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Garry Jones's Blog

Mon 15 Jun 2020

Over the past 3 months we have faced unprecedented challenges as a voluntary sector. We might sum this up coldly as having seen, and indeed met, a massive surge in demand for our support, at the same time as having lost existing income from fundraising, trading and occasionally contracts or grants. At the same time we have of course faced the perhaps even greater challenge that the nation has largely shared, being cut off from family and friends, experiencing additional stress and anxiety and worrying about what the future holds. Our capacity as a nation to come together in communities, through existing voluntary organisations, charities, community groups and through new ones has never been so harshly tested and never proven itself so well prepared for the challenge. I make this somewhat bold claim, because our sector didn’t have anything like the resources available to it that central or even local government had – we made do with what we had and harnessed who we had. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t perfect (far from it) and it hasn’t always been a success, but when we look back as we are now beginning to do, I think we as a nation can be rightly proud of our volunteers, community groups and charities during this period. I for one am willing and happy to share this brief and limited amount of reflective congratulations with local government and other agencies such as police, fire and more. They have on the whole worked their socks off, made good decisions and worked very collaboratively across boundaries and across sectors (they can do their own PR on this, but I shan’t deny them the credit they deserve). Alas, the same cannot be said of central government.

I didn’t and don’t expect central government to be perfect either, especially when the challenge faced is to a degree new and untested. At such a time I have some sympathy with the notion that we all need to support government and show confidence in shared public endeavours; collective doubt can be dangerous. However, what I do expect from any government of any political colour, is for them to learn and to do so quickly. This is not the attribute I would ascribe to our current government. They were less prepared than we would have liked with the lockdown itself and preparing the wider system (social care, hospices and more) with PPE for example. They compounded this with a national Shielders scheme that was quick to be announced and slow to roll out. Many will be oblivious to the fact hat local government (councils) picked up the pieces and ensured that all such residents had food – and to this day they are still feeding some that government promised to feed. That scheme was full of basic errors such as wrong addresses and out of date information. Central government changed its mind twice in late March about how local food hubs would operate, throwing councils and partners into unnecessary disarray.

Closer to home, just when charities were seen as key local partners to reduce the burden on the state, Central Government subjected the sector to weeks of delay in assurances over funding (unlike the quick move to assure business and employers). Then when they did act, the package was smaller and far more bureaucratic than expected. Some of that £750M ‘emergency’ funding still hasn’t landed locally, caught up in Whitehall red tape! In recent weeks, local property grants practically dropped into small business accounts without them asking, have seen charities subject to pages of competitive, ‘prove it’ forms, for less than half the funds. The Prime Minister was quick to be associate with the NHS First Responder volunteer scheme; much less open to discussing the 3 week delay in roll out that followed and the many technical and conceptual issues arising; whilst locally we got on and supported the majority of residents ourselves (councils and voluntary groups).

And more recently, still not learning, the government rolls out schools returns without discussing with schools, track and trace without discussing with local public health teams and changes guidance on wearing of masks in hospitals, you guessed it, without discussing with hospitals. I will stop here, believe me, I could write twice as much.

I’m hoping I will get the chance to meet local MPs in the coming weeks or months (a previously hard won meeting was cancelled in April). And whist it is tempting to talk charities and money (as those are real issues), I have decided that I need to rise above sectoral priorities on this occasion, because we have a far deeper issue here. The disconnect, the disregard, the lack of recognition, respect, understanding even of local governance in the widest sense. Government certainly (parliament questionably) just doesn’t get it – their simplistic top down directive approach, in a Covid-19 era, quite literally costs lives, and they need to learn and change and do so quickly.

Fri 15 May 2020

Good day all and I hope it now goes without saying – thank you. I don’t need to say any more than this really, but it does need saying and it needs to be heard. As a Staffordshire Resident with most of my family in this county, I am so grateful for everything that is being done by every volunteer, community group, charity and social enterprise. And I am proud that Support Staffordshire and partners have played our part so a tiny self-indulgent thank you to the team here too, you’ve been ace.

