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.

Where next for charities and social enterprises in the COVID era?

In the past few months of crisis, volunteering has rocketed while fundraising has plummeted. Communities have come together in an outpouring of mass grassroots activism that, previously, countless government and charity programmes have failed to achieve.

So charities are trying to reposition themselves and their work within a world that suddenly has different social, economic and technological norms. Many are doing that against a backdrop of furloughs, lay-offs and even potential bankruptcy.Charities which are in financial crisis will be focused on income-raising and cost-cutting. But for those charities which survive this crisis, what next?

The goal cannot be to return to ‘normal’: our sector did not go into the COVID-19 crisis in perfect health. A succession of safeguarding, abuse and bullying scandals had seen a dramatic decline in some well-known organisations’ fortunes, and continuing pressure on public trust in the concept of charity. As charities compete for scarcer funding, and are increasingly challenged on their participation in deep-rooted inequalities, there is no reason to believe that any of those issues will be less prominent in the deep recession to come.

To survive we will need to recapture the public’s imagination, building new and deeper relationships which people do not feel they have with other kinds of organisation. We will need to demonstrate that not only can we address the equalities issues facing our own sector, which we have previously not taken seriously enough; we will need to build ways of working which are part of the solution. For instance, while mutual aid groups have sprung up largely without input from charities, not every street has formed a new self-support network and we have never been more aware of deeply our communities can be divided, and how systematically black and minority communities and other groups are oppressed and excluded. Charities and community groups at their best have relationships and trust within communities ignored or oppressed by state (and private sector) organisations. This often happens most clearly when organisations are run and owned by members of the community or group they seek to serve.

Pre-Covid I had been working with NCVO and RSA on a paper arguing that how charities work can be as important as what they do. It aimed to challenge charities which are providing support to people to consider how they are not only doing that effectively, but also drawing driving social change through the values and ethos they bring to their work. I wanted to challenge our sector to consider the power that organisations can hold and to understand the behaviour changes we need to see at every level to change that. I had collected examples of ‘asset-based‘ working from organisations including Recovery Connections, RECLAIM, CHANGE and Cornerstone Scotland.

So in a Covid era which looks likely to persist and create changes which are permanent, I am redrafting the paper and its action plan for asset-based charities. I’m seeking new examples of how charities and social enterprises are moving towards (or away from) asset-based working during the pandemic. What has become easier, harder or more vital about taking an asset-based approach? Are you starting to plan for the future again and if so, how does asset-based thinking inform your strategy, if at all?

If you have relevant experiences, please share any examples or thoughts you have below in the comments, or by emailing me on alex at sharedlivesplus.org.uk or  on Twitter: @AlexSharedLives

Many thanks – this feels like a crucial moment for the not for profit sector!

Being and well-being

This is a guest blog from my colleague Anna McEwen (@AnnaSharedLives):

The NHS is great for putting us back together. In the last month alone I’ve needed three different health interventions or procedures where my body has let me down. I am amazed at what modern medicine can do where in the past I’d probably have had to grin and bear it. Some of those interventions have been brilliant – community clinics carrying out operations rather than having to go into hospital, text and book rather than a series of letters in the post to appointments I inevitably can’t make; others less so when I’ve waited many months for a repeat of an intervention that didn’t work the first time, simply because that is the protocol.

But that’s the point of the NHS, putting us back together when we need it. It’s not so good at giving us a good life when we have conditions that aren’t a ‘one off’ or ‘put me back together and send me on my way’.

Last week I joined the latest cohort on the Leadership for Empowered Communities and Personalised Care (LECPC) programme. Some people have questioned why I’m doing this, when the very nature of what we do at Shared Lives Plus is in its essence based in the heart of communities and epitomises personalised care.  I’ve ‘grown up’ very much with those values at the heart of what I do in community based roles, advocacy and even as a commissioner very much engaged in finding community based solutions to the needs of local people.  However, I think it’s important for all of us as leaders to find time to stop, step back from the day job, listen and reflect which is why I’ve joined this programme.

On the first day of the programme I was struck by Cormac Russell’s analogy of Humpty Dumpty being picked up and not able to be put back together by the King’s horses and King’s men – what if he’d fallen on the other side of the wall and been caught by his neighbours, friends and community? What would have happened then? And we’re very quick to call something a ‘crisis’ and treat as such (homelessness, social care, loneliness etc.) when they are in fact a chronic situation and if we stopped the crisis reaction and looked instead to long term, community based solutions designed with and for the people involved we’d have a better chance of success.  The more we move into the acute, crisis mode, says Russell, the more we disable citizens.

