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.

This much we know

We know that we need prevention not crisis response – but that commissioners will not invest consistently in prevention, however much we want them to.

We know we need workers to act autonomously and take risks in the individual’s best interests – but that most large organisations will create systems which rule this out (because risks to organisations invariably trump the risks most important to individuals).

We know we need people to see themselves as sharing responsibility for their own health and wellbeing – but that the majority of professionals will feel they should look after the people ‘in their care’, and will risk criticism if they don’t.

We know that the most effective interactions are those we have with people we have had time to get to know, which can only ever be a small number – but that planners will always seek to work at the largest possible scale and see contact time as a reducible unit cost.

We know that to do the right thing consistently, we all need to act as if we are group of humans, but that we all act like we are the subjects of an all-powerful system.

In fact, there’s no such thing as the system: there’s only us and the relationships we have. So we don’t need to – and can’t – try to change the system. Instead we need different relationships with our peers and new relationships with people we haven’t previously thought of as our peers.

Here are four things I think we can do if we’re serious about radical change:

Shift power in the form of money: through handing control of money wherever possible to individuals and small groups, and spend money currently spent on procurement giving them the support they need to spend it creatively.

Shift power in the form of knowledge: through collecting data about the outcomes which matter most to local people and making it available to them in usable ways.

Shift power in the form of accountability. If now we feel accountable first and foremost to inspectors and finance managers, instead we need to ensure we account for ourselves regularly to groups of people who use services and other taxpayers, face to face.

If we do these things, we might just create spaces in our public services for the emotions which make the most difference: empathy, compassion, love.