Helen Bone – a future built by communities themselves
“I’ve been in tears at seeing what can happen”, says Helen Bone, a regeneration and community development worker who has been an eyewitness to the difference made by Quartet’s work for more than two decades.
More of that later, but first a bit about Helen, who describes herself as being “passionate about communities taking charge to design solutions that will work for them.”
As opposed, that is, to having the answers imposed on them from above, or from outside.
“Less well-off areas have had years of things being done to them, and often the residents know when something won’t work, or won’t last, or won’t really be the thing that makes a difference.”
Quartet, she explains, is not some remote organisation sitting in an office in London. “It’s been around so long that it really knows the communities it works with.
“It’s about assessing when it’s the right time for this community or organisation to have this investment, and the ability to do that so well comes from being around for a long time and having built trust. There are some difficult conversations and decisions, and trust is essential to being honest about how things are. Money at the wrong time can be worse than no money at all.”
Helen’s first encounter with Quartet came about 20 years ago when she helped a community organisation apply for a small grant to develop a plan for its future. That got the planning started, and opened up access to other kinds of support. The organisation now own over a £1 million of small business space in the city and no longer rely on grant funding.
It’s a classic Quartet story. “In Lawrence Weston, for example, where I have been working since 2010, the community wanted to develop community plan and applied for the first bit of money to get it started.
“Off the back of that modest grant we got more from other partners, and in the end the Lottery gave the area £1 million in recognition of the great work they had done on their plan.”
One of Helen’s recent projects has been in Southmead, where she has again been helping residents to develop their own plan for their own community with support from Quartet – the essence of its approach: “I’ve been working there for about four years. We started with the residents door-knocking the whole estate to find out what needed to be done, then we had a big meeting with bodies such as the police and the council and together the community came up with a plan.”
The plan costs – and Quartet worked with the community to secure a national grant of £250,000, which is being distributed directly by the local community to address their own priorities for the area.
“The community employed a volunteer coordinator to get more people volunteering; set up a boxing club; a programme to help people eat more healthily; a new website and noticeboards to let people know what is going on; a youth worker to help keep the youth centre open; and more.”
But a quarter of a million is, in context, about half the price of the average house in neighbouring Westbury-on-Trym. To change the lives of an entire community for that price is excellent value.
Rather than just a hand-out, Helen explains, grants help underpin action by people who know their communities best because they live there, which means that every pound spent seeds further action so that the benefits escalate.
Now back to those tears, with which Helen’s story opened. “I was contacted by a mum in Southmead,” she said, “who was involved a local sports club which has a base there. We worked together to get some funds via Quartet to send some young people on a residential summer coaching course.
“We live in a consumer society and if you want a service you pay for it. But if you are on a low income you cannot have it, which is where this particular grant came in.
“Then I heard about one of the boys who went on the course. He had had some troubles, but came back fitter, happier with new friends and heaps of new self-esteem.”
But what really moved Helen was how this initial success effected the boy’s mum. After finding out how to access funds for her community, she felt fired up to pursue other sources of intelligent grant-giving (the money is never just handed out), having never taken a leadership role in her community before.
“For example, the kids used to have to travel miles for specialist goal-keeping training, which is tough when you don’t have much money in your pocket. So she helped them use some of the grant money to get it set up locally and it grew, became a centre for goal-keeping, and made a real difference.”
The examples come thick and fast when you talk to Helen. Elsewhere in Bristol, she said, there was the man who 20 years ago wanted to set another youth sports club but needed £500 to do it. Nobody, he thought, would trust him with such a sum of money. But he bumped into Quartet and – after checking out the idea – they backed him. He’s never stopped since; working in and for his community, bringing about change, and all because someone believed in him when nobody else would.
But, she adds, it is never just about throwing money at something. “There are two sets of clients here; the donors, and the communities or organisations who benefit from the grants.
“Quartet helps both parties by finding out and flagging up where support is most needed, and then advising on how that support is best used once it is given. That’s not an easy balance to strike, and there are risks involved. Quartet never wants to take the credit for it, but its work has become increasingly important as the cuts in state funding bite.
“The state is withdrawing beyond recognition and there is just a lot less money around to provide services, which is why Quartet talks to philanthropists.
“Austerity has undoubtedly had the biggest impact on those less well off”, says Helen. “But with Quartet’s help we can still create better places, with space for communities to take charge themselves.