It should go without saying that community groups that share a common purpose and geographical catchment area should be able to draw on each other’s specialist resources when the need arises – for events that are aimed at the broader community for instance, such as a local festival.

The reality is not always thus. Organisations operate autonomously, aware of each other’s existence but not much else. When they enter into the public domain it is to promote their own agendas, apparently neither knowing nor caring what other groups are doing. It’s not unknown for two groups to organise public events that could conceivably appeal to the same audience but which take place at the same time, then neither of them have anything on offer for six weeks.

Could it be that they might serve the community and each other more effectively if they knew who was doing what, where and when? And, who knows, perhaps they might even find out how and why.

This interagency liaison is perhaps best not left to management, but to intermediaries who have an interest in the work of the agencies, plus the knowledge of the local community and experience of volunteering that so many managers lack. The role could be combined with the practical tasks of timetabling, press releases, internet, leafleting, general PR shtick. If competently handled, it would at least strengthen the social ties between the different groups and maybe enable them to present a united front to the local population and to funders.

In order that this article progresses beyond the theoretical, what follows is a brief personal case study of three local groups involved in community arts activities, working on two projects. In both cases, one group provided practical resources while another attended to the human element. As this is neither a free publicity exercise nor a whistle-blowing one, but just an honest reflection of the experience, they won’t be referred to by name or location. So unfortunately they will have to accept the clumsy labels of organisations A, B and C.

A and C had already been collaborating ad hoc for a few years, producing quite well-subscribed public arts events without any major hiccups. My tasks, in two separate projects, were to help A host an event which had some overlap with the work of B, and which B could help to promote without too much difficulty, and to use B’s facilities to provide an outlet for the talents of C’s volunteers.

A is a large community centre which runs well-funded group activities from its modern premises. Paid part-time workers, with some input from volunteers, organise the activities and their success is measured on whether they can attract a quorum. There are good links with some local businesses, although you may need to be a customer of one of these businesses to be aware that something is about to take place. Local people who don’t live in A’s immediate vicinity, or have any direct contact with the organisation, often say they were unaware of events taking place at A. Attendance levels consequently vary.

B is a community radio station with a wide-ranging output, but its audience is not the size it should be, mainly because the service is unreliable. Volunteers are capable and enthusiastic, but a mixture of outdated equipment, failed funding bids, indifferent community relations and a management fond of imposing big but largely unworkable ideas from upstairs without consultation means they’re struggling.

C is a local drama group. There is some social media activity, but it’s mostly down to old-fashioned word of mouth and established connections to obtain the venues it needs for its productions. Administration is done from one of the members’ homes. Generally there’s enough revenue to make the projects worthwhile, and enable future ones, although again it’s a struggle.

Things are far from perfect. In some cases, a more effective media strategy – working with local press as well as the internet – would help, but even this doesn’t yet seem to be taking place. Other problems are directly linked to management style. If internal communication is so poor, what hope can there be for the external variety?

What’s wrong with management? Obviously social enterprises have to be managed, but there’s a difference between producing the company accounts, ensuring adequate data protection, health and safety and so on, and following the example of Organisation B here and keeping contributors and audience at arm’s length. The second approach might suit the first-person-singular mentality of the private sector, but community work requires a lighter touch.

Though the examples here are from established, organised community hubs, there’s no reason why smaller, less formal ones can’t also co-operate. After all, the church coffee morning and the pub quiz serve social functions equally as important as the big event and would be more fruitful if more people knew about them. In a true community, wouldn’t their organisers want to help each other out?

Joe Clark