11 lessons from America to inform our work in place

In September, we traveled to North America to find insights, examples and lessons to inform and improve our work in communities and places in the UK.


Written by

James Burrows, Managing Director

We met with over 30 organisations in eight cities working in disadvantaged neighbourhoods still reeling from the housing foreclosure crisis. Almost everybody we talked to saw reducing racial inequality, wealth building and small businesses growth in deprived neighbourhoods, and workforce development and training as the key outcomes necessary to bring about change.

Here are the key insights we took away to help achieve these goals:

Get to the root of the problem

Only projects and initiatives connected to the wider system will achieve long-term impact. Think more about which are the key policy and strategy levers that can be pulled to make big systemic changes.

The importance of data

Data and knowledge should inform future strategy, and can inspire local people by demonstrating how much their place is changing. You need a data budget for every project, but you can also use existing studies, or find innovative and cheap ways of collecting data, such as in Detroit where locals map vacant deteriorated houses by collecting photos.

Coordinate and collaborate

Full-time coordination is key, rooted in the local community to build partnerships, spot gaps and take a long term view. And collaboration on the ground is vital, especially when organisations are used to competing for grant funds. You need them to work together to ever achieve anything substantial. Wider partners should come from a range of functions – when developing a housing strategy, involve the local police, local employers, etc. Ensure the coordinator knows what each partner is looking to get out of the partnership, and keep playing that back.

Community engagement

The community can give you two key things: insight on the status quo, and insight on what they want. They may come up with viable solutions, they may not. But don’t spend years developing strategic plans – get practical quickly.

Build density

It’s really important to layer and build density rather than distributing funding, investment, energy and effort too thinly across too many places.


Low-income communities need good design too. Midtown Detroit had the right balance of community engagement, design-thinking and bringing in the investment and resources to match projects. All three elements are needed to make good projects happen locally.

Where do you start?

Housing? Employment? Community voice and empowerment? It all goes together, and all at the same time. There’s a fine balance of development.

Be flexible!

Each place has similar big picture needs (good quality affordable housing, the right retail offering for the local people, appropriate jobs, skills training etc.) but the mix of each will be different. Don't tie your hands or restrict yourself too much; if things shift, or you find alternative effective ways of creating change later on you want to be able to shift.


It’s so important for local wealth building to obtain land and housing. Create wrap-around services (ethical realtors, mortgage brokers, etc). Acquisition, stabilisation and refurbishment of property plays a really important role.

Wealth Building

This came out as a strong theme in every conversation we had. How can you preserve wealth locally and help people into home ownership? Can social enterprises service the supply chain?

Just Do

Don't wait for perfection: learn by doing; encourage by succeeding.

If you want to find out more about our trip to North America and how these approaches could work in your community, get in touch with us at: champson@bigsocietycapital.com and jburrows@bigsocietycapital.com