Research Insights & Findings

Informal community initiatives are a unique entity, separate from more formal types of organisations and institutions. 

Beyond providing a functional service or being a catalyst for stronger, more resilient communities, community initiatives also can be an important tool for surfacing new or divergent urban challenges, and prototyping and testing new approaches towards service delivery in the city. This role emphasizes the importance of supporting initiatives to push the envelope on innovation – defined in this research as an initiative’s use of “uncommon or unorthodox approaches or tools to achieve its mission.” However, a review of 29 community initiatives in Singapore found that this is the currently second lowest scoring category of 14 organizational dimensions, indicating that this is an area that could be further strengthened.

One way that informal initiatives are likely to innovate is through the nature of their work. 63% of unregistered community initiatives say they “do something no other initiative / project / group does in Singapore,” compared to 41% of registered community initiatives.

Next to innovative approaches, the evaluated initiatives score lowest on government partnership. This leads to a second point:

There is a need to more deliberately consider how to engage institutions in “double loop learning,” leveraging and integrating the knowledge and service delivery models from community initiatives. Double loop learning refers to how organisations learn and adapt (Argyris, 1977). Whereas single loop learning is about learning existing policies and processes, double loop learning focuses on knowing, understanding, and even questioning, the assumptions that underpin existing policies and processes (Groot and Maarleveld, 1999 in King and Cruickshank, 2012). Oftentimes, the process by which this occurs is through feedback loops and other “interactive processes involving multiple stakeholders.” (Collins and Ison, 2006). Collins and Ison (ibid) further clarify the value of these processes, critiquing the traditional policy paradigm for often being “undertaken in isolation from their social context and with limited awareness of the (systemic) nature of the situation in which the issue arises.” The productive, grounded approach of community initiatives thus make them highly valuable stakeholders to contribute to double loop learning.

Based on the survey, the types of causes that community initiatives currently engage in are (in order): raising public awareness on social issues (56%); strengthening community bonds (54%); providing services for under-serviced populations (49%); improving city’s systems (e.g., improving cleanliness) (23%); and influencing public policies on social issues (21%).

Organisational dimensions of community initiatives (average score of 29 initiatives)

Government Partnership, 4.00%
Public Acceptance, 7.20%
Public Presence, 5.70%
Network, 5.90%
Ambition, 5.70%
Innovative Approach/Tools, 4.20%
Uniqueness of Initiative, 5.90%
Mission Fulfilment, 7.10%
Funding Sufficiency, 5.80%
Initiative Ownership, 5.90%
Leadership Experience, 5.40%
Leadership Commitment, 7.10%
Leadership Charisma, 6.40%

Causes that community initiatives currently engage with (n=57)

Other Research Insights and Findings

 

There is a tendency for potential initiative founders to be discouraged from starting something new, rather than joining an existing initiative. This stems from a fear of ‘oversaturation’ or confusion to the public and institutional partners if there are too many initiatives doing similar work.

  • While joining existing ‘tried and tested’ initiatives has benefits, there are also many positive reasons to encourage new initiatives to take hold. For instance, new initiatives can introduce different ways of working, creating a diversity of approaches and opinions. Many initiative founders also enjoy the process of starting their own project, which creates more ownership and agency than if they were to join an existing project.
  • This was reinforced by many initiative leaders, who expressed interest in learning from others through mentorship or apprenticeships, but stressed the importance of maintaining their own initiative.
  • There are many reasons that interested individuals have cited for not starting their own initiative, including: not having enough time, being afraid others won’t be interested, not knowing how to go about doing it, inertia, and lack of a clear vision. Should “someone else is already doing something similar” be one of them?

Networks and relationships are highly important for community initiatives.

