Our 2018-22 strategy was framed by a question: ‘what does it take to improve a place?’ Read CEO John Hitchin’s review of the objectives we set ourselves for that period.

John Hitchin Renaisi CEO

Like at least half the social sector, Renaisi is developing a new strategy.

As we work on it, we’re looking back at the objectives we set in the last strategy and thinking about where we are now. To say that we didn’t expect the last two years to have gone the way they did is something of an understatement.

Our 2018-22 strategy was framed by a question: ‘what does it take to improve a place?’ It was designed to be open and give us space to explore that question broadly.

Obviously, we weren’t going to get to a definitive answer, so we had some more precise objectives. Here I share my thoughts on those 5 objectives.

Objective 1. To advance thinking and practice in supporting and improving areas of the country in a place-based way

We started with an essay. Or more precisely, 21 essays, including one I wrote in 2019 that considered how the concept of place could be useful in the future. In it, I wrote that only by being clear about what we mean when we say ‘place’ can we begin to use the power of the term to create more substantial and meaningful change.

Then we were commissioned to do a significant study with Save the Children that helped us think about the role of funding in place-based systemic change. It led to several publications defining language, tools, and frameworks to understand and measure place-based change. It has shaped a lot of our work on place-based approaches since.

Since then, we have done place-based research for many funders, communities, and partnerships. We’re currently the learning partner for Local Motion and Youth Endowment Fund among others.

We have seen saw a growing interest from practitioners, so we launched a place-based community of practice, which now has over 200 members, and has been a source of much shared learning.

In 2021 we became a founding member of Place Matters, a partnership committed to accelerating the impact of place-based change through learning, because no one organisation can – or should – do that on their own.

We end the strategic period with much more practical knowledge that we are codifying and using, an active community, and several commissions for using place-based approaches.

Objective 2. To build the case for how using the concept of place in policy and delivery can achieve greater impact and change

Much of our championing of place-based approaches happens with clients and partners behind closed doors.

But with ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back’ on political agendas, we have shared our research and advocated for place-based approaches with the government and we’re backing the We’re Right Here campaign and the Community Wealth Fund Alliance.

Building on the work we did with Save the Children, a report for London Funders on the context, challenges and opportunities for place-based funding in the capital is a good example of our advocacy to funders.

We also shared tools and advice on evaluating place-based approaches at conferences for New Local and the UK Evaluation Society.

The place-based content on our own website has been viewed more than 10,000 times, and with growing interest and awareness of the power of place we will continue to share what we learn.

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Objective 3. To improve the quality of the social sector (public and voluntary) through spreading excellent practice of evaluation, learning and organisational decision making

During the life of this strategy, we have worked with hundreds of organisations of different sizes, scales and remits, doing some amazing work with public sector and voluntary teams – not all of which we get to share.

Two examples of how our work has evolved and had an impact in the social sector, include:

Our long-term relationship with Power to Change. We have evaluated multiple streams of their work and led learning partnerships across their portfolios. We shared findings at all levels of the organisation and to a wide range of partners. We have used data to communicate precisely to boards, worked with partners on innovative methods to understand impact on community businesses, delivered collaborative sessions on the role of place in developing community businesses, and interviewed hundreds of community business leaders to help them tell clearer and more powerful stories about their and the role of different kinds of finance.

We have worked consistently on youth social action learning in the last four years. In partnership with Dartington Service Design Lab and the Centre for Youth Impact, we play a role in the #iWill Learning Hub, which has given us a wide-ranging understanding of funding and delivering youth social action well.

It has also taught us a great deal about learning. We have developed our ideas about how funders, collaborations, and individual organisations can learn well, and applied it to work with organisations such as Spirit of 2012, Youth Endowment Fund and Right to Succeed.

Objective 4. To deliver life-changing support to individuals in our target boroughs that supports them out of situations of exclusion

Since January 2018, we supported around 4,000 individuals and maintained really high satisfaction levels despite the delivery challenges of a pandemic.

Of the people we helped into employment, 63% started work within six months of enrolment on a Renaisi programme. While we are proud of our ability to help people get a job, we’re equally proud of their self-reported increase in skills, confidence, and wellbeing as a result of our support.

The demands of large-scale contracts and the needs of the people who are most marginalised by work and welfare systems have made us think differently about our support for individuals.

We’ve given back contracts, like the Work and Health programmes, which were neither good for us nor the people we’re here to help.

We learnt how to respond to a crisis like COVID with a focus on wellbeing, communication and hardship support.

Now our team say where they are creating impact is by helping people living in poverty address issues related to housing, food, benefits, and debt. Employment outcomes won’t happen unless the team can focus on those issues.

We are turning our attention to contracts that allow us to offer a more holistic service, such as supporting people from Hong Kong to settle in the UK, supporting refugees to learn English and integrate into their new community, helping parents to progress and earn more, and employers to create more inclusive workplaces.

Objective 5. To meaningfully bring our practice together to become a learning organisation, making our structural tension our strength.

Back in 2018, we were advised to streamline our offering because the breadth of work and issues Renaisi dealt with was too varied and we were pulled in too many directions.

I believe (most of the time) the diversity of experiences, approaches, and work we do makes us stronger. There are very few, if any, research consultancies that can call directly on their colleagues for frontline experience, for example (and vice versa).

Our strength comes from the fact that we work with all the people and organisations that can help to improve a place. We have a view right across the system.

So we changed the way we talk about our work and updated our brand to emphasise the strength of our combined offer. We brought colleagues from across the business together to share experiences and we took on joint-working projects.

There’s always more to do on this front but our brand, the investment in our middle managers, and internal initiatives that are leading to new approaches are pointing the way forward.

What next?

The coming years are going to be defined by inflation and global shifts in power and supply. The political response to the fallout will dictate the landscape we work in but there are some things that I know will matter:

  • Distribution: If you’re not interested in the distribution effects of policy, you’re not interested in policy. We want to focus on groups, issues, and places where the negative effects of policy are felt the most. Places where socio-economic inclusion isn’t evenly experienced.
  • Power: Fundamentally place-based change is about a bounded set of relationships, and how power gets distributed across them. Genuinely spending your time on that can, and does, change the way people, organisations, funders and systems see the world and do their work.
  • Perspectives: Diversity of perspective can unlock the hardest of challenges. Through learning processes and holding tension, we don’t want to shy away from that real opportunity that is at the heart of Renaisi.

We’ve learned a lot about what it takes to improve a place since 2018. Now we’ve got a new senior team and a new strategy launching in the Autumn.

There’s more to do. I’m excited about the years ahead.

John Hitchin CEO