As a commissioner, I was all about commissioning for outcomes but now wonder if we are commissioning for the right outcomes: those softer outcomes which really make a difference to people’s lives – like building relationships, talking to a neighbour, volunteering in the community, joining a local group. These are the things that give our lives meaning and purpose and ultimately give us well-being, not just ‘being’.

We know all about these outcomes in Shared Lives, people tell us they make new friends, join groups in their community that aren’t labelled as being for disabled people and gain a sense of well being that they’ve not previously experienced which can have profound benefits on both physical and mental health.  I was inspired by others on the LECPC programme who are leading some really innovative work in small patches around the country and I know there is a wealth of amazing stuff happening.

When I tell people about Shared Lives, they always say it’s a no-brainer, that it’s a brilliant solution etc. etc. But that no-brainer is still small, and struggling to break any ground as a healthcare solution. The 200-plus people who our Shared Lives Ambassadors (who have lived experience of Shared Lives) spoke to recently at NHS Expo all agreed that it was a brilliant idea, but still the system bogs us down and makes it difficult to do new things.

My take away from the leadership programme this week was to give away more power, listen more, and get more disruptive. So, for people who are ready to get disruptive in the health system and develop new ways to give people a good life, not just put them back together when they need it, we’re running a series of free workshops facilitated by Nesta to look at how you could develop Shared Lives where you are.

We really need people who think Shared Lives is a no-brainer to make it a reality for people so do sign up and come along to one of our sessions so we can help you to help more people have a good life. It’s free, there is nothing to lose, so come along or share the invite with a colleague and let’s get disruptive……

The workshops will take place from 11am – 3pm in the following locations:

Monday 28th October: London (Friends House, Euston Road, NW1 2BJ)
Tuesday 29th October: Birmingham city centre (venue tbc)
Monday 4th November: Manchester (Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley St, Manchester M2 3JL)

Click here for further information and to reserve your place.

Rainbow

I’m so excited to see the ‘rainbow’ of community approaches launched on the Think Local Act Personal website. Social care is often talked about as being at the heart of the perfect storm, so I love the fact that our colleagues at Nesta came up with a rainbow to give this snapshot of some of the many inspiring asset-based approaches which are transforming people’s ideas about care, support, inclusion and community development. It shows that these community models stretch across the public service system from prevention and whole-community work, so work at the acute or crisis end. The online directory which sits behind it aims to include scores more models to help commissioners and others find their way through this new world.

Here’s my blog marking its launch:

How do you make big changes to how people are supported, when the kinds of support which work best are nearly always those which feel small and personal? TLAP’s new resource – examples of innovative models of community-centred support – aims to show how to do things differently.

James lived in an epilepsy centre for twenty years, where his medical and support needs were labelled ‘complex’. But his goals were simple: friends and a job. He was able to pursue them in the small, homely setting of Andy’s household, when Andy became James’ Shared Lives carer. James moved in and lived as part of a busy household, before moving around the corner into his own place, with close ties to the household when he needs them.

St Joseph’s hospice noticed that there was a gap in the support for families, which was not easily filled by traditional volunteering. When someone approaches the end of life, it can be an isolating experience for a family. Some friends and neighbours withdraw, or worry about ‘intruding’. Agnes said, “I have friends but no-one turns up to see me, why? I needed to go back to the hospital because … if I was in hospital then people would come to visit me.” Agnes was matched with Lucia through the Compassionate Neighbours programme, which enables people to take on a more personal, open-ended role. Lucia says now she and Agnes are “more like family”.

The changes which Shared Lives carers, or Compassionate Neighbours, achieve in people’s lives are huge for the individual, impacting on their whole life. The challenge for ‘asset-based’ models like these is reaching more people, attracting investment and referrals in public service systems that are designed to make much more specific interventions across very large populations. Large parts of the NHS, for instance, are organised around treating a particular medical condition across populations of hundreds of thousands of people. The senior leaders who control vast council and NHS budgets are expected to be strategic, avoiding getting ‘bogged down’ in detail and taking a ‘helicopter view’. From a helicopter, people’s lives can look very small and insignificant.