  • Initiatives that are partnered with other initiatives / groups with similar goals and causes are more resilient and able to overcome resource constraints, and are more likely to believe that their initiative is making an impact on society-at-large.
  • There is a strong desire for more opportunities for networking and connecting with other small, informal initiatives, particularly those who are working in similar or tangential fields.
  • Challenges with developing meaningful partnerships can include initiatives feeling like they are competing with other initiatives for resources and support, or concerns about intellectual property, appropriation and adequate sharing of credit. These areas should be carefully worked out between initiatives to make collaboration more effective.

Many grants are available for community- and socially-oriented initiatives, but they can be difficult to access. Funding should be targeted towards helping initiatives to innovate and expand beyond their initial pilot.

  • Approximately 80% of initiatives require some funding; of these initiatives, approximately 20% of their budgets come from government grants. The most common forms of funding are fundraising and donations (29%) and self-funding (27%).
  • There is a mismatch between what many existing grants fund, and the activities that community initiatives wish to fund. This can include items such as training, support for longer-term strategic planning, transportation reimbursements for volunteers, etc.
  • Initiative founders are often motivated by passion and curiosity when they start out, and are more focused on testing their proof of concept rather than its long-term financial viability and sustainability. Thus, many self-fund when they first start out. Indeed, limited resources at the early stages of an initiative can be a driver for creativity and resourcefulness.
  • Funding opportunities, such as grants, can be more transformative at a later stage, when the initiatives have a clearer sense of where and how the funding would be most useful to them. Grants are also effective to stimulate the growth of an initiative, or help them test out a new approach or activity.
  • However, grants are not always seen as a desirable source of funding. The most common reasons cited for not utilising grants include cumbersome requirements and forms to obtain grant funding and be reimbursed for costs, desiring to stay independent of government agencies, and restrictions on how to spend grant funding.

Capacity building beyond grant schemes are desired and important.

  • The top needs as identified in our survey are: Finding Partners and Sponsors, Fundraising, Marketing and Outreach, Volunteer Recruitment and Space for Events.

Most Needed Types of Support

  • Information about the different resources for initiatives are fragmented across multiple websites and agencies, and can be replicated inconsistently across different platforms – making it hard to navigate and to know which sources to trust.
  • Community initiatives are smaller and more informal than most social organisations, such as VWOs, and therefore have fewer resources and capacity. Information and capacity building should be tailored towards the specific needs and restrictions that apply to their type of entity.
  • A user-centred approach should be taken towards resources that are offered for community initiatives. Initiative leaders generally do not have the time or expertise to cut through highly technical language, assemble different requirements from multiple sources, etc.

It should not be assumed or expected that community initiatives desire to sustain or scale their work.

  • Sustainability is not a universal goal or natural progression for community initiatives. Some groups are successful in what they do precisely because they are focused on a very specific mission that is achievable within their capacity. 28% of initiative leaders say they are likely to disband once they have accomplished certain goals. The same percentage also say that they feel obligated to sustain their initiative, but would prefer not to if someone else could do it.
  • The perception that starting an initiative can require an indefinite, or long-term, commitment can discourage people from starting something new.
  • Even when groups desire to continue their work, this does not necessarily mean that they want to/have the capacity to scale (e.g., conduct more activities, serve a greater number of beneficiaries or expand into a larger geographical area). Scaling often requires an initiative to significantly recalibrate its work and is not a matter of “simply doing more.”
  • Because of this precarity, community initiatives should not be expected to assume full responsibility to continuously troubleshoot structural societal problems.

Impact is difficult to achieve, and difficult to measure

  • 25% of community initiative leaders that expected their initiative to “contribute to society-at-large” failed to feel like they had actually done so. However, initiative leaders reported having their expectations exceeded in areas of personal fulfillment and growth, such as gaining new contacts, learning new skills, and a better understanding and empathy with social issues.

