ABCD – Building on what’s strong

Movement building is all about getting people to act on their thing and organising collective effort for a purpose (Marshall Ganz). This requires energy, passion, conviction, ideas and leadership. Plus a new kind of collaboration based on relationships, behaviours and trust.

Our work is about tapping into the veins of a community and connecting people who care and want to take action. This can be counter intuitive for many of us who are familiar with the more conventional ‘plan-do-review’ approach. One where we write strategies and action plans and then deliver and report against targets.

Movement building is almost the opposite to this. It provides freedom to pursue the energy in a place. Then to support, connect and develop that power to bring about change. This work can be incredibly satisfying and deeply meaningful. But it can also be uncomfortable and feel risky. In this blog, we explore the value, the risks and the tools and techniques we’ve been using to mitigate some of the risks.



The Community Builders and Place Leads have been following the energy and working without a blueprint for some time now. They perceive the most significant value created to be the sustainability of the activities and behaviours which start from within the community.

As Myron Rogers notes ‘People own what they help create’. This is particularly true in the Carr Vale yoga group set up by the community following several requests from local residents. In Petersham, a group of Mums wanted activities for their children over the summer holidays. With support from Zoe, the Community Builder, they established a programme of football coaching, family picnics and activity based social gatherings on the green space in the centre of the community. The football sessions have continued to grow and 40 children are attending weekly. By following the energy in Petersham, new demand has been created. Local people are motivated to find ways of sustaining what they’ve begun to enjoy together.

Real change driven by real people:

With passion there is normally purpose, desire and ambition. We’ve seen this in our work and where this passion for a cause is being nurtured and grown, real change is being driven by real people.

In Fairfield, there’s a strong desire for better access to the playing fields for local residents. Local councillor and County Councillor Cllr Grooby was invited to a recent place meeting. Following a walk around the area with residents and community leaders, she committed to lobbying the key holders (Derbyshire County Council) for a meeting in Fairfield to explore opening up the space for the local people. By following the energy, connecting the wider system and exploring what’s possible, there’s a good chance the space will become part of the community rather than a locked football pitch.

Cost effective:

We’re working in a way which supports people to use their energy to do good things, create new opportunities and connect with each other around a shared purpose. By doing this we’re mobilising previously untapped resources rather than investing in services and infrastructure to deliver what we think is best and right for others. This appears to be a highly cost effective way to build capacity and develop a culture of self-care and personal responsibility.


From a Community Builder perspective, there’s a sense of liberation and freedom with this style of work. Zoe describes it as ‘artistic licence’ – going with the flow, building on what matters to people and seeing where it takes you. This way of working is flexible, creative and purposeful and when it works well is highly rewarding. Enabling others to develop a sense of pride in themselves, their people and their place brings deep meaning to the work.

New Energy:

When we build on what’s strong and follow the energy, new energy continually emerges. Energy attracts and builds more energy. This is evident with the growth of the Fairfield Place Group. It began with four people and at the last meeting involved 12.


Counter Culture:

We’re almost conditioned to plan, deliver, count participants, intervene, help and provide services. ‘What’s your offer’ is a question we’re asked often asked. But there is no offer! We’re not here to provide. Working in a way which is counter-culture and unconventional can be exhausting. We’re having to un-learn old habits and practices which have been ingrained in us for decades and re-learn a new way of being, thinking and relating to people.


There’s an inherent level of uncertainty, not knowing where the work’s going or if it will be successful. When things don’t turn out how we’d like, self-doubt creeps in and motivation dips.

Vulnerability and Isolation:

This work can make you feel vulnerable and isolated. Being immersed in a community takes courage, confidence and an inner belief this way of working is better in the long term and therefore worthwhile. There are times when there is no energy to follow and things go quiet. When Zoe first started working in Petersham it appeared to be desolate. There were no leads, no obvious places to start or people to meet. What then? Back to the plan? Where’s the blue print?

The principle of following energy rather than following a plan at any level can be unnerving. It removes a sense of control and can leave us feeling at the mercy of others. It may even appear we don’t know what we’re doing. This can erode confidence and increase vulnerability.

