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Corona virus guidance for Shared Lives people and agencies is here. More detailed FAQs on the members’ area of our website and via our members’ bulletins and calls. To get my Shared Lives Plus newsletter (latest edition here) please enter your email address here.

A new health and care system: escaping the invisible asylum is published by Policy Press and launched at Nesta in London with Simon Stevens (video), Chief Executive of NHS England, who said, “This is a profound and timely call for a different relationship between people and the services and institutions of the welfare state. It’s a radical and necessary call to arms for a more human, personal and connected society” Read the introduction here and get a 30% discount code. Our latest short films:

Towards becoming an ‘asset-based’ charity

In my recent report, Meeting as Equals, for the Royal Society of Arts and the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, I gathered examples of charities which have reshaped themselves around the goal of being ‘asset-based’: looking for people’s strengths, capacity and potential, not just their needs or problems, and as a result being more willing to be led by people as equals, sharing responsibilities, resources and even ownership of organisations which had previously been controlled by a very different group of people to those who a charity set out to serve.

You can’t do ‘a bit’ of asset-based thinking: it’s all or nothing. The table below is adapted from the report and sets out some key behaviour and goal changes across every aspect of a charity’s work, from leadership, to fundraising, to frontline support.

Many charities talk about being asset-based, and lots claim they always have been. A key test of those claims will be to look at those parts of charity’s operations where the pressure is greatest to think and act in a traditional, top-down way, such as fundraising for instance, where charities can be most tempted to fall back on images of need and vulnerability, and least likely to co-design messages with people who draw on their support. These are also where the greatest opportunities may be: when we are allowed back out on high streets again, how much more powerful it would be to meet people who have benefitted from being part of a charity, rather than be accosted by street fundraisers who know little about the organisation and its cause.

I discussed some of these ideas with the RSA’s Matthew Taylor in a podcast here.

As ever, I’d be interested to hear your views.

The area of change Where we might be now Towards becoming an asset-based charity
Relationships We are there to serve our beneficiaries. We are leaders. We meet people as equals.

We are allies.

Recruitment We value a narrow range of expertise. Our team come from different communities, groups or backgrounds to our beneficiaries. People with lived experience volunteer, work and lead at every level. We recruit from the communities we work within. We embody the diversity and equality we call for.
Structure and scale We have a hierarchical structure with many management layers. We spend significant amounts on staff turnover and responding to failure. We create autonomous frontline roles, and devolve decision-making and power down to the most local level.
Campaigning We set the agenda, deploy our expertise and engage stakeholders in our campaigns. Our work often happens behind closed doors. We find and develop leaders within the groups and communities we serve. We enable people to identify and gather around the issues most important to them, sharing our knowledge and networks.
Communications We set the agenda and manage our stakeholders and our reputation. We police our brand and pursue reputation management when there’s a crisis. We share our platform: enabling people to share their stories on their own terms. We curate and co-create content. We don’t seek message and brand control. We prioritise transparency and trust when we make mistakes.
Fundraising We raise funds for our beneficiaries with hard-hitting campaigns which set out their problems. We compete for attention and seek every opportunity to make an ask. Fundraising messages are co-designed and co-delivered by people with lived experience. We build communities before asking for money. We give people more choice over how their money is used.
Strategy, decision making, ownership Our senior management and board has limited accountability to our beneficiaries in setting our strategy and priorities. Consultation groups lack power, a mandate and networks. We include an expert by experience on boards and committees, but worry it’s tokenistic. We invest in citizens’ capacity to lead us at every level, building our leaders’ skills, networks and career progression opportunities. We build co-ownership into local and national work informally, and through mutual ownership models.

Left behind?

As lockdown lifts in the UK, can we really return to our own social lives, but leave behind socially isolated people who rely on services for care and support? Here is my blog for the Dept Health and Social Care which appeared here.

During a pandemic, which is still far from over, few of us have escaped moments of loneliness or isolation. Even in large households, where a major focus of stress can be a sense of overcrowding and a lack of time to yourself, people have missed out on seeing close friends, relatives and loved ones. People whose work or social lives involve meeting lots of people have also had a very different year. For some, lockdown has been almost entirely solitary.

That experience of being separated from loved ones, friends and our wider communities may have been relatively slight or it could have been all-consuming. For millions of older people and others who have long-standing difficulties around activities outside their homes, the isolation of lockdown may have further embedded a disconnection going on for years, and which is not likely to end with the easing of restrictions.

