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10 ‘Beautifully Ambitious’ Years of Link Up - Inspiring Scotland


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10 ‘Beautifully Ambitious’ Years of Link Up

Andrew Magowan, Link Up Programme Manager shares his reflections on  Inspiring Scotland’s Link Up Programme turning 10.  

My colleague described our plans for the celebration as “beautifully ambitious”.  True, but the phrase is also a great way to capture the essence of Link Up since its launch in 2012.

Link Up was never really a programme, more a way of working; a mini movement seeking to harness the strengths and will of local people to affect change. Our aspiration was significant: to embed an approach that tackles disadvantage by empowering local people to help themselves, each other, and their community.

It’s impossible to do justice in this blog to what has been achieved and learned over the past ten years. But in keeping with our theme, I like to think we were ‘Truthful, Useful and Hopeful’[1].


Whilst we have made critical steps towards our aspiration, it remains work in progress. However, thousands of Link Up participants have made material improvements to their lives, setting themselves on a path to a brighter future. Equally, Link Up has initiated community responses that are offering significant potential to deliver wider and enduring change.

Such successes run through our work, but I trust never in a sugar-coated way. We have always tried to shine a light on the reality of people’s lives. Those lives are often challenging beyond belief. And as we have demonstrated time and again, people’s journey is all too often marked by a cycle of crisis-stabilisation-recovery-crisis-stabilisation…etc.

As a corollary, achieving meaningful progress takes time, often years. It is a position we accepted from the outset, giving our workers permission to operate at the pace of the individual, recognising that their (and/or other community members’) sustained presence in the life of that person is often the most valuable gift we can provide.

Interestingly, Link Up’s unorthodox way of working (often pastoral) proved challenging for many of our hosts in the early days of the programme. However, we had courage in our convictions, and by sticking to our principles and evidencing the power of our approach, most hosts became strong advocates and, with our workers, key enablers of our day-to-day work.

We also sought to challenge convention on the nature of a programme like Link Up. It would be easy to frame it solely in terms of community development. We prefer to explain our approach as being as much about human development as it is about community development.

Where we have more to do is in influencing the wider adoption of the learning from Link Up. The economics of public spending is largely behind this. However, there is a need to influence a wider rethink on why and how we invest in communities. Critically, to have greater ambition, supporting communities to ultimately become regenerative. More on this below.

In part, our inability to realise this influence, is a function of how we framed our language. For too long we adopted a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality i.e. establish Link Up, people will make change happen and problems will be overcome. What we are learning now is that we need to illuminate the ‘line’ from individual action to collective action, to co-production of local solutions, to broader place-based working, to the creation of a regenerative community.


Since 2012, we have sought to measure the impact of our work and understand how that impact has been affected. This has helped to inform and shape policy and practice in numerous areas including asset-based working, place-based working, trauma-informed practice, health inequalities, community empowerment, community safety, public sector reform and Covid responses.

Whilst our work has shone brightest on aspects of social regeneration, particularly in relation to health and wellbeing, it is also highlighting a development approach to the creation of a regenerative community. This is one in which local people and organisations overcome the seemingly intractable problems that blight so many places and are delivering sustained and progressive renewal in social, economic, environmental and democratic terms.

At the heart of this approach, is an understanding that we are dealing with a human and therefore, relational system.

This framing has been at the core of our way of working since launch. It is writ large through everything we do: our pace; being interested in and taking time to understand people’s lives; creating welcoming spaces without agenda; focusing on human, not statutory needs; illuminating and using people’s strengths to build connections and make change happen; intensive 1-2-1 support. Our local workers have been the driving force for this.

Our 2016 paper, provided insights into the personal and situational factors that make our workers so effective in this regard. For me, it remains a ground-breaking piece of work that informs how we identify, encourage, recruit, develop and support the workforce that will be essential in taking our aspirations for renewal in our communities to scale.

The role our workers play is physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually draining. It is testament therefore to their resilience and perseverance, that almost half of our 17 workers have been with us for over seven years, two since 2012. It’s a fact that I am perhaps most proud of because it talks to the quality of care and support we have given our workers.

For our workers, four things stand-out:

  1.  giving them space and encouragement to be themselves and not be afraid to take risks;
  2.  acting as a supportive buffer between our workers and their host by helping the latter to understand the challenges of a worker’s role;
  3.  regular emotional and practical support including access to psycho-therapy support, reflective practice sessions and continuous professional development (e.g. trauma, bereavement and suicide informed practice; mediation and conflict resolution; nonviolent Communication);
  4.  removing the burden of most fundraising and reporting responsibilities.


The principal enabler of the above and everything that Link Up has achieved, has been Scottish Government. Ten years ago, they chose to invest in a programme that was arguably at the cutting-edge of community-based work, but one that also carried significant uncertainty in terms of its evolving approach and the impact it would have.

For me, this commitment is a powerful demonstration of the invaluable role Scottish Government can play in taking risks to test new ideas and prove what works and what doesn’t work. It is a role few other public sector bodies would be prepared to take, but one which will be essential if we are to turnaround growing inequalities and rising poverty.

I would also hold up our experience as being an exemplar of strategic partnership working and as such, a model for future relationships. Firstly, Scottish Government’s continued financial support has been instrumental in helping us to leverage additional funds such that 41% of our 2022-23 funding will come from non-Scottish Government sources.

Additionally, our ability to engage with and share learning across Scottish Government Directorates has been mutually beneficial; helping to shape policy and help us to understand how we might contribute to the delivery of national outcomes. I also like to think that being funded by Justice, Health and Regeneration has helped build cross-Directorate relationships, contributing for example, to a wider dissemination of understanding on place-based working.

I trust my Scottish Government colleagues feel we have repaid their trust in terms of impact and the rich learning Link Up generates. Sharing that learning and seeing it inform policy and practice has, I hope, been as energising and motivating for them as it has been for us.

But perhaps the single most valuable outcome of this learning has been what it tells us about the power of local people to make change happen. I recall in the early days of the programme a story about a Link Up participant securing her first job after being unemployed for 15 years. Most evidence suggested she would never work again. And other more recent stories including a woman having the courage to leave an abusive relationship and another changing her life to such a degree she regained access to her child.

These transformational shifts speak to the potential in our communities. A potential that Link Up has only scratched the surface of but is undoubtedly our greatest asset in our fight against inequality.

Taken together, the experience of the past ten years gives me hope; “not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out” (Vaclav Havel). That ‘something’ is the collective understanding that Inspiring Scotland and others[2] are accumulating on how we build a brighter future for our most disadvantaged communities. If we use it wisely, the type of change we have so long sought for our communities and the people who live there is within reach.


[1] The character of Patricia Westerford in Richard Powers’ 2019 Pulitzer Prize-wining, “The Overstory”, uses these 3 terms as a framework to guide her writing in the final chapter of her.

[2] See especially, Corra Foundation (via ‘Getting Alongside Communities’), Scottish Community Development Centre (via ‘Strengthening Communities’), SURF (via ‘Alliance for Action’), National Lottery Community Fund (via ‘Our Place’), Creative Scotland.

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