Evidence unpacked: does community power boost wellbeing?

June 22, 2023  

Giving communities more agency has been linked to improved wellbeing. But to what extent is this backed up by evidence? And how do we help harness the benefits of community power – while avoiding the common pitfalls?  

In partnership with the What Works Centre for Wellbeing we took on these questions, examining studies that covered thousands of citizens, from large place-based interventions involving thousands of residents, to small-scale local crisis response studies; from multi-million-pound funded interventions to the unfunded school-based initiatives. 

As we explored this substantive evidence base, we uncovered some interesting findings about how community power is linked to community wellbeing, and why positive outcomes cannot be taken for granted.   

The link between power and wellbeing

We included 27 studies within our review, covering: 

  • Large Scale Place Based Interventions 
  • Community Interventions (including empowerment initiatives, grants, and businesses) 
  • Arts, Health and Public Spaces Interventions 

Our findings indicate that community wellbeing outcomes can be improved through place-based interventions using collective action.  

Most studies reported multiple community wellbeing outcomes. The graph below shows how often these outcomes appeared across the studies. Improvements in social relations, connectivity and community control were the most frequently cited.  

What can help community power increase wellbeing?

We identified three mechanisms leading to greater collective agency and control and three barriers to change.  

  1. Neighbourhood connections – Involving communities as equal partners in the design of place-based interventions creates opportunities for residents to come together. These opportunities increase social connectedness, resulting in improved pride and sense of place. Opportunities for social connection help to create sense of place, collective control, improved mental health and intergenerational relationships.  
  2. Decision making influence – Communities who collectively shape a vision, identify priorities, and act alongside local stakeholders have greater connectivity, increased trust and sense of place. Enabling communities to be equal partners in identifying and prioritising issues increases feelings of trust and builds community cohesion.  
  3. Community capabilities – Increasing the knowledge, skills, confidence, and connections particularly by adopting strength-based approaches within communities develops community power. Where agency is exercised through the design and delivery of place-based interventions, resident confidence, skills, and knowledge increase -leading to a greater sense of control.  

What can stand in the way of wellbeing?

In 14 of the 27 studies, some neutral or negative impacts on wellbeing were observed. 

How can we explain this? We identified three barriers to change that could stand in the way of community power achieving its potential to increase wellbeing.

  1. Failure to address early challenges or losses – Community action may lead to the development or surfacing of tensions within the community. These tensions lead to reduced feelings of connectivity and neighbourhood belonging. Often, residents and stakeholders have conflicting priorities and so conflict is normal and expected. Stakeholders and residents who work together to resolve issues can avoid long-lasting barriers to community agency and control.  
  2. Power Imbalance – Where communities are invited to, but are unable to act as decision makers, collective agency and control is inhibited. In most cases, a power imbalance results from decision m aking about use of funding for communities. This imbalance creates lasting damage within communities.  
  3. Structural Issues – Community agency requires consistency, dedication and commitment. To sustain this, communities benefit from further skill enhancement to enable sustained change post intervention. 

Maturity matters: laying steady foundations for community agency 

In our full report we explore possible reasons for the neutral or negative effects that we identified in more than half of the studies.  

The most significant of these is the need to create the conditions for community agency and power. It takes time and energy for community agency to be sustained, requiring investment – not specifically financial – from communities and key stakeholders. In some of the studies in the review, place-based interventions were introduced and delivered over very short time periods, where agency and control were seemingly new concepts for the community.  

The maturity of community agency within a place is an important factor in determining wellbeing outcomes. There are interventions where significant resource was injected into the community, in some cases resulting in tensions between the community and stakeholders, particularly due to conflicting views about how to use the resource.

If relationships were fractious because of these tensions or because of historical issues, community cohesion, inclusion and control reduced, and trust was broken. Laying the foundations for community agency in advance of the introduction of the intervention will help enable newly developed relationships to ‘form, storm, and norm’.

Significant efforts to establish, develop and maintain relationships were described in some studies, resulting in positive wellbeing outcomes.  

Introducing an intervention alone without creating the conditions for community agency might reduce its effectiveness. Damaged relationships and broken trust reduce community wellbeing. Parachuting in with an intervention only, without creating the conditions for communities to flourish does not appear to be an effective model for positive changes in wellbeing or sustained change. 

This research highlights the importance of not just describing what works well but the value in exploring what does not work well. We draw from our learning to provide recommendations for policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and funders, identifying the need to understand and create the conditions for effective community power and improved wellbeing in our communities.  

This report was produced in partnership with the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, People’s Health Trust and the National Lottery Community Fund.

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