For many thousands of people, social care or support visits are the only moments of human contact within their own four walls day after day. There has rightly been a huge focus on getting safe visiting back up and running for people who live in care homes, but many of those residents already had little contact with friends, relatives and the local community.

We have also seen how, against the odds, the pandemic has been a time of increased connection for some. For instance, the older people whose streets now have mutual aid and WhatsApp groups, and whose neighbours took the crisis as permission to reach out and offer help to people they had previously not wanted to ‘intrude’ upon.

Innovation vs isolation

Many have started to use new technology and the most creative community groups and charities have reached more people more easily by virtual means than they did face-to-face. Our social media has been full of Shared Lives carers, and the people who are part of their households, finding ways to live as well and fully as possible during lockdown.

Shared Lives carers are approved to provide support and personal care by their local registered Shared Lives scheme and matched with adults who either move in with or visit their chosen Shared Lives carer regularly. Our members have been feeling the pressure of caring within the restrictions of lockdown, without the back up of day services and their routines disrupted. But the experience of living in a Shared Lives household has remained social as well as caring.

These households, by their nature, are often larger, livelier and more social. With government funding, we have even been able to use new tech to speed up the recruitment and matching of new carers, with more than a hundred new households in four pilot areas ready to welcome those who need care and support. Several councils are working with us to increase the scale and ambition of their existing services.

We have also seen a resurgence of Homeshare, which matches an isolated older person with a younger person who needs somewhere to live, with the younger person moving in to help out or provide companionship. Older people were cautious about having a younger housemate as the pandemic hit, but then many were desperate for company and a little help as lockdown stretched onwards, so Homeshare in the UK recovered from its initial fall to grow again last year.

Who pays?

The UK is once again gearing up for a debate about long term social care reform, where the arguments tend to focus on who pays how much for a system which has been under funding pressure for decades. Issues like staying connected and avoiding loneliness can get lost in those big political and economic debates, despite being the most important questions for nearly three million people.

So let’s all think about our experiences of being separated from those we love during this difficult year.

Can we really return to our own social lives, but leave behind socially isolated people who rely on others for care and support?

Instead, let’s make this the moment we commit as a nation not just to providing the care people need when they need it, but also to ensuring we can stay connected with other people at every stage in our lives.

Re-imagining charities

I was excited to join the Royal Society of Arts‘ chief executive Matthew Taylor for his Bridges to the Future podcast the other day: you can listen to it here:

We talked about how COVID-19 is reshaping not-for-profit organisations, and how the bravest and most creative of those organisations could reshape our communities, drawing on ‘asset-based’ thinking, to form relationships with people who seek their support in which they ‘meet as equals’, which to my mind is the only way our sector will rebuild public trust and drive the kinds of social change we call for.

I was also interviewed for the AgeSpeaks radio show by Co-Founder of ChangeAGEnts Co-operative Collective Mervyn Eastman. We spoke about how the ways of working and of living I encountered when I met people involved in Shared Lives and Homeshare inspired the ideas for a new kind of public services in my book A New Health and Care System, Escaping the Invisible Asylum.


Every few months, there is an article somewhere in the press getting excited about the potential for robots in social care. The latest is in the New Statesman: Automated assistance: how robots are changing social care. Samir Jeraj cites two examples of tech helping people to connect with services and notes the ethical challenges: Clenton Farquharson, who employs his own personal assistants and is Chair of the Think Local Act Personal programme for transforming social care, argues for “a rights-based approach”. “As well as accessibility and usability, manufacturers and providers should also be mindful of making assumptions about users’ needs… particularly for marginalised groups” who are “often not around the table”.

There is a long history of looking for quick fixes for the slow moving tragedy which is our current social care system. The National Audit Office today says that despite “substantial efforts from those across the sector to deliver these essential services in such challenging circumstances,” longstanding problems mean that “levels of unpaid care remain high, too many adults have unmet needs and forecasts predict growing demand for care. The lack of a long-term vision for care and short-term funding has hampered local authorities’ ability to innovate and plan for the long term, and constrained investment in accommodation and much-needed workforce development. In a vast and diverse social care market, the current accountability and oversight arrangements do not work.”

Below the attention-grabbing headline, the New Statesman article makes it clear that, in reality, robots are not currently changing social care. It gives two or three examples, the first of which is actually about tech connecting a sick school pupil to his lessons pre-pandemic, and then one small experiment using artificial intelligence to ‘chat’ to lonely care home residents about their interests, and an interesting academic research programme: the National Robotarium.

I’ve nothing against any of this: we are part of a government-backed consortium which is exploring how to combine machine learning, geospatial data mapping and grassroots community action using the Tribe application, and I feel hugely excited by the potential to combine tech and big data with community initiatives that until recently have been entirely offline and analogue.