Now, I want to talk impact and recovery. Thank you everyone who responded to our Covid-19 Sector Survey, we had a great response and this has enabled us to paint a strong picture of the situation in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, and to input this to national datasets (anonymised). So here is what we know from your responses combined with local intelligence.

1.    The majority of the voluntary sector has kept going

Around 2/3 of the sector is still operating, either with reduced services, adapted services or enhanced services – you are playing a critical role in supporting people and stemming demand into critical statutory services. About a third have mothballed – generally these are the smaller groups, whose activities are based around face to face meetings and to an extent engage with more vulnerable and therefore isolating people. It will be interesting to see the national stats as I half wonder if the active voluntary sector became a far more significant part of the economy and perceived makeup of society during the crisis. We will no doubt be pushed back into the shadows from a central government perspective but be in no doubt that the voluntary sector stayed calm and carried on.

2.    There is a slow but steady re-emergence for those who have been closed

Most of those who have closed down are planning to reopen using digital or good old phone/mail – this is taking some time to plan and implement but at present only a tiny handful have or see themselves as giving up entirely. And I hope it goes without saying that we are here to help you, yes you, not just other people. For assistance with digital or wider adaptation please get in touch.

3.    Funding really matters in this regard

Of those who are closed, funding is almost as strong a factor as isolating for health reasons. Almost half of these felt there was nothing out there to help them in recovery, though a third had applied for financial help and were awaiting the outcome (more below).

4.    You are supporting huge numbers of people in diverse ways and on the whole this has increased significantly

Half of you were supporting more than 5,000 people. This is a staggering figure for largely volunteer run groups, and may in part be explained by the increased throughput of people needing one-off help with food or medicines. But just consider that for a moment! Over 70% of those still operating had seen an increase in users of at least 50%; again a staggering figure that is testament to the diversification of your support offers in this time. A third had helped their service users with food and a similar number with befriending/checking-in calls. For me this is a wonderful story of how the sector, almost universally, plays a hidden social role in people’s lives – when your ‘headline’ services were disrupted, you automatically wanted to check your usual visitors/customers/friends were ok and where they needed help, you gave it.

5.    There are gaps or spaces where demand is outstripping support

But it’s not all positive, as more than half reported your experience that in key areas, you or wider services couldn’t keep up with demand. Specifically you are concerned about people at risk of abuse or otherwise being very vulnerable, including homelessness and extreme poverty. A smaller but significant number were seeing demand for mental health support go unmet. Importantly you felt this was affecting a much larger than usual number of your service users. This is really important as it indicates that vulnerable people will be present in a dispersed manner, not in what we might think of as traditional places – that means support to alleviate poverty, enable people to get away from abuse and access to mental health support will need to be equally accessible, or even dispersed – the response cannot be as if it were like before with underfunded bottlenecks such as traditional referral routes. Remember 2008 and how food banks emerged to combat failings in poverty alleviation of the benefits and local authority systems? The same could happen here if existing support structures are not resourced and given the freedoms and flexibilities they need to act now. We will need flexible and cross-sectoral resources that encourage partnership and collaboration (more below).

6.    The furlough scheme is crucial to some, irrelevant to many

Half of you have no staff, a third only have part time staff. For many the furlough scheme is irrelevant. Even where you have employees, you cannot furlough them because you need them to keep on delivery support. As such, just 23% had furloughed any staff at all, and most hadn’t furloughed a majority. This week’s news that the scheme will change from 1 August into a more flexible scheme which allows part time arrangements will be welcome as a result, but we still don’t know the detail. The crucial issue here is the trade-off between expenditure and income – you may get a furlough payment, but other income may be lost if it is dependent on that worker to earn it and unlike most of the private sector, your work (demand) isn’t tightly coupled to your income – that is to say, your income may dry up whilst your work increases. This just isn’t true in the main for the private sector, where either products or services are made/delivered in proportion to the income earned from them. This critical difference for the voluntary sector still has not been understood by central government and for me is a key learning point that must be accepted in the analysis and planning for any reoccurrence.

