-represented backgrounds (and so tackling labour market inequalities). Some organisations are going further, and are working closely with local schools, universities and job centres to proactively develop the skill sets they need.
    • Investment: some organisations are using their pension funds or financial endowments to invest in social and community led enterprises, either through low cost loans or by supporting and incubating social enterprises or worker co-ops before spinning them out.  
    • Partnership: almost all Anchor organisations forge strong relationships with local community organisations and seek to be more closely connected to the organisations within their city. Some also lend their intellectual capital – their skills and expertise – to support the local community in their own endeavours.

There’s also an innovative range of infrastructure organisations and supportive philanthropic foundations that have created a wider ecosystem of support which has been pivotal to the success and growth of Anchor organisations in North America. There are now organisations like CASE in Chicago that provide key services, such as spend and workforce analyses, to Anchor organisations. Other organisations provide learning support, such as peer to peer networks across the health sector.

There is much to learn from these examples and I’m excited to be able to spend some time with the inspiring individuals and organisations that have been pioneering these ideas for many years. New political structures such as the City Mayors, policy imperatives including local industrial strategies and a surge of interest in the idea of inclusive growth all offer a window of opportunity for local leaders in cities and towns across the UK to ensure their organisations lead the way in tackling disadvantage and promoting opportunity.

I’ll be posting reflections throughout the trip this Spring, and then working with others in the UK interested in this agenda to share the learning back home.

This fellowship is supported by The Rank Foundation and the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

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