John Pearce Obituary

John Pearce Obituary
Alan Kay and Alan Tuffs, The Herald


Community Development and Social Enterprise Thinker and Activist;

Born: March 23rd, 1942
Died: December 12, 2011

John Pearce, who died from cancer aged just 69, was a major and influential force in community development and in particular was a pioneer in community enterprise – the precursor to social enterprise.  For nearly fifty years, John‘s ideas, inspiration and exceptional talent for clear thinking were a driving force behind people-centred development and especially around the principles and practice of collective and community enterprise.  

John brought a rare vision to community development that encompassed the simple idea that people who are disadvantaged for whatever reason can engage directly with economic solutions that will create jobs and services in their own communities and so take steps towards improving their quality of life.  He was a thinker who managed to turn theories into practice and directly helped the development of communities in Scotland, the UK and wider afield.  

John was Cornish and grew up in Truro where his father was an accountant and Methodist lay-preacher.  He won a scholarship to Truro School and then went on to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge where he studied mediaeval French and German – to the astonishment of many who knew him in later life!  

After Cambridge he was a VSO volunteer teaching in Nigeria. On his return to the UK in 1964 he studied for a diploma in Social Administration at the London School of Economics.  Two years prior to this, the foundations had been laid for ground-breaking work in Nepal through a chance encounter with the Dalai Lama’s sister at a Pestolozzi Children’s project.  With two other friends he spent nearly two years working with Tibetan refugees helping to found a village settlement near Pokhara in eastern Nepal which was completed in 1967 and named by the Dalai Lama as Tashi Ling or “Happy Place”.  John maintained links with Tibet and Tibetans throughout his life.

He went on to work for the Young Volunteer Force Foundation in Bideford, Devon and was part of the Community Development Programme setting up community development projects in post-industrial west Cumbria from 1972 – 1977.  John in those days cut a flamboyant figure with long hair and an extravagant moustache disguising an innovative approach and steely determination.  Following the end of the West Cumbria CDP and the family moved to Harburn in West Lothian.

From around this time John was deeply involved in the Industrial Common Ownership Movement and chaired its lending committee ICOF.  He helped to found the Scottish Co-operative Development Committee and established the Local Enterprise Advisory Project (LEAP) working with people living in disadvantaged urban housing schemes in the west of Scotland.  In the early 1980s Strathclyde Community Business (SCB) grew out of LEAP and saw staff numbers and work load both grow, becoming a model for publicly funded community enterprise development units which in the 1980s covered most of the Scottish regions.  

John edged towards retiring but never got there.  For the last twenty years of his life he worked freelance.  There are countless reports and research documents that bear his name and six books – perhaps the most celebrated being ‘Social Enterprise in Anytown’ published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in 2003.  He also developed the ideas, policies and practices of social accounting and audit which enables organisations with a social purpose to account and demonstrate their true social value to society.  

He was a founder member of Community Business Scotland, the Social Audit Network, the Scottish Community Enterprise Investment Fund and the West Calder Workspace Group of Community Companies. His energy, clarity of thought and the ability to gather people around ideas extended John’ influence out across the UK and to Europe through the European Network for Economic Self-help and Local Development and to India, Australia and New Zealand through COMMACT (now the Commonwealth Association for People Centred Development).   

In Harburn, John had a small holding and was central to much local community action.  He raised pigs for many years, grew vegetables and planted thousands of trees.  His friends recall him as stubborn, not always patient, was at times peremptory, generous, cooked a great fish pie, practical, organised but with a curious tendency to collect stuff.  He was a great walker who twice covered the 250 mile coastal path around Cornwall.

John’s contribution to the development of social enterprise and community development in its most practical and truest form will be remembered by many.  Throughout John’s life he kept a library of papers and documents and he has made a major archive contribution to the Social Enterprise Collection at Glasgow Caledonian University as well as donating an archive to the exiled Tibetan government in Dharamsala.

John led a truly remarkable life that managed in a simple and straightforward way to live and contribute locally while at the same time extend his ideas and thinking globally. He was active on the local community council in Harburn and at the same time maintained working relationships with community development NGOs in India. 

He is survived by Joanna, Matthew and William, their partners Vic and Hope, his grandchildren Jack and Pirran and his brother Philip.

Alan Kay and Alan Tuffs – long-time friends and colleagues