Future Support and Advice to Rural Communities

This report explores the nature and level of existing support and advice available to rural communities in Scotland.


1.1 Rocket Science was commissioned to review the advice and support on funding that is available to rural communities in Scotland, with a specific focus on the role, performance and future of Rural Direct, a national information service provided by Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) on behalf of Scottish Government.

1.2 We have consulted widely with rural communities and support providers and worked with SCVO staff to analyse the management information related to the Rural Direct service.

1.3 Our main findings are:

  • Rural community groups' needs in terms of advice and information on funding are complex and diverse, with some groups requiring intensive one to one support and others reporting that infrequent support is more suitable. Advice providers also emphasised that community groups often "don't know what they don't know", meaning that the required level of support may be higher than community groups have suggested in this research.
  • Across a wide range of areas of advice and support, rural community groups did not feel that their needs are met by currently available support. Areas of support which were less frequently required by community groups were advice and information on non-grant funding options such as crowdfunding/loans etc. and on training. Some community groups valued training and saw this as very important, while others had less interest in this than having others provide them with a service, based on their limited capacity as a volunteer.
  • The provision of advice and support around funding for rural communities is complex and diverse, with some identified risks of duplication of efforts amongst different providers, from Third Sector Interfaces (TSI), Local Authorities, LEADER (an EU funded bottom-up approach to rural development), National thematic organisations and other local organisations.
  • Despite there being significant identified capacity for funding advice (which was questioned by advice providers), advice providers reported that the demands on them were high. Community groups' responses identified gaps in the availability of high quality support across all of the areas of funding advice and support that were suggested to them in our research.
  • The most significant source of capacity that was not currently being fully used was the experience, expertise and knowledge of those in communities with a history of successful project development and implementation. This related well to the high value placed on this source of support by communities and other providers. It was recognised that for this to work would require local resources in terms of brokerage and travel and administrative costs.
  • In general there was a consensus that the best source of advice and support would be a local one and the TSIs were identified as being the obvious source of this, having been established to 'provide a single point of access for support and advice for the third sector within the local area[1]'. However, to fulfil this role they would need support from a national service in terms of the quality assurance of advisory staff, the resources for the brokerage of peer to peer support and the expenses associated with this, and a single source of information about funding available for rural community projects. In the medium term at least they would need to work in close partnership with other local providers, notably Local Authorities and LEADER projects.

1.4 The findings from our review of Rural Direct service are:

  • Delivery has been "patchy", with some reports of a high quality service from knowledgeable staff with specific expertise around rural funding routes, and other more critical comments about a service which has not been focused, or not been accessible or of a high quality. The sample size of respondents (either community groups or advice providers) who gave an indication of their views about Rural Direct was small (notably lower than the number of responses to other questions).
  • Awareness of Rural Direct was low amongst community groups in the sample, even when taking account the caveat that Rural Direct has been scaled back (so not necessarily at the forefront of respondents' thoughts). Awareness amongst advice providers was much higher (75% of the sample who responded had heard of it), but the number of advice providers who indicated that they knew even a little about the nature of the service was low.
  • A number of community groups and advice providers remarked that the service has not been promoted well enough to help advice providers and community groups really understand what the offer is. According to monitoring data the level of awareness of, and engagement with, Rural Direct saw a step-change in 2011/12 after roadshows were introduced.
  • To some extent the reported confusion about Rural Direct's specific offer is unsurprising, given that the service has changed throughout its delivery period (evidenced by the changes in its required outcomes). These changes have reflected changes in the landscape of rural funding in Scotland.

1.5 Our main conclusions are that:

  • There is a sustained need for advice and information about funding opportunities for rural communities. It does not make sense to replicate this in every area as many of the sources of funding are national or regional. There is a general view that the current databases available are very difficult to navigate.
  • In particular there is a demand for one to one advice which can either be provided face to face or at a distance: what is important is that the advice provider is able to relate to the particular circumstances of the community and its needs and opportunities.
  • In general, there is a strong preference for a locally based service - in terms of both accessibility and a better appreciation of local needs and context.
  • There is a wide source of advice available in response to these needs, which seems to be facing significant demands. This advice focuses around Local Authorities/LEADER and the TSIs, but it is complemented by a range of specialist national providers of advice on specific topics.
  • The main need seems to be to create some clarity about where the first port of call is in any area - and to ensure that behind this is a high quality service in terms of information and advisory staff knowledge, expertise and experience.
  • The most commonly expressed view - and one that is consistent with intended purpose - is that the TSIs in every Local Authority area should be promoted as the first port of call. However, it is clear that the TSIs will need to work very closely with their Local Authority and LEADER project to ensure that a locally coherent service is available for groups. Our research also suggests that there are issues about the quality of current TSI support and significant variation both between and within TSIs. This quality issue will need to be addressed. In addition, LAs and LEADER have an established presence in the market and a range of valued relationships which it will be important not to cut across.
  • With many sources of advice and information facing significant demands the most underused resource appears to be the expertise and experience of those in community groups who have been through the experience of developing and successfully funding a project.