Expected vs. Actual Experience of Initiative Leaders

  • Because community initiatives often work on complex, intractable urban challenges, it can be difficult for them to show immediate impact. Sometimes, impact is small and incremental, but the sum of many similar actions can result in larger scale change over time. Beyond their immediate activities, community groups serve intangible functions, such as shedding light on opportunities or issues that are not highly visible.
  • Oftentimes, impact is measured through proxies (social media likes, number of people who attend events), rather than outcomes (reducing homelessness) because there are no accepted or accurate indicators for this type of work.
  • At the start, very few initiatives are deliberate about measuring impact; goal setting is often intuitive and based on learning-by-doing. The focus is primarily on seeing if the proof of concept ‘works.’ As they mature, the question of impact becomes more pronounced, especially for those who are considering scaling up.
  • We continue to support the notion of “impact” defined as an initiative’s ability to systematize its actions and learnings over time; i.e., contributing towards a broader, more structural impact beyond their immediate, everyday actions. (Please see the Outcomes section for more information on a proposed method to operationalize this definition of impact). Using this definition, there is room to further boost community initiatives’ impact, particularly in the area of engagement with government policy and practice.

While there are channels for community initiatives to engage with government agencies, many have a hard time attaining meaningful collaboration.

  • Many community initiatives desire a meaningful way to engage with government agencies, to share their work and collectively problem solve. However, they find it difficult to establish such relationships. Government agencies can be responsive to specific requests, but are often seen to be less approachable for more in-depth dialogue.
  • Initiatives tend to take a collaborative or subordinate approach, rather than an adversarial approach, with government agencies. They are careful in asking for too much at once, and try to be strategic about their requests so as not to seem too demanding or reliant.
  • Bureaucratic complexities, such as not knowing which authority to go to for different needs, often generate frustration and resignation from initiatives. Processes, forms and requirements are generally not very user-centric and difficult for small scale, volunteer-driven initiatives to comply with. By the time official approval has been received for a request, it may be too late.
  • What can be perceived as a lack of support from government agencies at the start of an initiative can make building trust and collaboration more difficult at later stages. Initiative leaders are sensitive to feeling like they are only supported after they have become successful, or that they do not receive due credit for their work and ideas.
  • There is room for government agencies at all scales to consider how they can better and more meaningfully engage with ground-level initiatives.

The social and institutional environment is not always receptive to the more informal, boundary-testing nature of community initiatives.

  • The informal, local nature of community initiatives can sometimes be at odds with existing regulations and practices. There is a need for more capacity building at the agency level to consider how to integrate community-driven efforts into the regulatory framework, or even to figure out how to enable them despite the regulatory framework. For instance, residents wishing to conduct placemaking activities in their void deck are likely to be deterred by the many regulatory hurdles and challenge of coordinating with multiple levels of agencies.
  • To better allow community initiatives to experiment, existing institutional norms could be geared more towards “getting to yes” through engaging more deeply and empathetically with the initiatives. Civil servants who work at a strategic level can consider how to connect with innovative activities occurring at the ground level, and how to enable and systemize local expressions of creativity and self-empowerment into policy frameworks so they can occur more frequently.
  • Similarly, existing approaches of dealing with complaints and resolving problems are insufficient to deal with the diverse opinions in society. Fear of complaints from other residents are commonly cited as a barrier and deterrent for people who wish to lead community initiatives. Oftentimes, these complaints are directed to authority figures, such as the Town Council, rather than trying to resolve the concern directly with the people who are associated with the initiative. A common outcome is that the authority will take corrective action, such as through bans or fines, rather than working towards a shared outcome. This approach can stifle civic creativity and innovation, and create a fear or disincentive amongst residents of taking initiative within their community.
  • On a structural level, there is the need for a more in-depth discussion about the role of civic initiatives in Singapore. In their own way, they challenge the existing order and norms, which may not be desired by all. A tendency towards self-action can be seen as a contradiction to the centralised systems and structure that play an important role in Singaporean society.
  • If we are indeed to move towards a more participatory, ground up way of working, we will need to consider how we reconcile this space where top-down meets bottom-up, and how we can further enable difference, creativity and innovation in our collective imagination.