Community development brings people together. This type of work requires selfless individuals who are passionate about assisting others

As a community development worker you will help communities to bring about social change and improve the quality of life in their local area. You might work with individuals, families and whole communities to empower them to:

  • identify their assets, needs, opportunities, rights and responsibilities
  • plan what they want to achieve and take appropriate action
  • develop activities and services to generate aspiration and confidence.

As a community development worker you'll act as the link between communities and a range of other local authority and voluntary sector providers, such as the police, social workers and teachers.

You'll frequently be involved in addressing inequality. Projects often target communities perceived to be culturally, economically or geographically disadvantaged.

Responsibilities

Community development work seeks to actively engage communities in making sense of the issues which affect their lives, setting goals for improvement and responding to problems and needs through empowerment and active participation.

A good deal of the work is project based, which means you will usually have a specific geographical community or social group on which to focus.

Tasks often involve:

  • identifying community skills, assets, issues and needs
  • ensuring that local people have their say
  • developing new resources in dialogue with the community and evaluating existing programmes
  • building links with other groups and agencies
  • helping to raise public awareness on issues relevant to the community
  • preparing reports and policies
  • raising and managing funds
  • developing and implementing strategies
  • liaising with interested groups and individuals to set up new services
  • mediating in matters of conflict
  • recruiting and training paid and voluntary staff
  • planning, attending and coordinating meetings and events
  • overseeing the management of a limited budget
  • encouraging participation in activities
  • challenging inappropriate behaviour
  • general administrative duties.

Community work can be generic or specialised. Generic community work takes place in a particular geographical area, focusing on working with the community to identify their needs and issues, and formulating strategies to address those issues. The setting is either urban or rural, with rural community development work increasingly attracting attention.

Specialised community work focuses on either specific groups within a region (such as the homeless, the long-term unemployed, families with young children or ethnic minorities) or on particular concerns such as:

  • mental health
  • public transport
  • tackling drug abuse.

Salary

  • Starting salaries fall between £15,500 and £26,000.
  • Salaries for those with two or more years' experience can reach £21,000 to £36,000.

For public sector posts, there are national pay scales and sometimes an allowance is awarded as compensation for unsocial hours. For further information and up-to-date pay scales see NASUWT Youth & Community Workers' Pay Scales.

In the voluntary sector, pay varies considerably and often depends on experience and location.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Each working day will vary depending on your scheduled activities for that week. You need to be accessible to the communities you serve. This means the work will often include unsocial hours, such as evenings and weekends, so considerable flexibility is required.

Part-time, temporary work and career breaks are possible. Short-term contracts are common, due to the nature of funding within the sector.

What to expect

  • Community development workers often have an office base but spend much of their time out and about in the community, for example, visiting local people and groups, and attending meetings.
  • Self-employment or freelance work is sometimes possible, working as a trainer or consultant.
  • The work is usually either urban or rural based, and conditions vary according to the nature and location of the project and funding. Large towns and inner city areas with recognised social deprivation are more likely to receive sustained funding. However, the number of rural community development workers is steadily increasing as recognition of social issues affecting rural communities grows.
  • Coping with social disadvantage and disaffected members of the community can be stressful.
  • There is frequent contact with individuals, agencies and groups in the community. Therefore, travel within a working day is to be expected. Absence from home overnight is likely to be rare but may be required on occasion. Depending on the employer, it may be possible to undertake some travel overseas.

Qualifications

Although this area of work is open to all graduates and those with an HND, a degree/HND in social sciences may improve your chances.

Entry without a degree or HND is possible, although career development is more restricted. A degree in any subject will be an advantage in gaining higher-level posts. Relevant experience is far more important than the subject area studied.

A variety of vocational college or work-based training courses and undergraduate and postgraduate university courses are available throughout the UK.

Before being allowed to work directly with children or vulnerable adults employees in England and Wales will be required to undergo a Disclosure and Barring Service check.

Community development workers in Scotland will need to join the Protecting Vulnerable Groups Scheme (PVG) and in Northern Ireland, you will need to be checked by Access Northern Ireland.

For some positions, postgraduate qualifications are essential in order to progress to more senior-level positions. This is particularly true in generic community work. A variety of full-time and part-time courses are available, with some open to those with an HND. One or two years' relevant experience is usually required.

Community development is often linked to youth work and many training courses will reflect this. Youth work is more specialised and often involves a different agenda than community development work. For further information on courses in youth work, see the National Youth Agency (NYA).

