Working alongside people in poverty — JRF’s journey so far…

Sarah Campbell
4 min readNov 5, 2019

When it comes to working alongside people in poverty to co-design solutions, we have come a long way in just a few years! In just a short period of time we’ve managed to achieve:

· A strategic focus that clearly reflects the issues most important to people in poverty

· A commitment to co-designing solutions to those issues

· A cross organisational approach to becoming more grounded and present with groups and individuals affected by poverty;

· A funder plus, responsive model that shares more power than simply resource.

But how did we end up here?

I joined JRF at the end of 2016 — just after the launch of our Solve UK Poverty strategy. We were redefining and honing our new mission, and ‘Working alongside people in poverty’ was an aspiration within that, but at that time it was unclear what this meant or looked like.

We were undergoing a profound communications overhaul, since research showed that communicating on statistics alone was not enough to mobilise people to take action or even to create an understanding of what poverty in the UK was. We knew that effective communication of what poverty looks and feels like needed to be a major focus going forward. Backed up with a robust evidence base that we were already effective and skilled at.

But whilst important, social change requires much more than storytelling, and it needs much more than organisations telling stories on behalf of people. We need to bring about change with them rather than on behalf of them.

This was the start of a yet another profound journey of culture shift to become an organisation that truly works ‘alongside’ those it is trying to effect change for.

Rolling on a few years, where did we land and what have we got to share?

- Power sharing — first of all, it was important to acknowledge that this was going to require some power sharing. Our strategic objectives had to reflect not only what the numbers were telling us were important, but what people affected by poverty were telling us were important to them. If we didn’t do this we would be effectively acting on what we deemed to be important and needing change, and not considering what people themselves felt was important. Shifting the role of people affected by poverty from a passive to an active contributor changes that and ultimately affects their lives.

- Solution development — a natural follow on from how we prioritised issues was then how we developed solutions to them. We again took on board the ethos of with and not to, therefore meaning co-design was the natural conclusion.

- Grounding — this was perhaps the most profound of all changes. Working ‘with’ needed to mean so much more than bringing people into our JRF space to develop solutions that then we ultimately own and take credit for. What about the groups led by people on the ground who are relentlessly trying to bring about change? How could we properly listen to those routinely ignored, talked over groups that aren’t not taken seriously? How could we as an organisation get out from behind our desks and ground ourselves in the realities of the people we were trying to make change for? And how could we ensure that this was not the responsibility of just one person in the organisation but that this sits right across the organisation part and parcel of people’s roles. We are mainstreaming this responsibility to sit right across staff teams within the organisation.

- Funder-plus model‘Middle class people can start campaigns and that’s really unfair’ said one member of a grassroots group we spoke to recently. As a funder, we are privileged to have access to funding to deliver an idea or try out a way of working. Part of our transformation is developing how we work with small groups to strengthen existing work, but also to see what else we may be able to offer. This could look like expertise on policy, communications, connections into decision makers, advocating for people in poverty to have a seat at the table and much more. But crucially, this must be responsive to what the group’s self-articulated needs are. This is the basis for a genuine partnership that invests back into groups as well as bringing their expertise into our own solution development. We have been exploring this type of model through our APLE and Poverty2Solutions partnership work.

We have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time and I’m excited about the implementation of what promises to be a much more powerful way of working, and one that hopefully is in some small way an antidote to the difficult context of our time.

Have you attempted co-designing solutions or tried out more active participation work? Have you encountered any challenges embedding this into your organisation? Feel free to comment below your thoughts!



Sarah Campbell

Head of Participation and Advocacy for JRF. I lead our work on participation and co-design approaches to policy development and influencing.