From civic foundations
Established in 1583 by the then town council, the University has historic roots in community relations.
Tucked between a supermarket and a charity shop in the Southside area of Edinburgh is a small vennel, giving the locals – students, young professionals, the elderly – a brief respite from the rain, and a quick shortcut to the Pleasance. However, the alleyways of the Southside can be a target for graffiti, antisocial behaviour and mess.
Thanks to the enterprising work of the local Southside Association, and a grant from the University’s Community Grants scheme, the alley known as Gibb’s Entry is now home to a technicolour mural by local artist Kate George. The project saw the community – including the University – come together to create the artwork, which has brightened up the space and created a sense of local spirit.
Unlike the other ancient universities in the UK, Edinburgh was founded by the local people through the town council, not the church – the first in the English-speaking world to be established on a civic foundation. The histories of the city and the University can be told through that close connection, from the volunteers of the Settlement movement in the early 20th century to the City Region Deal, signed in the University’s Bayes Centre in 2018.
However, it wasn’t until 2016 that a strategic consideration of the relationship between the University and the city was established, with the launch of the Community Engagement Strategy. That document was spearheaded by two very determined members of staff, then Head of External Affairs, Moira Gibson and Professor Lesley McAra, Assistant Principal Community Relations, currently heading up the Edinburgh Futures Institute.
With the Community Engagement Strategy, came the commitment to put the University’s money behind its local communities, with a new grants scheme.
“Since it first launched in 2017, the Community Grants scheme has given out over £320,000 to more than 100 organisations,” says Gavin Donoghue, the University’s Deputy Director for Stakeholder Relations.
Positive social impact
The projects supported by these grants all aim to have a positive social impact, while in some way involving the University. As a result, the projects themselves help to maintain and strengthen the relationships between the University and its local communities.
Applicants apply for up to £5,000 for a project, which are then assessed by a University panel. A recent round saw a focus on responding to the Covid-19 crisis. Successful projects included an emergency food service in the area of Craigmillar, a support project in the Inch district, and a computer delivery project across the city.
Plan Bee, a project run by Youth Vision, was given a grant in 2018 to allow vulnerable young people from south west Edinburgh to get involved in a community beekeeping project. The activities created space for young people to talk about vulnerability, and other issues important to them.
Brandon, a young leader on the project who said he had ‘wised up’ as a result of helping out with Plan Bee, also revealed: “I’m constantly learning something new.”
One key aspect of the grant scheme, according to the University’s Community Engagement Manager, Sarah Anderson, is its ability to foster deep partnerships that go far beyond the transfer of funds. Those deeper partnerships can happen when the project is closely aligned to work already going on in the University.
“Re-Act: Refugee Action Scotland is currently working with Dr Deborah Holt in the University’s Moray House School of Education & Sport, to provides maths and English support to the children of families new to Scotland,” Sarah explains. “Within my team, we’ve been sharing with them, the lessons we've learned from running digital skills support projects with the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust and Pilmeny Development Project.”
However, projects don’t need to have an existing partnership or relationship with the University to receive a grant. Creating new connections, and helping to navigate the complex structures of the University, is a big part of running the scheme for Sarah and her colleagues.
“We have been very keen to ensure a level playing field so that communities who do not have a pre-existing relationship with the University have the same chance of getting funded as those who do,” Sarah explains. “For this reason, we have required grants to either add value to existing partnerships, or create a new partnership.”
The growth of the Community Grants scheme has had ripples beyond the projects themselves.
One of the main attractions of the scheme is not just the new relationships created with the University, but also the new connections created among grants holders. One example of this was the network of organisations who have received funding, holding conversation groups during the past few months, on how to adapt to Covid-19 and how to find other sources of funding.
Funders have said that the value of that relationship with the University and accessing a new network was more important than the money for the project itself.
Reviewing and reflecting
What are the benefits of investing more than a quarter of a million pounds into local communities? It can be hard to measure the impact when it is split across more than a hundred projects that spread from West Lothian to East Lothian; from city centre to suburbia.
However, the University plans to build on the success of the community grants scheme by diversifying its beneficiaries and trying to measure its impact. These are the commitments within a new Community Plan launched in late 2020, part of what Lesley McAra describes as: “reinforcing the significance of the University’s relationship with our communities, by placing social and civic responsibility at the forefront of our ambitions.”
“The Community Grants are an integral part of the Community Plan,” she continues. “They are a practical embodiment of how the University seeks to deliver positive change, in partnership with our local communities.”
Reflecting on the scheme, Sarah Anderson is most proud of the tangible impacts of the micro-grant scheme – a more recent addition to the scheme which sees community groups able to apply for up to £500 at any time.
“These grantees have reported things like a child having their birthday celebrated for the very first time in their life as a result of the funding awarded to a counselling service,” Sarah explains. “University funding also supported a number of emergency food projects during lockdown – again, it is impossible to overstate how needed this funding was.”
The Community Grants scheme is currently open for applications for its ninth round.
Hear from some of the members of groups that have benefitted from a community grant.
- Video: Our Community Grants
- Funding opportunities at the University of Edinburgh for community groups
Photo credits: Barnardos, Kate George, Rich Tildesley.