It doesn’t feel like real work:

Attending community events, meeting residents for coffee and walking local trails in ‘thinking pairs’ can sometimes feel too much like fun.

Passing Fads:

Finding the juice and following the energy means resisting the urge to jump on passing band-wagons.

Walking Football is currently popular and often suggested as a way of getting people back into sport. Nathan was asked to support the development of a walking football group in Carr Vale. But he stepped back when it became clear there was no genuine demand from local people. It was really just the brain wave of a committee member on a community group. At some point further down the line it might be a Walking Football session would enable more people to be active. However, until the time when there is real energy and desire from the people it will remain in the ideas pool. Patience and discernment are key to recognising genuine opportunities for people-led action.

Being Vulnerable:

This work is personal. It requires us to give of ourselves and get out there, be intimate with people and share ourselves. Investing our own energy, beliefs and emotions places us on the edge of discomfort for much of this work.

Pressure to Report Successes:

Finding energy and organising action in the community takes time. This way of working doesn’t fit comfortably into the traditional reporting schedules which focus on KPIs, outputs and outcomes. There can be pressure to achieve quick-wins, report on successes and illustrate progress against top level metric indicators such as participation levels.

Negative Energy:

When we first immerse ourselves into a community there can appear to be an abundance of negative energy – ‘there’s nothing to do here, nowhere to play, litter and poor facilities’. It takes courage and patience to turn negative energy into positive energy for a cause rather than complaining about the status quo.


Over recent months we’ve been adapting our practice to help mitigate some of the risks described earlier. Many of these tools have now become part of our everyday work and have enabled us to be more effective and more at ease working outside our comfort zone.

Pressure to report success and make quick progress:

Agreeing expectations together from the outset avoids disappointment on all sides. We’ve made every effort to involve funders, strategic leaders, partners and Community Builders in the lead up to the Active 4 Life work. Being accountable to ourselves, each other and different parts of the system adds rigour to the process. It keeps us focused on the tasks in hand and our reasons for doing this work.

Uncertainty and not knowing:

When there’s no action plan or blue print for this work and the future is largely in the hands of the community or the wider system, there can be a sense of uncertainty, confusion and lack of control. When the fog descends, talking to others, telling stories and asking people to listen is vital to making sense of what’s going on. We’ve used the Revaluation tool to explore and capture the activity and efforts. This has always provided clarity, solid evidence and revealed what we needed to know at the time.

Reflective Practice has become an instrumental tool in our kit bags for individual reflection, wild writing, thinking pairs and group work. Zoe has used this with residents and leaders in Petersham which has been very powerful. It’s given them the tools for their own lives as well as the community building work. You can read her blog on this here.

Weekly Zoom calls have been helpful in virtually connecting the team of Community Builders who spend most of their time out in the communities. These are scheduled in for an hour every Monday afternoon for open conversation, reflection and checking in.

Self-doubt, feeling vulnerable and isolated: 

Having allies is critical to coping with feelings of isolation and low motivation when the work is tough and it’s hard to find the energy and sparks in a community or wider system. Informal meetings which allow for sharing, thinking out loud, reflecting and musing can build confidence and provide reassurance and this applies to all parts of the system. Intentionally developing relationships with people who act as ‘touchstones’ can be incredibly useful as we have all found. This links to Mark Granovetter’s theory of ‘strong and weak ties’ which is also covered in The Art of Change Making.

Knowing what to expect:

Forewarned is forearmed! And this is so true for this way of working. Having heard about or read about situations which often occur during systems change makes it easy to recognise and deal with when it arises in the work (‘Ah! This is normal!’)

It’s tiring work:

Accepting this work can be all consuming and take a long time is half way to coping when it feels tiring. Debbie Sorkin, National Director of Systems Leadership at The Leadership Centre often reminds us to ‘Keep on Keeping On’ which is sound advice for the long haul. But regular breaks, rest and restorative self-care are important if we are committed to doing this work well. You can’t pour from an empty cup!

If you’d like to know more about the work of Shift we’d love to hear from you. Just drop us a line using the contact form below.

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Unit 134
Coney Green Business Centre
Wingfield View
Clay Cross
S45 9JW