On 3rd July the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) held a day-long event at ImpactHub in Digbeth to explore the potential for partnerships between local community groups and Midlands-based researchers. Public Engagement Officer, Leah Fitzsimmons, and several University of Birmingham academics went along to find out more.

The event, which was open to applications from any interested academics and community groups was part of a scheme called the Community and Universities Partnership Initiative, or CUPI. The idea for CUPI came from two previous NCCPE initiatives; the Schools and Museums and Universities Partnership Initiatives (or SUPI and MUPI, respectively). The format for all three schemes has been to convene a range of researchers and potential partners in a neutral venue in order to develop skills and ways of working, before exploring the potential for new partnerships to arise between attendees. Each initiative consists of several of these matchmaking events held around the country and CUPI meet-ups were also held in Bristol, Manchester and London. The icing on the cake of this format is small grants were available to support budding collaborations formed through the event.

It’s easy to understand why it might be impactful for communities and researchers to come together to collaboratively identify areas of local need and importance and then work together to find evidence-based methods to effect a direct improvement in the lives, wellbeing and/or economics of an area or community. However, these types of projects are not always straight-forward. Whilst we know that community collaboration can enormously enhance research and make valuable differences to society alike, these different groups often have very different methods of working, different timescales and different aims. Community groups often feel that there is a massive power imbalance between them and that they get lost in the academic infrastructure. Additionally, community groups rarely have a clear idea of the importance of or role they can play in academic publishing, which can further alienate groups from one another. However, we also heard a lot of positive experiences and once the participants had been encouraged to open up about their needs and expectations, their motivations and their timescales, the conversation flowed and some really exciting quickly ideas began to take shape.

The final session of the day saw the attendees challenged to create 3 minute Dragon’s Den-style funding pitches for ‘Thinking Fund’ grants of up to £1,000 in small groups consisting of at least one academic and one community partner. It turns out that there’s nothing like to potential promise of funding to focus the mind, and from the bustle and excited exchange of ideas emerged nine brilliant proposals, of which University of Birmingham academics contributed to two. From helping social enterprises and churches with evaluation methods, to exploring the cultural and economic heritage of rail; I was impressed and pleasantly surprised by the creative and innovative projects that for formed over just a few short hours. Of the nine proposals pitched, up to seven will be funded, with outcomes to be announced by the NCCPE in mid-July. Those successful applicants will then have four months to explore their idea before having the opportunity to apply for a further £5,000 of seed-corn funding to begin to get the project off the ground and we really hope to see some of our UoB research helping to make a difference locally through this scheme.

power of local tweet

And if you couldn’t make it on the day, there’s also good news – community partnerships can come from anywhere, at any time and the Public Engagement Team can provide support and help identify potential funding schemes to resource them. From the CUPI event itself, several community organisations expressed a wish to ‘call out’ to our academics so please look out for opportunities which we will be sending out through Twitter, our Team newsletter as well as school and College communications. We would also love to develop methods for communities to let us know of their needs on an ongoing basis so please do let us know your thoughts or ideas on this.