1.6 It has proved hard to separate out support for the funding of projects from support to develop ideas for funding, and this may in practice be an artificial distinction for communities as the two are so intertwined (e.g. the development of a business plan is also, in many cases, part of the application for funding and needs to respond to funder interest and requirements).

1.7 Finally, while we heard some voices challenging the existence of a separate service for rural communities (compared with urban group). Most of those we discussed this issue with felt that there was a need for a dedicated service for rural communities to avoid the risk of a service being dominated by demand from urban groups.

1.8 Our recommendations are:

  • There are roles that are best carried out at the national scale and others that are best carried out locally. We recommend that these national and local components should form an integrated approach which ensures that the information and advice offered is accessible, accurate and of a consistently high quality.
  • At the national scale, action should focus on supporting front line staff who are providing advice locally and by ensuring easy local access. There should be a number of aspects to this:
  • In principle, the Third Sector Interfaces are the most obvious 'first port of call' for locally accessible funding advice because of their specific role and remit. However, in practice, these are at different stages of development and have varied local profiles. In addition, Local Authorities and LEADER have an established role to play as a 'way into' information and advice and many communities have well established and valued working relationships with them. We therefore recommend that the Scottish Government should encourage and support the development of a strong partnership approach to the promotion of advice and information on funding in each Local Authority area which takes into account local profile and resources.
  • There is an important role to be played at the national level in improving and ensuring the quality of local advice provision through these local partnerships. We recommend that a national quality standard for advisory staff should be developed and implemented by the Scottish Government.
  • There should be a single, national, high quality source of information on available sources of funding for advisors and rural community groups. We therefore recommend that steps should be taken to ensure that the SCVO Funding Scotland resource is suitably usable and sufficiently well-maintained for rural community groups. In addition, we recommend that there should be a regular assessment of the provision that other online resources (such as open4community sites) play in particular areas in Scotland and they should be promoted to local advisors where appropriate.
  • A key source of support should involve promoting learning by sharing good practice amongst local advice providers, both in terms of funding advice and in terms of community group success stories - e.g. how and why community groups were able to achieve funding through access to high quality funding advice. We recommend that this should be spread through existing networks.
  • Working with funders (e.g. public funders) to understand the scope that exists for improving the way that their systems of application and claims processes are managed, with a view to better ensuring that the complexity of funding requirements are truly proportionate to the scale of funding requested and are not stifling the entrepreneurship of rural community groups seeking to improve their communities.
  • At the local level, we recommend that:
  • Third Sector Interfaces should work with Local Authorities and other locally established sources of information and advice to develop locally coherent approaches to the promotion and provision of advice and information on rural funding. This approach should be clearly disseminated, particularly to those communities and groups who may not have been reached by previous efforts, and to groups who face local needs but lack experience in taking forward and funding local projects.
  • The form of provision should involve quick tips and advice / signposting and specialist advice, and also the provision of intensive support for those groups who need it, especially community groups who are at an "early stage" of development. This service could be delivered in person, with telephone support a suitable alternative (as per community groups' expressed desires).
  • The local partnerships will need to ensure a consistently high quality of adviser support and should work closely with national support to implement, maintain and build on a national standard for staff providing advice. In each Local Authority area this should involve all those staff who provide information and advice to rural groups.
  • The service should develop a strong focus on peer mentoring from other community group members who have "been there and done it". This will be required to provide the local capacity to provide intensive one to one support for those that need it. Support from such individuals was often cited as being valuable by community groups, and there was support for the idea of peer mentoring at advice provider workshops. For peer mentoring to work, there needs to be a well-designed brokerage and support process to allow this to happen. This will need to include an effective matching process - or needs/situation with experience/expertise, advice on how to provide effective peer support, and an effective system of provision of expenses for mentors.


Email: Liz Hawkins

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