Finding inspiration in the long grass
By Justin Sargent, Chief Executive
If you’re involved in running any charity, it is vitally important to have a clear vision of what you want the world to look like in the future. Keeping yourself and your organisation aligned to that vision is one of the most important thing leaders do, but how often do we really take time out to check-in on that aspirational future?
It’s something that was explored at a day I spent with my South West Community Foundation colleagues in Taunton. In a session facilitated by Vicky Hickey from Wiltshire Community Foundation, we were asked to bring along an object that we each felt was representative of our future Community Foundation in 2050.
I must admit that I don’t always find it very easy or comfortable to engage with these kinds of exercises, so I had been procrastinating more than usual. Having kicked this into the long grass for too long, the night before the meeting I went for a mooch in – yes – the long grass in my garden at dusk, waiting for inspiration to hit me. And, as usual, nature came to my rescue!
Let me introduce this little plant, which I took along with me to Taunton the next day.
It’s called Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor). It only grows to around 20cm tall, with small yellow flowers. But despite its modesty, it has an incredible superpower which I’ll come back to in a moment.
Before that, though, I’d like you to picture a pastoral field in the countryside, or a town park, or just a lawn in a garden. Lovely green grass as far as you can see.
If you think about it for a moment grass is incredibly important. It provides us with many and varied ‘services’, from grazing for sheep, to creating space for us to have some fun, exercise and enjoy the fresh air. Even as I type I am imagining myself on a warm summer’s day playing with the kids with soft grass underfoot.
What’s not to like?
The downside of this is that grass crowds out other plants, particularly when its regularly mown or tightly grazed. You may have attractive and functional spaces, but there isn’t a lot of nuance in fields like this.
You can throw some wildflower seed over the top, and a few hardy plants might take hold and make the place look noticeably and temporarily prettier, but unless the way the field is managed is radically changed the effect doesn’t last.
That is where Yellow Rattle’s secret power comes in: this little, relatively modest flower creates space in grass swards for a much wider diversity of plants to find their space, take hold and thrive.
I’ve seen this over the past eight years in my garden. There was a near instant impact with Ox-eye daisies spreading everywhere, but it has been even more rewarding to see new plants emerging from seed that had been lying dormant for many years. Last summer we even had our first wild orchid pop up.
So how does this relate to our work at Somerset Community Foundation?
Well, in this analogy, grass might be symbolic of large institutions in the public and charitable sectors: they provide our society with essential services that we depend on. It is important to recognise and value this. But in doing so, they can also inadvertently suppress the potential that lies in local communities and grassroots organisations. It’s what Cormac Russell calls ‘doing to’ and ‘doing for’ communities, rather than creating change ‘with’ and best of all ‘by’ communities.
I’d like to think that Community Foundations act a bit like Yellow Rattle by helping to hold the space for communities to access and develop the resources they need to thrive: for people’s hopes, dreams and ideas to emerge, and to celebrate the rich diversity that lies within, which we all ultimately benefit from.
Just as grass cannot do everything wild flowers can do, big institutions like the Government cannot do everything communities can.
Really rich, diverse plant communities do not come into being overnight. It takes, first a radical change of vision and then radical change of system. You have to change the way you manage the field and a disrupter, like Yellow Rattle, helps break the mold. It also takes time, patience and perseverance. In the right conditions, once established, Yellow Rattle and the plant communities it supports will regenerate and evolve every year to produce places like this.
In a similar vein, you can throw a lot of money at a community, and – like throwing flower seed over a normal field – you might get some quick but superficial impact: it is almost always temporary and before long the status quo returns. It is well-meaning but it does not change the underlying nature of a place.
This is why Community Foundations build endowments and focus on creating strong, long-term relationships with our donors because we know that creating long-term, positive change in the things that matter most will take time. In the end, we instinctively know this will take us to a better place, where everyone can contribute to what makes their place tick and gain so much in return. Our job is to align ourselves with the job Yellow Rattle does, and avoid the pitfall of acting like grass!
The exercise that prompted all of this took us to 2050. Despite my discomfort with these sorts of exercises, I think (as they usually do) it has helped me frame the work I am involved in, in a different and helpful way and I hope that comes across here.
I’m interested in hearing what you think about this blog, and if you are interested in helping us create the thriving vibrant communities of the future in Somerset, please do get in touch.