Kate Hamilton, Renew Wales
Kate Hamilton is programme director of Renew Wales, which helps communities to live more sustainably and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Though Renew Wales is an environment-focused programme, it works with groups throughout the sector – many with no immediate interest in green issues. So the starting point, Kate explains, is to ask, “what does matter to them, what they think the future should look like”. It’s an approach that also gives her insights across the voluntary and community sector in Wales.
We’ve funded Renew Wales £2,617,000 to support communities to take action on climate change. The programme was also a partner in the Fund’s Climate Action Top Up pilot.
No return to business as usual
The pandemic brought a much more flexible response from the third sector. Kate praises its ability to move at speed, to be adaptable and creative. She also liked the Fund’s approach, giving organisations the freedom to react in the moment and set priorities on the ground - which she sums up as “Do what you need to do, we’ll sort it out afterwards”. And, she adds, “It does make you sit up and say – why is that not how we do community-based work anyway?”
She found “something really vindicating” in the way the sector suspended many of its own rules, with organisations working in more joined up ways. “People don’t live their lives in thematic boxes: this is an environmental issue, this is a health issue, this is an education issue. People live their lives in the round, and all these things interact and influence each other.”
In normal times, both public policy and the third sector “seem to thrive on these incredibly chunked up ways of thinking. How much more could be done if we didn’t put rigid boundaries around it?” But in the crisis, “grassroots groups and community groups have been able to respond across the piece.”
She acknowledges that the usual processes, “where you have to prove your case in these particular ways, then do exactly what you said you were going to do”, are “robust and auditable”. But she argues that there are lessons here, not just for the sector but for “the whole architecture around the sector – that ability to be flexible, to put trust at the level where appropriate actions need to be determined.”
People don’t live their lives in thematic boxes: this is an environmental issue, this is a health issue, this is an education issue. People live their lives in the round, and all these things interact and influence each otherKate Hamilton, Renew Wales
Trust over proof
That would mean “a shift towards trust rather than proof. Take some risks, or at least be comfortable with not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. Let decisions get made in response to need, at the level at which they need to be made, not through this rigid architecture of approvals and permissions and project plans.”
She’d like a change in culture, aimed at resourcing a community’s capacity to do what it needs. It would mean cultivating “a relationship, so we’re in touch – it’s not like they’re going to take our money and run! – but there is that sense of mutual trust and mutual commitment to doing what is needed in that place.”
“I know that actually the Lottery is a brilliant funder in terms of being flexible and responsive – but still, the starting point is you need to apply to do a thing, you need to prove that that thing was needed.” She wants to see organisations who have the trust of both communities and funding bodies, who can then “do what is needed when it’s needed”, and be “held to account for doing that, rather than just reliably delivering scheme X which you described three years ago in a form.”
The pandemic brought a much more flexible response from the third sector. “It does make you sit up and say – why is that not how we do community-based work anyway?”Kate Hamilton, Renew Wales
Kate regrets how “grant dependent” the voluntary sector can be. “The first assumption, of any piece of work you want to do, is ‘Where are we going to get a grant to do that?’ There’s something quite depressing, quite disconnected about that.”
She feel that’s a weakness “at system level. It doesn’t matter how brilliant or ethical a grant giver you are, or how successful an organisation you are, it’s just a fundamentally unsustainable situation.”
She’d like to see more acknowledgement of ongoing needs. “It’s as if we’re trying to tick things off a list, and once they’re done they won’t need doing any more. For me, the short-term, endless cycle of new funding to do new things is part of that. It implies you should only need to do something once. That flies in the face of everything we can see around us. Communities, societies have always needed to come together around meeting the common good.” And most of those activities need support: the voluntary sector does them “because there is not a commercial proposition underneath them, and people’s incentive for doing it is not commercial or financial.”
Shifting the bigger picture
If we accept that needs are long term, “Success doesn’t look like things finishing, it looks like things set up to keep going.” You might only need to build a community garden once, but you keep replanting, every year.
She’d like it to be “less about the delivery of start stop projects, more about becoming an accountable, effective and vibrant organisation that intends to exist for the long term, and keep serving that community.”
That means asking wider questions about what will make a difference. One of her colleagues recently shared a report from 15 years ago, “and honestly, it could have been current. Some good things have happened, but we haven’t shifted the reality that some people have really dire lives, through nothing that’s within their control. And those tend to be the same communities you’d have said that of two decades ago, three decades ago.”
So while she wants to celebrate the third sector’s successes, “if it’s not adding up to the big picture change, then we are missing something. If that involves rethinking how we position ourselves in relation to other leaders of change, in the economy or the policy world, we need to do it. We can’t just go, well, that’s their business and we’ll carry on doing the cosy stuff.”
For Kate, the voluntary sector shouldn’t be seen as “a universe unto itself.” She’s excited about Wales’s legislative ambitions for wellbeing, the environment, and “the kind of country we want to be – but it can feel like not really noticing that that’s not the kind of country we are.”
Success doesn’t look like things finishing, it looks like things set up to keep going.Kate Hamilton, Renew Wales
Long term or moving on?
Renew Wales itself has already lasted much longer than expected. “One of our little quirks is that we’re not really an organisation. It’s a long standing programme – but when the funding runs out, we cease to exist.” So she’s thinking about “how to embed all the good things that have happened – the relationships that have been created, the initiatives supported, the good experiences – and even the bad ones, which have been usefully shared with others – how to embed all that in a network of stakeholders and participants.
“So that when it ends, it doesn’t just leave this big void, we haven’t created such an infrastructure that when you remove it, a load of other stuff collapses. We’re trying to leave the legacy embedded in the network.”
There’s also the possibility of developing a new programme, “and think about what does that need to look like for the decade we’re now in? Ten years ago, talking to any communities about climate change was a very different challenge. Now it’s on everyone’s lips. That creates huge opportunities to go much further.”
Kate Hamilton spoke to Zoë Anderson on 17 March 2021. This page was last updated: 12 June 2021.