Read on here

Own it

I enjoyed meeting colleagues from Hertfordshire at the council’s annual Festival of Practice: a week of seminars, learning and reflection which the council invests in its social care team and their colleagues in the council, NHS and the voluntary and community sector.

During my session on Escaping the Invisible Asylum we talked about the difficulty of introducing asset-based or strengths-based practice into stressed, medicalised systems, if we want those new approaches to take root and grow. However small the beginnings, the goal must be complete transformation of the local system, so that every intervention in people’s lives is asset-based. Key tests for this are that all services and interventions:

  1. Look for what people can or could do, not just what they can’t
  2. Connect people and minimise the extent to which they disconnect people – our close relationships are key assets
  3. Build resilience for the future, rather than just addressing ‘presenting need’.

Only services and systems which are co-designed with the people who use them and work at the front line will achieve these changes, so these are shifts in who has power and responsibility. For instance, if your service is genuinely asset-based, its systems will treat the risks that people take as theirs to own, but will share ownership of the risks the organisation carries or creates: the individual remains in control wherever they can exercise that control, even when things get risky for them or the organisation working with them. The older person who falls regularly but wants to live at home has that right. Great hospital discharge teams support that person to understand and mitigate that risk, rather than pushing them into a living situation which feels ‘safer’ to the professionals.

We discussed the behaviour changes that would be needed if a system was to become genuinely asset-based, and the systems needed to make those behaviours possible, such as offering help to people to plan for a good life, rather than always starting with a needs assessment. The table below suggests some behaviour changes at the front line, and the leadership behaviours needed to make those changes possible and safe:

Workers and volunteers Commissioners and leaders
Seeing capacity & potential as well as need Building in more time: offer planning before assessment?
Humility and courage Healthy workplaces.
Confidence: focused on what matters most to people Seeing risk more clearly

Measure good (& bad) outcomes

Valuing relationships, networks Thinking ‘whole-household’
Sharing responsibility: ask more, offer more Sharing resources, knowledge, power

The most important question, then, is what changes would these new approaches ask of people who use services and their families? And what would they be offered?

Too often, a move towards community-based approaches is framed as asking for more volunteers, or asking more of families who already have unsustainable caring burdens. It is much rarer for those currently in charge of resources and systems to offer to share that power and the responsibility which goes with it. At the heart of that reluctance is a lack of trust, and asset-based thinking starts with trust: faith in people’s ability to take responsibility, in their creativity and that they won’t act purely in their own interests. This is why coproduction is so important: any asset-based system has to be co-designed with the people who will use it, deliver it, share responsibility for it and ultimately own it.

Nick’s Shared Lives journey

I really enjoyed reading this story from Shared Lives South West which has just received a very positive inspection from CQC. We think that one of the ways in which Shared Lives is different from other approaches is that it allows people who have previously been seen only as ‘in need’ and ‘vulnerable’, to contribute to a household and their community, as well as receiving the support they need.

Nick’s journey- from being cared for to being a carer!

MeAfrica

Nicholas Richards is 26 years old and has suffered from an anxiety disorder from an early age when he developed a school phobia and, as a result, he missed all formal education after the age of 11. This was not picked up by social services as the family moved to Spain and by the time they returned he had been out of the state system for several years. At the condition’s height he was reclusive for about four years, living with his father and barely leaving the house or his bedroom.

In this time he lost or never developed a lot of simple, fundamental social skills and communication and found being around people close to impossible. He experienced paranoia and phobias about people and being outside.

In September of 2010 he was referred to a doctor by a family member and began the process of rehabilitation with a match to a Shared Lives South West carer in Dawlish. During this time he has worked incredibly hard and, with nurturing support from his carers, he has turned his life around….

Read the full story here: http://sharedlivessw.org.uk/nicks-journey-from-being-cared-for-to-being-a-carer/

The asset-based council

There is growing realisation that councils cannot do many of the things that we have been used to them doing. As their budgets are cut, and cut again, many council managers spend a great deal of their time deciding what they cannot do. But in an age of austerity, what do we think that councils can do? We’ve had the ‘co-operative council’. Perhaps it’s time for the asset-based council.

An asset-based council has no customers, only citizens. It has no providers, only partners. It is responsive to need, but looks always for capability and potential. It is confident in the things it can do and the difference its people’s skills and expertise can make, but it has the humility to recognise what it cannot do: fix people or communities.