It is worth, however, thinking hard about what problems we are trying to fix with technology. Many of the innovations grouped under the ‘robotics’ heading are more to do with AI-assisted social interaction than machines providing practical help. I am sure it is possible to create tech which will interact with isolated people in a life-like enough fashion to alleviate some of their loneliness. But why would we want to? As strengths-based models like Homeshare demonstrate, the best solution to a person’s loneliness, is to find another person who is either lonely themselves, or at least has spare social energy. Our Homeshare and Shared Lives teams and national networks are already exploring how tech can target, speed up and scale up those connections. As the NAO found, austerity hit social care hard, but as we’ve seen during the pandemic, there is now more than ever an abundance of caring and social capacity out there in our communities. The New Statesman reports that £34m is being invested in robotics research. When it arrives, the long-awaited social care Green Paper will need to demonstrate that level of ambition in scaling up the community-based innovations we already have in our sector: let’s get as excited about investing in people as we do about investing in robots.

What can foster care learn from matching in Shared Lives?

Late last year, Ofsted published a report on matching in foster care, which concluded that

“Matching children to the right foster families is critically important for children’s futures. Good matching decisions can help to ensure that fostered children have a secure base, feel loved and can enjoy their lives. When matches do not work, it leads to further distress and instability for children, many of whom will have already experienced significant previous disruption and trauma. Unsuccessful matches can result in foster carers taking a break from fostering or deciding to stop fostering altogether, contributing further to the longstanding nationwide shortage of foster carers.” Matching in Foster Care

This seems unsurprising. As Ofsted found, “When we asked children what they liked most about their foster home, they said
they valued feeling loved and being treated as part of the family.” The Shared Lives sector has two key processes at its heart: an extensive, in-depth and values-based recruitment process (currently being modernised through an exciting project involving new tech) and matching, to ensure that people who share their lives are compatible, and that they actively choose each other. The recruitment process is needed because the Shared Lives carer role, like the foster carer role, is highly responsible and autonomous. The matching process is because great Shared Lives is as much about love as it is about skill and professionalism, and few of us love who we are told who to love.

It should take research for everyone involved in care of any kind – adults or children – to know that love is central. Caring is an emotion, as much as it is an act. There is an ongoing debate about professionalisation and professionalism in social care and in children’s services. We want and need people in caring roles to be highly skilled, to have the right knowledge and experience and to be able to work within a regulatory framework. But we owe it to those amazing people willing and able to take on that demanding work to create roles in which they also be fully human. And we owe it to everyone who finds themselves relying on strangers for support at their most vulnerable moments to ensure that they choose the people who will do that, wherever possible.

Boundaries are vital to good, safe services. But we need to ensure that the boundaries we put in place are for the benefit of the people involved (on both sides) in the caring relationship, not to make risks to services easier to manage at scale. As Emma shares in this Fostering Network blog, overly rigid interpretations of rules, and a lack of trust in her and her foster family’s decision-making led to her leaving a stable household for increasing chaos, only resolved through her and her foster family fighting to stick with each other against the odds:

“I went through hell until I was 21…I was not allowed to stay at my foster mums as social services said that I left care. My foster parents tried to fight them but they were told they’d have to stop fostering if they took me in… My foster family was meant to leave me when I left there at 16, but they never did. They have always been there for me and they call me their own just like I call them my own family. That is unconditional love, it’s what young people need as they go into adulthood.”

Matching and professionalism can co-exist, and they must, if we are to have any hope of reducing the unacceptable number of children and young people let down by a care system which doesn’t always know what ‘care’ really means to them.

Serious about Shared Lives

This is a guest blog from my colleague Nick Gordon ( who works in our communications team and supports local Shared Lives providers and commissioners with their demographic analysis, marketing and recruitment. Nick writes:

With the anniversary of the pandemic hitting approaching, the vaccine roll-out offers hope, if not yet certainty of when ‘normal’ life will return. All we can be certain of is that ‘normal’ will not be what it was before. We will be in a period of huge challenges – long covid, mental ill health, ravaged economies – and huge changes to the way that we live, work and travel.

Throughout these extraordinary times, and despite enormous pressures on our health and social care systems, Shared Lives care has continued to shine, providing the safest and best quality form of care as rated by the CQC and amazing outcomes for people like Meg who have found connections deep enough to sustain them through the long period of social distancing.

