As I climbed aboard the 7.07 Virgin train out of Euston, coffee in hand, I was excited. Excited by the potential that the day held.
"We need to focus all our energies on creating services that respond to what our communities need and want."
- Colin Crooks, CEO Tree Shepherd

I knew what I wanted to find out – I had thought about my questions over several days. Things like; How do you manage your volunteers? How do you select the clients you support? How did the business model work? But I also knew that I would find out so much more.

I would find things that resonated with me and others that didn’t. I’m a great believer in the unconscious minds ability to pick up things that our rational mind is oblivious to. Armed with my rational questions, coupled with an excitement of what the day would reveal, I embarked on my Knowledge & Skills Exchange generously supported by Locality.

First stop was the Rotunda in Liverpool and a meeting with the extraordinary Maxine Ennis. Maxine has converted an isolated, decrepit building of marginal relevance to the community into a very visible, beautiful, well-organised, bustling powerhouse that puts itself at the centre of local needs.
I was struck, reading my notes afterwards, how the answer to every question brought us back to individual needs.

A volunteer’s need for acknowledgement and for support (whether they were a professional offering business advice or a local person helping out in the building). An ex-offender’s need to avoid sanctions when probation interviews clashed with jobcentre sign-on times, or a parent’s need for childcare before they could enrol for any courses.

Understanding these needs had driven the adoption of new services; individualised development plans for each volunteer, the ability to sign-on at the Rotunda (a first in the country and something that I would never have thought possible) and the creation, at risk, of a nursery.
And I was struck by the passion for quality. From the standard of maintenance in the building, the warmth of the reception through to the design of the garden the Rotunda all spoke of an insistence on quality.

I left Liverpool with my head buzzing and my heart warmed and took a train to Wigan where I was met by the incredibly energetic David Baxter from Abram Ward Community Cooperative. Very soon I was in the brand new “Made in Wigan” shop in the centre of town. This is much newer project and is at the beginning of its journey.

I immediately recognised the relative quietness that characterises the workspaces that Tree Shepherd has started. While our focus is on very local start-ups the focus here (Supported by Power to Change) is on the creation of Community Businesses in Wigan.

Just as we’re working hard to find local people in London willing to take the leap into workspace the idea of Community Business was taking time to germinate in Wigan. Currently, there are relatively few but the potential for more to emerge is clearly there. However, one of the things that struck me from the discussion in the shop was that the funders’ focus on Community Business and an ongoing definitional debate about what one looks like is hampering the progress of the Made in Wigan idea.

But we didn’t dwell on that as we were off to the centrepiece of the AWCC – the enterprise centre in Abram Ward itself a few miles out of the city centre. This is a very different building to the Rotunda, but it is experiencing what I imagine were very similar issues that faced Maxine 12 years ago. The village has been redeveloped considerably with the high street virtually disappearing and the enterprise centre is now surrounded by new housing.

Our timing wasn’t great as we’d arrived quite late in the day but nevertheless I could see evidence of significant activity; a new café, a men’s shed that had been incubated in the building but which now had an actual shed to work from, a creative group for people experiencing isolation and a number of charity tenants.

Both Maxine and David had long associations with the buildings they were running, and both had been very surprised to find themselves responsible for them. Both had inherited them in a dysfunctional state. In Maxine’s case, 12 years on, she has made the Rotunda into a go-to community hub, but it has been a huge challenge. David is, like me at Tree Shepherd, at a much earlier stage in the journey and while he has clearly righted the ship, he is still charting its course.

Two very different places at very different phases of their evolution. But one story helped me make sense of the two. David related that when discussing how the success of the Men’s Shed could be replicated for women the idea of a “Women’s Shed” was mooted. Great idea! Except, of course that the women didn’t like it – what they wanted was a much more domestic environment to meet in. And that, it seems to me, is the key to our movement’s growth and the main thing that I will take back to Tree Shepherd.

We need to focus all our energies on creating services that respond to what our communities need and want. In the business world they call it “know your customer” in our world it must surely be “know your neighbour”.

Blog by Colin Crooks, CEO Tree Shepherd

With huge thanks to Maxine and David for their warmth, openness and wonderful hospitality.

Thanks also to Locality for enabling this through their very imaginative Knowledge and Skills Exchange and thanks to Virgin and Northern Trains for running completely on-time which made the whole trip possible in one-day!