An asset based council:

  1. Has a living map of the area’s resources and works with the whole range of assets: state and private money, social action, community groups and charities, services, private sector and enterprise, buildings and land.
  2. Sees its role as enabler and facilitator: equal partnership is the default working mode and all of its staff and those of its partners are trained in asset-based thinking.
  3. Passes ‘the connection test’: challenging all service interventions to build people’s resilience and social connections and investing in models which can demonstrate this added value.
  4. Uses the Social Value Act principles by default in all contracting and grant making.
  5. Builds and sustains social and community enterprise as part of ensuring that it has a wide range of asset-based support models.
  6. Builds mutualism and shared ownership, including through use of the Localism Act, and increases year on year the proportion of the public service workforce who have current and recent lived experience of using those services.
  7. Has a community development worker (e.g. a Local Area Coordinator) for each identifiable neighbourhood and invests in connecting people through models such as Circles of Support, Shared Lives and Homeshare.
  8. Aims to increase the proportion of its resources invested in prevention and early intervention year on year, whilst insisting that every service intervention is ‘future focused’.
  9. Measures all forms of social action including volunteering and seeks an increase year on year, investing adequately in this rather than seeing volunteering as ‘free’.
  10. Has an active and growing time bank.

Continue reading

Future social work

The Think Local, Act Personal partnership has published a paper which I helped to author: Developing a Wellbeing and Strengths-based Approach to Social Work . Here is my foreword to the paper which looks at how social work could change to deliver the Care Act’s vision for wellbeing, drawing on Asset Based Community Development thinking and similar ideas:

Talk to social workers of a certain vintage about community development and many will begin to recall fondly the days of ‘community social work’, when social workers were expected to think whole-community in their approach to supporting people and perhaps even had the time and freedom to do so. Since that period, pressures upon social workers have increased with rising demand and falling budgets. The professionalisation of social work took the sector away from community social work, which was sometimes seen as hazily defined and weak on evidence of outcomes. It would be foolish to believe there was a ‘golden age’ and this paper is not a call to return to the past. Despite increasing pressures, social care can claim to have reformed itself more radically than any other public service sector. The concept of ‘personalisation’ is still contested and imperfectly implemented, but it is unarguable that thousands of disabled and older people have a level of choice and control which was unheard of until recently. Half a million people have personal budgets and a fifth of those have taken their personal budget as a cash Direct Payment, enabling them to create and manage an entirely new workforce of Personal Assistants. There are hundreds of innovative small and microscale enterprises, helping people to live well through interventions which look nothing like traditional services. Community-based interventions like Shared Lives are growing rapidly despite the pressures of austerity. So there is much innovation in services and support, alongside much-raised standards of skill and accountability amongst social workers, but we are also starting to understand the limitations of services acting on their own and the huge potential for support which fits around and enables people’s informal support relationships with their families and communities. That change does not make social work any less important, but it will require a new (or rediscovered) set of social work skills and attitudes: a social care workforce with the humility to use its power and access to resources not to take charge, but to enable people and families to take charge. It will need to be a workforce confident in its expertise but also more confident in the expertise and potential of individuals, families and communities. Models like Local Area Coordination and community navigators create the space in which professionals can get to know individuals and families well enough to understand what their goals and capabilities are, as well as their needs. Making those deeper relationships the norm will be a huge challenge in a financially stressed social care system, but meeting that challenge is the only way to a sustainable system, good lives for people with long term conditions and a workforce which is the best it can be.

Full paper here: bit.ly/1TTo3P3

Local Area Coordination – a different starting point

At the Local Area Coordination Day in Derby, people from social care organisations like us and around a dozen councils heard from Eddie Bartnik, mental health commissioner from Western Australia (WA), who took time out from his holiday to give a personal perspective on how he helped to develop Local Area Coordination as the basis of reforming the entire WA care, support and inclusion system in the late ‘80s. That reform rejected the starting point of “What services do you need?” and started with “What would you consider a good life?” The principles were: personal, local and accountable (which sounds encouragingly close to the ethos of our own, Think Local, Act Personal). 

