Asking lots (of us) to give a little as we build back better

…rather than asking a few (of us) to give up a lot – something that former Mayor of Cambridge Paul Saunders talked to me about many moons ago (pre-EURef) when it felt like no one was taking much interest in local democracy, let alone politics generally. Both the EU Referendum (along with the Brexit fallout) plus the pandemic have forced people to take notice of politics. This is because of the new laws passed compelling people to act or behave in a certain way – with the real risk of things like their firms going out of business, or being prosecuted for non-compliance if they don’t comply.

Now that politicians have everyone’s attention….

I’m reminded of the opening line of Richard III…only we’re about to go into our winter of discontent. Come May next year I expect any proclamations of what a wonderful summer we’re about to go into may not go down so well if all of the problems that are making the daily news headlines continue like this. What’s even worse is that the leading opposition politicians continue to make unforced errors – the latest being Keir’s essay.

…which reminded me of the EdStone.

Waiting passively for national politics to do something?

“What’s it all about – they scream and then they shout. Don’t ask me – I don’t know!”

Can’t say we weren’t warned by Public Image Ltd in 1990.

The problems are political – as former England International Gary Neville highlighted when invited to discuss his new University Academy 92 institution.

A very different sort of ‘giving back’ – not simply throwing money at a cause and hoping it will resolve itself. But then having a figurehead as the driving force behind such civic projects is not a new thing. In Cambridge we had one of our own top sportsmen from the early-mid 20th Century who turned his sporting expertise towards fundraising for a new institution – a sports centre that has since made his name familiar to generations of young people in Cambridge. His name? Kelsey Kerridge.

Friends of our local civic institutions

This came up in a discussion we had at the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History recently. (There are a number of events coming up this term – normally on the first Saturday of the month. I’ll be giving a talk on Homerton College’s John Horobin in March 2022). It was about the Museum of Cambridge‘s new work, and also being more proactive about promoting their Friends of the Museum scheme. This was similar to a conversation I had with some staff at The Junction – saying to them they could routinely advertise their membership and supporters scheme in our local neighbourhood because at a rare community meeting just before the pandemic broke, feedback from local residents was that they didn’t know much about The Junction as it did not advertise locally.

Many civic institutions have supporters clubs – from the large such as Cambridge United Football Club and the Fitzwilliam Museum, to the small such as friends of branch libraries such as Milton Road Library Friends.

Half the challenge of encouraging people to get involved is making them aware that such civic institutions exist. It’s one of the reasons why when people talk about ‘hard to reach groups’ my reply is to encourage them to go and do their outreach activities where their target audiences are, not where you want them to be because it’s convenient for you. At the same time,

Creating the space for the interactions between civic institutions and potential new supporters to take place

There are a number of options available for the city council to make use of the spaces it already owns. The Guildhall is the big one, and they have used it successfully at their Volunteer for Cambridge Fairs. They were due to schedule one for 2021 but the lead-in-time is now too great, and inevitably the burden of the pandemic has made it impossible to spare the officer time.

Above – the 2017 Volunteer for Cambridge Fair

For me these events demonstrated proof of concept: Open up a large open space, invite groups to set up shop, tell them to bring all of their friends and get their friends to tell even more people. (On top of traditional forms of advertising).

As I mentioned in the above video, my original proposal involved replicating the universities freshers’ fair model – invite local community groups to book stalls, and invite the city in. It doesn’t have to be in The Guildhall either. Given our experience of the pandemic, it may be that the existing organised summer events on Parker’s Piece and in local residential parks might be better alternatives. As you can tell from the video, you don’t have the problem of noise and echo!

Could the council go for a formal reception event to support civic society organisations?

Again, it depends who their target audience is – but it is a format they have tried before and successfully with mayoral annual fundraisers.

In this case, you could simply have two sets of tickets, one for representatives of civic societies and institutions, and another set for people interested in signing up as formal supporters. One group might wear a red badge and the other, blue badges to help facilitate conversations.

And we’re not talking big money support. The annual contributions many of the schemes I’ve seen ask for is less than what you’d spend going out to dinner or on a night out clubbing. At the same time, it enables residents to build up a longer term relationship with that civic institution. So if the council were to host such a formal reception (recall this is an institution that used to host society balls in times gone by), the challenge to the city might be to encourage people to pick just one of the institutions and sign up for one year. Or “One for One” if you want to play with branding.

The reasoning behind this is that it’s not the ‘give and forget’ model of soliciting funding, but rather encouraging people – in particular those more affluent, to form longer term supportive partnerships with our civic societies so as to sustain them in the long run. Furthermore, it’s also a means of integrating the many thousands of people who move to Cambridge for study or work, and who otherwise might find themselves isolated in a new city. This recognises that Cambridge has a higher turnover of population that other places because of the nature of university courses and fixed term contracts in a number of our city industries – ones that result in people moving not just to other cities but other countries too.

From that growing pool of supporters….

…some of them might feel more willing and able to get more involved, and do more for the city. Others inevitably may find it’s not for them. The inevitable population turnover means that some people will move on to other places – to be replaced by new faces. Hence such receptions could become annual events to account for this.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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