For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking about community benefit a lot over recent weeks. I’ve always had an interest in what a community actually is, how it forms, why some never form and why others fall apart. My second job was in community education and development so this really is a long-term interest!
My recent interest has been revived, partly because of work activity, also because of some continuing voluntary work I do, and underlined by discussions around community development in my local area.
"I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can."
George Bernard Shaw
Having been interested in the topic for so long would suggest that I should have some expertise, but I find myself with more questions than answers, and a sense that it remains a slippery area to define.
If you work in the field – and usually that is public or voluntary sector – a lot of terms are used that seem to me to be a bit narrow. Thinking and researching specifically about the term 'community benefit' reinforces the idea that this is something that is ‘done’ by the voluntary sector and ‘managed’ by the public sector.
And this tends to mean the public sector monitors and approves contracts where community benefits are additional – with the implication being that they are only delivered because the private sector has to do it to get a contract.
What I find irritating here is the inference that community benefit is not being delivered by many commercial companies. I don’t know about you but having a shop, and a garage, and a builder, and an undertaker, and a TV installer, and so on, feel like community benefits to me!
And these are just the little local companies. I also think having water and electricity and digital connectivity feel like community benefits. Also – and this might be seen as heresy – my community benefits are augmented considerably by using my multi-national produced laptop – on which I am writing this – and driving around in my multi-national produced car, and indeed keeping in contact with friends locally, nationally and internationally, using multi-national produced software. And the lists go on and on.
"We don't accomplish anything in this world alone... and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one's life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something."
Sandra Day O'Connor
I have been round the block enough times to recognise no sector is completely pure, nor completely corrupt – it is of course complex. And I am a great believer in what we used to call the ‘mixed’ economy.
A mixed economy combines the advantages and disadvantages of different types of economies: market, command and traditional, underpinned by a strong civil society i.e. non-governmental and non-commercial individuals, groups and organisations that promote ‘social interests’ – yet another slippery term!
The idea is that civil society is the counterbalance to the excesses of the public and private sectors and often the stimulator of social innovation. But as we know from experience this is an area that also needs regulated.
Anyway, my point is that my community benefits come from across all sectors of society – and I am grateful for the range and quality that we enjoy, indeed often take for granted, in our modern economy and society. Look at the choice and variety of produce in the image above, not to mention the local economic and employment opportunities.
So, a plea for moderation and understanding, The fact that our society keeps functioning – and indeed is coming back steadily after the Covid pandemic – is one of these everyday miracles of human civilisation.
"The future of every community lies in capturing the passion, imagination, and resources of its people."