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.

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.

The future of health and social care – conclusions from the Joint VCSE Review

I have come to the end of my role as independent chair of The Joint VCSE Review which took hundreds of views from voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations and developed actions, co-owned by government and sector, for how statutory and voluntary organisations should work together with citizens to redesign a more community-based health and care system, and then deliver that model. At national level, we helped design the Health and Wellbeing Alliance and the Health and Wellbeing Fund. NCVO provided the secretariat and a huge amount of support and expertise to the review, along with too many colleagues from the VCSE sector and from the Dept for Health and Social Care, NHS England and Public Health England to list here – I’m very grateful to them all.

My conclusions and recommendations for future joint policy work between government and the VCSE sector are here, and I am looking forward to discussing them with Simon Stevens of NHS England, Duncan Selbie of PHE, and Caroline Dinenage, the Minister of State for Care, shortly. NCVO have kindly published my blog on it here, which begins:

What does the health and social care system want from charities and social enterprises? The answers to this vary, and sometimes contradict each other. Voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations are asked to be more efficient and to merge into bigger organisations which can be contracted with, but they are also challenged to remain rooted in their communities and to tailor their work with specific communities. They should be collaborating not competing, while grant funding continues to be replaced with competitive contracting. The public expect charities to be independent, strong voices challenging the NHS and councils when they let people down. Those bodies generally welcome constructive criticism – up to a point.

When the world’s expectations of us become impossibly complex, the question we should ask becomes simple: what are we for?

Read the rest here.

Flipping the narrative

My essay for NPC’s series on the future of not for profits is here:  http://www.thinknpc.org/publications/flipping-the-narrative

It starts like this:

For years, charities and social enterprises that deliver support services have been told to emulate the private sector: to become more efficient and bigger through growth and mergers. We increasingly use the language of customer service, despite the fact that our ‘customers’ often have not chosen to come to us and are not spending their money. Our branding and marketing is getting slicker, even as the budgets for our front-line services are being cut like never before. We talk about quality, excellence and the need to ‘professionalise’, whilst many charities have to employ people on minimum wage to make ends meet while some senior salaries continue to rise.

Some not-for-profits have been so successful in competing with the private sector on that sector’s own terms that it is getting hard to distinguish them from their profit-making counterparts. Others have found themselves, like some private sector organisations, at loggerheads with their own workers, local branches or ‘beneficiaries’.

There are always gains to be made from becoming more efficient, but the challenges facing providers of public services that are genuinely values-led are now far beyond solving through leaner processes or smaller back offices. They are existential. It is time to consider not how charities can emulate the public or private sectors, but what makes our sector uniquely valuable to people who need support, and how we can work with those people to ensure that our public service system values that contribution. Read more.