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#SIDeclaration policy proposal: Social Innovation Fellowships

Why I’m proposing a Social Innovation Fellowship?

“Observe and interact” is one of the permaculture design principles, often mentioned first. What can we observe in a world today and what kind of interaction could bring permaculture ethics - Earth Care, People Care and Future Care - into life? There is an enormous need for climate action and mitigation, and for top-down solutions to be complemented by bottom-up action. That’s already happening at the levels of streets, neighbourhoods, and villages. Issues related to precarious work are worsening, particularly for younger generations. Virtually no employers are offering jobs in community-led climate action and nature regeneration - and that’s something many people would love to do, provided that they can make a living doing it. Instead of investing public or private funding into projects that may or may not create lasting benefits, why not also invest in people who are intrinsically motivated to work for the betterment of their local community and the planet? Funders could collaborate with different actors of regenerative movements and offer, for example, a 3-year ‘Community Fellowship’. While I see this fellowship primarily working to address the urgent needs of community climate action activists, it’s possible that it could support the needs of community actors pursuing other relevant local causes too.

Nenad Maljković is permaculture designer with special interest in social and economic aspects of permaculture. He facilitates Social Innovation Community’s Climate Innovation Network and is coordinating Transition Hub in Croatia.

What is it?

A salary for people working to develop local change initiatives, such as setting up Transition initiatives, to cover their basic living costs and enable them to devote time to leading change in their communities. Training stipends and mentorship supports should also be made available to activists where skills gaps or other learning needs may exist e.g. data or digital skills. In addition, a budget should be set aside for literature and multimedia or online learning resources (e.g. MOOCs).

Why is it needed?

Most community-led initiatives rely on the voluntary labour of a small number of skilled and committed activists, who must therefore reconcile their work with the need to generate an income. Many such people face intense and ongoing personal pressure, living in states of serious financial precarity and/or overwork. Burnout is a common consequence, which forces many people to scale down or abandon their work altogether.

In spite of doing productive, value-adding work, intrinsically motivated activists are often left with little choice but to choose to keep working on their life’s calling while doing low-quality part-time work, or being technically ‘unemployed’. Coupled with this is the fact that European countries have different rules around unemployment benefits: often the places with the greatest need for this type of community-led activity have the least supportive social protection systems.

Project funding is time-limited, tied to organisational development and project outcomes and often doesn’t cover a whole person’s salary - meaning this approach is insecure and not well suited to the task of setting up and running local change initiatives that are likely to become sustainable in long-term. Therefore, a fellowship model like this could help free community climate action activists - or other community-led innovators - to focus on doing valuable work, with potentially huge societal and environmental benefits, that up until now have tended to be undervalued or overlooked by ‘traditional’ employers.

How could it work?

The European Commission could invite established organisations with strong community links - such as foundations or Transition hubs - to administer fellowships in their regions.

Volunteers working on local change initiatives would apply for fellowships. If successful, they would become employees of these organisations on, for example, 3-year fixed term contracts - giving them a stable income and the ability to focus full-time on their initiatives.

The approach should be piloted and tested in different geographies: it’s likely to have different requirements, potential and outcomes in different places.

A variety of models could also be tested. For example, fellowships could be match funded by communities. Or academics could ‘adopt an activist’ - with several universities joining together to co-fund a community activist’s salary, with EU funding matching that. The link with academics would provide a platform for advising, mentoring, documenting and communicating the activists’ work and to build new networks of researchers and activists who might eventually engage in collaborative projects.

In fleshing out the details, the EU could learn from the experience of similar models, such as Ashoka fellowships.


Idea originators: Nenad Maljković, Daniel Pargman

Would this idea make a difference for you? Could it be improved? We’re keen to hear your views! Email or follow Sophie on Twitter @SophsASophist  to make your voice heard.