Recently we have seen an increase in local authorities seeking our advice and guidance on how to grow Shared Lives services as part of a re-imagining of social care which many areas recognise cannot wait for a long-promised government plan for reform. Social care workforce recruitment is a longstanding challenge in a sector known for difficult work, low pay, low status and long hours. Shared Lives offers flexible, home-based work where people can focus on what matters to the person who comes to live with or visit them, and, having been through a unique, in-depth recruitment and matching process, are trusted enough to be freed from much of the unnecessary paperwork, rules and bureaucracy which prevent so many social care workers from being as caring, let alone as social, as they dreamed of being when they entered the profession.

Our strategic advice and support service is currently working with North East ADASS across 12 local authority areas to deliver a wide-ranging and ambitious growth plan, which addresses a common barrier for many Shared Lives providers: how to recruit new carers. As well as a cost-benefit analysis of existing activity, we’ll be delivering data-driven demographic customer profiling for existing carers, along with the design and delivery of a digitally-enabled marketing and communications strategy .

As well as growth, we can also work with local authority commissioners to help deliver a business case for Shared Lives in the first instance. Based on our work to date we have demonstrated an average £20,000 saving per live-in arrangement per year, when compared to other types of available support for people with similar levels of need.

Not only this, our recently announced National Lottery Community funded project is helping to embed a shared, online approach to recruiting and assessing potential Shared Lives carers,  from initial enquiry through to full vetting and training requirements. Launching in March this online portal will further streamline Shared Lives carer recruitment, maintaining an in-depth, values-based approach, but reducing recruitment and approval times from 4-6 months to 4-6 weeks.

Shared Lives is still a relatively small cog in the UK’s social care wheel, but with an average annual increase of 6% in Shared Lives live-in arrangements since 2012, we know we can grow the sector in the teeth of financial and demographic challenges. Now we are entering a period when there will unfortunately be thousands of people looking for work, and many more are already re-thinking what a good life looks like and what they want from their career. Flexible, rewarding, home-based and resilient during the pandemic: if national government, local councils and the new Integrated Care Systems are serious about radical change, it’s time to get serious about Shared Lives.

Meeting as equals

My new report, Meeting as equals: Creating asset-based charities which have real impact, will be published by the RSA and NCVO and launched online at an RSA seminar on Thurs 28th January 2021: here

2020 was a year of extremes for voluntary organisations and volunteering. Hundreds of thousands of people have stepped forward to offer to help during the pandemic, including three quarters of a million wishing to help the NHS, people volunteering to help with the vaccination programme, and uncounted thousands setting up mutual aid groups for their street or neighbourhood. Meanwhile hundreds of much-loved charities are providing more support than ever while teetering on the edge of financial collapse as fundraising and earned income has plummeted.

Many charities, like many households and communities, are in survival mode. But for those charities which are able to survive, what then? The future that we might have predicted a year ago has disappeared. Even as many of us live day-to-day, a new future is beginning to emerge. Charities can wait for it to become clear before reacting to it, or we can do what we have always done at times of societal upheaval and be part of shaping it.  

To do that, we don’t just need to overcome our immediate financial challenges, but to recognise and engage with the reputational, public trust and financial crises we were facing as a sector before the pandemic hit. Those issues haven’t gone anywhere. Some were rooted in the difficulties of running organisations which can be complex, large and under financial pressure, while demonstrating the close relationships with community and the very human ethos which all of us expect from charities. Many rose to that challenge and won large public service contracts through responding to the pressure on charities to professionalise and become more commercial and competitive. But after ten years of government funding shrinking far below the level needed for consistently exceptional quality, and some private sector organisations co-opting the language of community to talk about their customers, the challenge now is for charities to demonstrate that we are different. That we can draw on community action just as much as service expertise and that we work in ways which drive the social changes we call for.

During the pandemic, the charity I work for, Shared Lives Plus, has been changing rapidly like many others. We support a national network of Shared Lives carers and Homesharers who share their homes and family lives with people seeking supportive householders. The 170+ local organisations who are part of our network coordinate supportive shared living for over 15,000 people. We’ve seen how more human, personal and deeply community-embedded forms of support can not only be safer and more effective but can be part of creating more inclusive and active communities at a time of burgeoning isolation and loneliness.

The services in our network are based around people who seek support and those who offer it ‘meeting as equals’ and our members are not alone in taking an approach which seeks to find and build on the strengths and potential of people and communities. In writing Meeting as equals: Creating asset-based charities which have real impact, published by the RSA and NCVO on January the 28th, I have talked with charities which have done just that, often in the most challenging circumstances.

