On the shoulders of giants

James Burrows, Investment Director at Big Society Capital, gives an overview of how we are approaching our work in supporting communities across the UK, seeking to learn from the work of others over many years. This is the first in a series of posts seeking to share lessons and insights from our own work in this area as well as others – partners and colleagues. For more on what we are up to in this strand of our work please see our website, with more updates to come.


Written by

James Burrows, Managing Director

Last month while I was minding my own business in the supermarket, meandering down the 'oils and sauces' aisle looking for the dark chocolate (supermarket navigation has never been a strong point), I was approached by a fellow shopper, who asked for my help:

"Could you reach that tomato ketchup for me, please?"

I duly obliged with a smile, deploying my uniqueness in this situation (being half a foot nearer the sky) and continued on my not-so-purposeful ambling. 

As I was thinking about the way we at BSC are approaching some of our work this year, this not especially revolutionary moment came back to me. Not because we have a diverse array of 57 varieties of engagement (although we do take a varied approach), but for two main reasons. First, that nothing we do we are able to do on our own, and second, in everything we do we are trying to learn from others and our partners, building on the many lessons and paths that myriad others have set out before us.

The quote above, pinched from Sir Isaac Newton "…If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants…" refers to the basis on which he was able to make the leaps forward he did: in large part building on the efforts of others. This sentiment resonates in particular here at BSC as we try to use our capital to help improve the lives of communities in places across the UK. We recognise we may never be the experts in creating change in local communities from the ground up, but we believe can play a role alongside local partners and building on the phenomenal work of many others over past decades.

Whether that's borrowing from the community investing field over in the USA (in fact a pretty close cousin to our collaborative problem-solving, impact-first branch of social investment), from the varied community development movement here in the UK, including Locality and other community-led groups, or the work of our existing partners - for example Power to Change, and Esmée Fairbairn, or a range of colleagues from our current portfolio, amongst others DERiC, Bristol and Bath Regional Capital, SASC and their Community Investment Fund, Social Investment Scotland or Pure Leapfrog and their work around community energy. From all of these groups with in-depth knowledge of working in places we continually have a lot to learn and build upon.

From this, our approach to how we learn as a team has three elements:

  • Learning in: where reports, conversations or additional research will be helpful to inform our approach
  • Learning across: test, pilot, try, update, iterate, try again, applying these lessons in practice
  • Learning out: sharing is caring and we will be more daring with updates on how we're faring to shine a light on anything glaring (this rhyming's rather wearing… but you get the point)

We think embedding this learning is especially important as the impact we can help enable under this strand of our work at BSC can grow in three ways:

  1. By working in more places across the UK: expanding the reach we have
  2. By improving the quality of the work we are doing: creating greater depth and breadth in all we do, aiming and executing better first time
  3. By sharing our own learnings, templates, ideas or tools: so that others could pick up and run with them without us needing to be involved

As we are going on this (at times literal) journey around the UK, we will provide insights into how we and partners are getting on. The intention is to provide a platform for others we are working with as well, so our own wittering and navel-gazing isn't the main part of this.

That said, our aim is that this will hopefully help you know how to engage with us:

  • Feel free to invite us into things you are working on where we could play a role
  • Spark ideas from you! If you have anything that chimes with what we are discussing please send them our way
  • Share out what we are learning so others can pick up the baton in different ways

So that’s enough from me for now - we'll check in again in due course, where we will be standing on someone else's shoulders and seeing what we can see.