For information on youth work and youth work training in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, contact:

Scottish courses (and a few in other locations) often refer to community development as community education.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • advocacy and networking skills
  • excellent communication, interpersonal and team-building skills
  • good listening skills
  • research and report-writing skills and the ability to interpret or present data
  • knowledge and understanding of community and social issues
  • a non-judgemental and positive attitude
  • creative thinking and problem-solving ability
  • political, social and negotiating skills
  • an understanding of how public sector bodies work
  • compassion and the ability to empathise with people's life experiences
  • fundraising - at management level there is an increasing need to identify and pursue sources of funding.

Community work is challenging, exciting and at times frustrating. You need to be prepared to cope with inevitable conflict and setbacks. Results are long term rather than immediate, so patience and perseverance are essential. Close involvement with the community group can deepen your empathy, your sense of identification and commitment. At the same time, you need to be able to switch off from your work. Above all, you need tact and diplomacy in order to negotiate your entry into a community.

Strong commitment to equal opportunities in the public sector creates a demand for ethnic minority applicants, particularly those with language skills. Life experience can also be a factor.

Work experience

Pre-entry paid or voluntary work experience is crucial. People often become community development workers after working in teaching, youth work, the health sector or other roles within the community. Development work overseas may also be relevant.

It's important to have a proven interest in community and social issues and at least a year's involvement in areas such as:

  • community work
  • pressure groups
  • women's projects
  • youth work.

Try to get involved in voluntary work as a student, in local community projects, youth groups, tenants' associations or women's groups. Contact your local volunteer centre to get community-project experience. You can search for your nearest branch, or your region's equivalent via Do-it.

Competition for jobs is keen, especially for the limited number of local authority posts, which often offer greater job security. Competition is affected by the political climate, current issues (e.g. unemployment, immigration) and the identification of groups within the community that need particular support.

Employers

The most common employers of community development workers are:

  • community education
  • housing associations
  • local authorities
  • NHS trusts
  • rural community councils
  • social services
  • voluntary sector organisations.

With reduced state provision (e.g. reduced benefit entitlement for young people, care in the community and general socio-economic changes), the need for community development workers has increased.

The shift in recent years from central-government funding to project-based funding, distributed by rounds of bidding, has led to an increase in workers employed on a short-term basis by voluntary sector organisations.

There are signs that central government is looking toward the voluntary unpaid sector for managing community projects and this might affect future funding.

Organisations within the voluntary sector are varied and include:

  • children's charities
  • churches and other faith groups
  • community associations
  • environmental groups
  • health and mental health organisations
  • homeless projects
  • shelters
  • women's groups.

Because of the broad remit of community work, a community development worker could be employed by any of these organisations doing different types of work.

Look for vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies handle vacancies but many community organisations would not use employment agencies on ethical and/or cost grounds.

Professional development

Ongoing training is essential in community work and usually occurs on the job or as part-time study to gain a recognised qualification.

Since projects and communities vary so much, community development workers must constantly develop new skills, update old ones and acquire specific knowledge. Training provision varies depending on the employer, but there are likely to be opportunities to develop relevant skills.

The voluntary sector is especially rich in interesting and relevant training opportunities, including accredited training programmes which are available at colleges and other learning centres.

It is possible to take National Open College Network (NOCN) Awards and Certificates or Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs) in Community Development.

Social services and other organisations employing community development workers often offer programmes of in-house training, which usually focus on issues such as child protection and equal opportunities.

It is also quite common for community development workers to pursue their own continuing professional development (CPD) by undertaking a Masters degree or other postgraduate qualifications. Relevant subjects include:

  • business and community studies
  • housing practice
  • legal studies
  • public health or community health
  • social services management
  • voluntary sector studies.

Career prospects

Opportunities for promotion are limited in both the public and voluntary sectors, and you may have to move to another geographical area.

Sideways movement into projects with a different focus, or from generic to specific work (or vice versa), is common. Senior posts usually involve managing more staff, a larger budget or a wider geographical area.

As community development workers embark on postgraduate study, there is the tendency to move into more policy-making positions, with a view to becoming directors of organisations with responsibility for implementing large-scale and complex projects.

With substantial experience and expertise in a specific field, there is the possibility of freelance work in the role of a trainer, consultant or adviser. Due to the broad nature of community work, workers can develop their careers by moving into other fields such as:

  • education
  • environment
  • health sector
  • social work
  • youth work.

Opportunities also exist for overseas development work - for more information see the International Association for Community Development (IACD).