Slung Low Arts is a theatre company which was already sharing its space with a working man’s club, and which has now become a food bank for 7,500 households, because, in the words of co-founder Alan Lane, “My desire to make a big piece of outdoor theatre is irrelevant if people are too hungry to come to a play.” This change came about because when COVID hit, and the team thought ‘what do we do now?’, rather than decide that amongst themselves, they posted a letter through the nearest 200 doors to say “we are here, we have transport, what do you need?” and were willing to be led by the responses.

Recovery Connections believes the key to providing a more personalised substance misuse recovery service is that people with lived experience make up the majority of the team at every level. Dot Smith describes working with the ‘messiness’ in her words, which can come with high levels of trauma. But it’s embracing and valuing that humanity which has enabled Recovery Connections to be one of the few services of its kind to be rated as outstanding by CQC.

These organisations are not just willing to talk about new approaches, but also to talk with a new group of co-decision makers. Sharing decision making through ‘co-production’ is the first step in allowing everyone involved with an organisation to start looking for people’s strengths, assets and potential, not just their needs and problems.

The report sets out what it takes for a charity to embed asset-based thinking throughout every aspect of an organisation. It recognises that how we work is as important as what we do. And that how we work is fundamentally about who ‘we’ are. Who is allowed in the room when we make decisions? Who do we employ? Who shares in the resources, but also in the responsibilities and the risks?  We like to say that we ‘speak truth to power’, but we must also recognise the power we have amassed ourselves, even at a time when our resources, capacity and influence can feel diminished. The ‘asset-based’ charity will share its platforms, access, research expertise and resources with communities in support of the issues which feel most important to them, demanding less control in return.

Can a charity deliver government-contracted services and run genuinely independent campaigns? Can a financially-struggling organisation become more commercial as well as more community-rooted? I believe that they can. A concept underpinning asset-based thinking is the idea that some things we see as scarce are in fact abundant when we change our approach. Power and resources are not zero-sum: when we set out to combine the resources and expertise of charities with the resourcefulness and care of communities, we can create organisations which build community capacity and which make a compelling cost-benefit case to those commissioners willing and able to listen. When we look for ways of sharing our own power with those we purport to represent, our combined voices can be louder and the message more urgent.

Glimmers of hope

We all know the value of being close to the people we love. That feeling of belonging, of being loved, and of being useful make for a good life. The measures we’ve all had to take to keep ourselves and those around us safe during the pandemic have made being close to people really difficult.

But while we’ve seen isolation become a bigger and bigger problem for lots of people who need support, the people involved in Shared Lives and Homeshare have been a bright spot in an otherwise dark year. They have been there for others, keeping people connected and even finding ways to have fun and discover new talents, like Ivor and Peter in Shared Lives South West who have become accomplished painters:

Sharon and David Shearing responded to lockdown by going the extra mile to make sure the people they support are still active, leading rich and fulfilling lives with activities tailored to them. This was the moment the Shearings found out they’d been highly commended in our Shared Lives carer of the year award!

In Homeshare, we’ve seen how having somebody at home with you can make a vital difference to people’s experience of lockdown. Indeed, some matches have been living it up through the pandemic!

Many of you have been getting into the Christmas spirit, like Shared Lives Hertfordshire who played a fancy dress Christmas bingo!

While Gillian and Chanroth, who live with Shared Lives carer Tracey, have been getting in the festive mood by decorating their family Christmas tree:

Homeshare and Shared Lives are based on the security of a welcoming home environment and good relationships, and it is increasingly looking as though home is one of the safest places to be at the moment – especially if you share that home with someone who’s looking out for you.

We know our members have been working even harder, for even longer, than usual. A large majority of local areas have provided extra support and reimbursement for Shared Lives carers during the pandemic, but we are working hard with Shared Lives carers, scheme workers and councils, to make things easier.

This means getting day support services re-started, reimbursement for increased costs and ensuring Shared Lives carers can get help and advice when they need it. Our local campaigning has resulted in pay increases and financial support for Shared Lives carers in a number of areas now. Our Homeshare team have been working hard with Homeshare organisations to help them face the new challenges at a time when we need inter-generational support more than ever.

Despite everything, we’ve seen Shared Lives and Homeshare grow in the past year and we’ve got some new projects on the way, including online Shared Lives carer recruitment, a new form of peer support for families who are under pressure, and more support for survivors of domestic abuse. 2021 looks like it will start with a desperately tough few months at least, but we will be doing everything we can to bring heart, home and hope to as many people as we can.

Wishing you all a safe and peaceful Christmas.