Anchor organisations and community wealth building: working out the ‘How’

I’ve just landed in Toronto for the first stage of my Churchill research, and a 5am jet lagged start to the day has given me some quiet time to reflect on the early conversations I’ve had with organisations in the UK about how this research could be most useful to them.  

Many of the organisations I’ve met with have been inspired  by some of the leading advocates of Anchor organisations – such as Ted Howard – but are now grappling with the all-important question of how they put this idea into practice.

Leading UK institutions are increasingly thinking not just the ‘what’ of community wealth building, but the ‘how’. As often is the case, the language changes across the sectors: in the NHS long term plan there is an intention for the NHS to become an Anchor institution; the UPP Foundation has launched a Civic Universities Commission to look at how Universities can ‘serve their place; local authorities such as Preston, Dudley and Newham have used the term of ‘community wealth building’. Though the language changes slightly, they are united by a common set of ideas and aspirations: how organisations can use their economic power to better serve the communities and places they are based in.

In the early meetings and interviews I have had, many people have also had the same two questions: how do you start to put these big ideas into practice, and what are cultural differences that mean some of the approaches tried in North America and Australia might not land in quite the same way in the UK. They want to know where others have started, where they ended, and all the stories in between.  These conversations have helped me to hone down the focus of my research: I’ve always been interested in the intersection of ideas and practice, and Anchor organisations are a prime example of a big concept that could be interpreted and applied in lots of different ways. No two organisations are the same, and each Anchor I have read about or spoken to so far has carved their own unique path, specific to the cities / regions they’re in, the populations they serve and the socio-economic conditions they find themselves in.

That said, there is a typology emerging of different approaches to implementation that shows some common categories across a whole range of different institutions. I’ll be testing and adapting this typology as I meet organisations on this research trip, and hope it might be a useful part of the final research report.

The most common ‘strategies’ seem to fall into the following categories:

  • Procurement and supply chain: many Anchor organisations have mapped and analysed where their spending goes, setting targets to increase the amount of money that is spent locally, or on specific types of organisations such as SMEs. This is the strategy most advanced in UK based Anchors, thanks in part to CLES’s pioneering work with Preston on city wide procurement and local wealth building.  Some of the more ambitious supply chain strategies have included incubating and establishing employee owned co-operatives as suppliers to fill a gap or failure in the existing market, such as the famous Cleveland Evergreen Model.
    • Local Impact Investing: some organisations have used their financial assets to invest in local communities or social enterprises. The aim of this investing is hugely varied, and ranges from awarding grants to lending start up loans at low cost rates.
    • Workforce and skills:  some Anchor organisations have focused on local recruitment, working with schools and colleges to develop a pipeline of talent, supporting career progression and social mobility pathways for staff, and trying to recruit more of their workforce from particularly disadvantaged neighbourhoods which surround the Anchor organisations.
    • Affordable housing:  some organisations have invested in buying up housing for their staff and students to live in at affordable rates, while others have developed HR policies which offer benefits to employees who live locally and want to renovate or buy local housing.  Other Anchors have supported the creation of community land trusts to keep property and land locked into local ownership. This focus on housing is closely related to the next strategy – the development of public realm (below).
    • Physical development and capital projects: some city and regional Anchors have become leaders in place based regeneration, investing in the renovation of certain areas, physical infrastructure and other capital projects.
    • Community engagement, active citizenship and volunteering:  finally, many Anchor organisations have forged new partnerships with the communities they serve in order to ensure that the work they do benefits the local community. In some places, this takes the form of established public / private / community partnerships, in others an increased focus on employee volunteering.
    • Promoting the local economy: some Anchors have launched campaigns and incentives to support the local economy, encouraging their staff and the wider community to live, hire and buy locally.

There are, I’m sure, other strategies which are being used and – I hope – plenty of learning about how these ones have been put into action and how they could be adapted for a UK context.

This week in Toronto I’ll be meeting the University of Toronto Scarborough to find out more about their Anchor mission, with the Atkinson Foundation who have done a huge amount to support social procurement amongst the City’s Anchors, and the City of Toronto who have focused on social procurement and purchasing power as a key strategy in their poverty reduction work.   

Next stop: Boston….

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