The different attitude of a Local Area Coordinator was summed up by the work of an LAC who came across a number of isolated and stressed Mums of disabled children. The traditional response would be counselling, advice and respite. The LAC response was to bring those parents together: the formed a group they called Recharge. The LAC helped them to find an accessible leisure centre and negotiated with the centre that it would make its activities accessible to their children, whilst the parents took fitness classes and socialised. The cost was low and the benefits multiple: not just to the parents who were able to offload, get some exercise and have some fun; to the children who were now included in new activities, but also the staff and the centre which learned how to become accessible. A key lesson was to base LACs outside of state agencies, but with a link into the state system – and easy access to small amounts of money – when they need it. As one UK LAC at the event put it, we won’t take referrals, with the implications of a transfer of power associated with that, but anyone can introduce us to people.

One project in WA looked at how to help people with a significant impairment to live in an ordinary home. They have developed a community living placemat which sets out the building blocks including support, info, planning, supportive family and friends, building opportunities to explore and work towards goals, developing partnerships. Using this tool, they moved away from a choice between “you do it all” or “we’ll do it all” and instead helped people to bring their own resources – which sometimes included money and housing which people had long wanted to use but couldn’t get support to – into play in a coordinated way, such as developing shared living approaches.

Eddie outlined some rules for reform. In no particular order, these are the ones I picked up, paraphrased in some cases:

  • Ask, what kinds of relationships would you aim for if you started ‘social care’ again? We wouldn’t start from here.
  • Getting to know whole person well over time creates the possibility of speedier change later on. Move too quickly early on and all you will have is false starts.
  • You won’t understand and meet people’s needs, if their needs are all you are interested in.
  • We all use our natural networks to help us find jobs, social activities and other opportunities which we use to make a life. Services are a poor replacement for these networks for isolated people, particularly when that isolation is caused or exacerbated by a building-based service.
  • ‘Contribution’ is the most neglected concept in public services. Well being comes from what we are able to contribute. Start with high expectations.
  • People have ‘natural authority’ – respect it. Continue reading

Have we become a neglectful society?

Norman Lamb, the Care Minister, gave an interesting interview in the Telegraph over the Christmas period, which was given the rather unfortunate headline, “Neglectful Britons blamed for forcing elderly into care homes”. This picked up on the Minister’s view that we have become a “neglectful society” and that we need to rebuild “neighbourly resilience”, without which, he was quoted as saying, pensioners lead dismal, lonely lives.

Mr Lamb was given a hard time for this by Sarah Ditum, writing in the Guardian, who said that “The government has some cheek to say we’re not caring enough” and pointed out that more unpaid family carers are caring for more hours per week than ever; a huge contribution which Ditum argues the coalition is undermining with cuts to public services.

Ditum is right that, as social care services are being ever more tightly rationed, whilst the impact upon the NHS is starting to show, the impact upon family carers is often hidden, yet very real.

However, I don’t read the Minister’s comments as being about unpaid family caring. His suggestion that we have become a “neglectful society” is strikingly reminiscent of John McKnight’s suggestion, that we (in his case, the ‘we’ being US citizens in the 1990s) have become “a careless society”, in his book of the same name. McKnight was one of the founders of ‘Asset Based Community Development’, an idea which Lamb’s predecessor, Paul Burstow, talked about approvingly in the run-up to launching the social care White Paper. ‘Asset-based’ or ‘strength-based’ approaches start with the premise that seeing only people’s needs and vulnerabilities (their ‘deficits’) will lead to services being designed to impose outside ‘expertise’ at the expense of individual, family and community resilience. In other words, poorly designed, if well-intentioned, social services can become part of the problem, ‘colonising’ communities and ordinary human relationships and leaving citizens who have, in McKnight’s words, “grown doubtful of their common capacity to care”.

So McKnight was not arguing that people had stopped caring about each other, but that they had stopped seeing the active support of those around them as their role, instead believing that only the state was qualified to provide support. It’s a powerful – and by virtue of its power, a dangerous –  argument, but one which needs serious consideration.

A small-state fanatic could see it as an excuse to cut services in the naïve belief that people will start supporting each other as soon as the state ‘gets out of the way’. McKnight was instead arguing for services which were more led by people and which worked alongside and supported their relationships, rather than supplanting them. You only have to look at the isolation of thousands of older people or the disempowerment of many people with learning disabilities living in ‘service settings’, to realise that even well-funded traditional services cannot address isolation, in all its many forms.

I met Mr Lamb a number of times in the Autumn, including to discuss asset Continue reading