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.

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!

Imposter or guest?

The King’s Fund published an interesting blog on imposter syndrome the other day, after participants in their third sector leadership programme consistently identified it as an issue – surprising perhaps for a group of successful and high-performing CEOs. Even these high flyers reported some of the doubts associated with a fear that they might not be worthy of their roles, or that others are better, cleverer or more suited. I can relate to that fear of ‘being found out’ and how it can lead to the urge to behave in ways that are motivated by managing self-doubt, rather than adding value to my organisation. This can be micro-managing, avoiding conflict or defensiveness in the face of the criticism which ultimately leads to personal growth.

The King’s Fund suggest some practical approaches to managing self-doubt, including seeing it as a skill and an emotion to be curious about, talk about and explore, rather than as a failing. As Lord Victor Adebowale of Turning Point has noted, leadership requires a combination of self-confidence and self-doubt: one to act, and one to act well. There are no perfect leaders, and the only truly bad leaders I have met in this sector have all had an utter lack of self-doubt in common.

The root cause of imposter syndrome is not, in my view, a failing in the individuals who experience it, it’s a symptom of the continuing mismatch between heroic ideas of leadership and what humans can actually achieve in leadership roles without being destructive. We are still conditioned to see leaders as people who can achieve the impossible – the elite athletes of the charity, public service or corporate world. But, just as witnessing elite sporting achievement is as likely to leave people feeling that sport is not for them, as to inspire them to try to emulate what they’ve seen, the cult of the heroic leader can disempower the rest of us, rather than inspire us to share in the awesome responsibilities which we are told these exceptional individuals can hold alone.

The cure for this lies not in improving the self-confidence of people in powerful jobs, but in distributing that power, recognising the unique strengths that each of us can bring and piece together, and including as many people as possible in that ‘us’: including people who are too often described as the ultimate ‘beneficiaries’, ‘patients’ or ‘service users’ of that leadership brilliance. Self-doubt may not be a demon to be vanquished, but the reality of how equal we all are or should be in worth, disrupting the power imbalances which we continue to tolerate and maintain, and to celebrate at every industry awards ceremony.

I have enjoyed reading Mark McKergow’s work on the idea of leader as ‘host‘, welcoming the whole team to the party, stepping forward to start festivities and stepping back to allow everyone to join in. But in the world of charities and public services, I wonder if a better cure for feeling like an imposter, may be to behave more like a guest. That means being able to hear when we are unwelcome, as well as when we are welcome. And more self-doubt as a leader might mean becoming more self-confident as an ally.

Charities, community groups and social enterprises at the heart of health and care

Today we launch the final report and recommendations from the Joint Review of the Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector’s role in the health and care system. This follows a year and a half of hard work by an advisory group (which I have chaired) made up of people from the VCSE sector working together with people from national and local government. It’s been hard work and the co-produced process has at times challenged the usual systems for producing reports, with lots of pragmatism required on both sides. But I feel (and hope you’ll agree!) it’s been worthwhile, in order to build a consensus around a clear view of what the VCSE can and could do, the challenges it faces and the ways in which many of those challenges could be overcome. I’m incredibly grateful to everyone on the group, NCVO who provided the secretariat, communications support and much more, and to lots of colleagues working behind the scenes and in numerous agencies we liaised with, who have all worked so hard to get to publication (see www.gov.uk for full report). Here is the blog which I wrote for the launch:

The goal shared by everyone who delivers and organises health and care services is wellbeing: its creation and its resilience. Whilst we do not want to spend increasing proportions of our lives in medical nor social care, we will all draw upon primary, acute or specialist services at various points in our lives and we want to find them available, caring and well run when we do. However, whether for people with lifelong disabilities, the ever growing older population or those with long term health conditions and support needs, our dreams remain rooted in living well at home as part of welcoming, inclusive communities. To achieve that goal, we need health and care systems which are organised around and support our lives: which can reach us in our homes, support our families to care, and release the full potential of communities.

When people talk about the difference that charities, social enterprises and community groups can make to delivering health and care services, they often focus on the ways that those organisations can reach people whom mainstream health and care services find ‘hard to reach’ or ‘challenging’, get to know them more deeply, and draw upon volunteers to achieve more than paid staff alone can achieve. All true, and extremely valuable, but, our review of the voluntary, community and social enterprise or VCSE sector found, only half the story.

There was indeed wide agreement that good VCSE organisations are better placed than other kinds of organisation to achieve some of the health and care goals which are now seen as crucial to the sustainability of our NHS and social care systems. It is VCSE organisations which often support groups and communities which are otherwise neglected, not only responding to health needs but also starting to address the social determinants (poverty, housing, exclusion) of health and deep-rooted health inequalities. Through drawing on people power as well as money, VCSE organisations are often uniquely able to offer support which looks at the whole person and whole family, thinking preventatively and whole-lifetime. Many of our recommendations are designed to identify, measure and invest in those added kinds of ‘social value’ which VCSE organisations bring into a system desperately searching for more bang for its buck.

The current funding trajectory in some areas is towards large, narrowly focused contracts, which can be appropriate to holding big providers to account, but can be poor ways to create the diverse local marketplace of big, small and niche providers called for by the Care Act and needed to reach whole populations and to offer people genuine choice. The most creative planners and commissioners are drawing on the full range of investment approaches, using contracts creatively alongside grants for community development work, personal budget and Personal Health Budgets for personally tailored support packages, social prescribing to link up vulnerable people with effective charities (with funding following the prescription to ensure that’s sustainable), and social investment to take risks and innovate.

So developing the VCSE sector as a distinct form of health and care provision is crucial and brings value into the system that money alone cannot buy. But for many of the VCSE organisations and local commissioners who responded to our consultation, just as important as how much funding VCSE organisations could win through competing to provide services, was the extent to which VCSE organisations were involved in planning those services: co-designing the local health and care goals and playing a full part in developing responses to local needs and building on local assets and community resources.

Traditionally, the health and care system has been designed largely by the state Continue reading