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.

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!

The new power

Dot Turton describes her organisation Recovery Connections as, among other things, “messy”. The Care Quality Commission have just published their verdict: “outstanding”, an exceptionally rare accolade in the residential rehab sector. Dot described to an ACEVO event how she works with a team in which the majority of people have lived experience of their own or a family member’s substance misuse, to recognise and value the entirety of that lived experience: which means creating a working environment which can cope with the impact of trauma. The team at Recovery Connections need to feel able to bring all of themselves to work, as part of creating an environment which is genuinely non-judgemental and empowering for the people they work with. I was struck by the courage and insight of this, having seen too many organisations in which team members are expected to be unaffected by the trauma they work with, much less to have trauma in their own lives or backgrounds. The delusion that a team of humans can be relentlessly professional, positive and boundaried can lead to a culture without empathy, and it creates a split between the “professionals” and the “patients” or “beneficiaries”, which causes harm to both groups.

Ruth Ibegbuna, at the NCVO conference, talked about founding RECLAIM,  a social action and youth leadership programme in Manchester, and how dramatically it changed, after the young people and their parents rejected labels like “disadvantaged” which the organisation had, like so many charities, used in its publicity and fundraising, and instead reformed its mission around ambition and pride in who they were: “working class young people being seen, being heard and leading change.” Ruth, who now leads Roots, which brings influencers from different social backgrounds together across divides, recognised that RECLAIM needed to embody the leadership equality it was seeking, otherwise it would just be another well-meaning charity whose mission was undermined by working in a way “that prevents working class young people with talent, imagination, ambition and drive, from fulfilling their leadership potential.”

Also at the NCVO conference, Edel Harris of Cornerstone, took the audience through her organisation’s dramatic transformation of its support offer, from a traditional management model which, during austerity, was leading to challenges in paying the real living wage to its support workers, inspired by the Buurtzorg devolved, self-managing local teams model, which I wrote about in my book.  This starts with a complete re-recruitment of the team, recruiting for values and the ability to work as part of an autonomous team, as well as for individual competence, with layers of managements and endless sets of policies replaced by access to coaches and a tiny number of essential policies. The results have been better outcomes as well as better paid, more fulfilling jobs.

These three leaders in different ways reflect approaches to leadership which embody ideas of ‘new power’, a model of organising, set out by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms in their book of that name, around a purpose which is “open, participatory, and peer-driven” rather than hierarchical and tightly managed. They have had the mixture of confidence and humility with Victor Adebowale describes as foundation of great leadership.  Speaking at the NCVO event, Oxfam’s new CEO, Danny Sriskandarajah, was explicit that the model of leadership we need now is feminist.

Our public service and charities sector leaders act in this way too seldomly. I know I do. The new power model has gained traction because it describes something we can all see: rapidly-forming, powerful networks of like-minded people creating change much more rapidly than some of our best known, big and slow-moving institutions. But new power is not always benign. It can be harnessed by populist movements with reactionary views, as well as by corporations like Google which struggle to live up to their “do no evil” motto, because their primary motivator remains profit. Communities can include and exclude in equal measure. Change can be chaotic, but it can also be the right sort of messy. So the role for community organisations is changing, but there is a role for those organisations and their leaders: practising what we preach, being an ally as often as a leader, and recognising that even in our internet-connected, devolved, rapidly changing world, power never evenly distributes itself.