7.    Income is expected to crash

It is very, very hard to forecast, but your current estimates show respondees expect to lose over £5million in the next three months. Scaled up across our local sector, we reckon this equates to £19.5 million in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent. The biggest losses locally are expected to be from community fundraising events, sponsorship and similar activities (26%) – please get in touch if you want to chat through ideas to take these online or remotely – there are some great ideas out there you can adapt. A further 18% attributed losses to memberships/subscriptions that you expect to lose, or (another 18%) conversely that you didn’t feel it was right or appropriate to carry on charging for services in these times. 17% reported loss of income from buildings (this is Support Staffordshire’s biggest concern incidentally) and in this regard government grant schemes have been poorly communicated, confusing and variously interpreted by local authorities. Our message here is don’t take your first response as read – question, provide more information, appeal and ask us for help if you need to. The schemes do apply to many charities. 11% noted changes to grants or service level agreements – we sincerely hope this was due to delayed starts for projects or pausing of grant applications that you had planned for positive outcomes to. If anyone has had an existing grant or agreement cut during the crisis please get in touch, so we can help you to fight this.

8.    Volunteering has been massively disrupted – positive and negative

Disruption is the only word I can think of to summarise here. Whilst almost 80% were continuing to use volunteers and many reported increased levels of volunteering, some two thirds cited older volunteers self-isolating and hence unavailable to volunteer. 20% said this was part of the reason they had closed/mothballed. Whilst we know the usual high demand, low supply in volunteering has flipped on its head in the past two months, we can also start to see nuances around the available experience and skill sets of volunteers and the willingness of different organisations to take on new volunteers in times of crisis. You should all be aware by now that Support Staffordshire can broker volunteers aplenty at present, but we can also help you rethink your recruitment, roles, and management of volunteers to take on more, different and remote tasks, so as usual, drop us a line.

9.    Recovery is now

My final point is about recovery. A large portion of central government directed funding and we are told all of the additional government money to the National Lottery Community Fund MUST be spent on the emergency and is taking weeks to flow to the front line. I fear that Whitehall jobsworths are busy designing processes to support a crisis that has moved into recovery and needs flexible finance now. Let me be clear, I’m not asking for money to just be dished out, transparency in crisis is more necessary not less, but I am asking funders to relax over what funding is ‘for’ – let the sector tell you, ask for supporting evidence, openly publish what you have invested where, make clear you will in due course be checking it turned out to be so (or of equivalence) but stop trying to categorise a system that is under ongoing disruption like you would usually do. And if you can’t manage this, then just give it all to the National Emergencies Trust who will devolve it to Community Foundations. Ours have been brilliant in getting money out quick with the right balance of trust and accountability, and dare I say, they have stretched the rules they have been given to breaking point, but not broken them.

Recovery started yesterday and it evolves each day, so whether it is funding, volunteers or wider support please do not hesitate for a moment to be in touch for a sounding board as often as you need.

Take Care (Be Alert)

Garry

 


To read the full survey summary click here

Wed 15 Apr 2020

It has been the most testing, bizarre, emotional, challenging, tiring month, but I have also never been more proud to be part of our local voluntary and community sector.

In a matter of weeks, we have seen our members dramatically reorganise themselves to respond to the pandemic, undertaking new and challenging tasks, recruiting more volunteers, spending their own reserves, forging new relationships, supporting the vulnerable and marginalised, to stay at home, to protect the NHS, and Social Care, and ultimately to save lives.

We want to say a huge thank you to every organisation, every staff member, every volunteer, every trustee, who in whatever way they have been able, has supported this call to action, in our communities across Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent. The work goes on, but I for one feel far more assured that we can weather this storm, with the ingenuity and commitment of all of you. In particular I want to personally thank the VCSE lead organisations in every district that have been working with ourselves, the county council, district councils and NHS partners, to ensure we have clear and accessible routes to divert less urgent demand away from critical statutory services where possible. I also want to thank all the foodbanks and similar organisations who are stopping that demand from arising in the first place – you are wonderful.

I spoke to the Guardian newspaper on Good Friday and they were truly astounded by the goodwill that communities have shown across the country. From the amazing new mutual aid groups, helping neighbours on their patch, to the ¾ million NHS responders, of which you may be one. In Staffordshire we have seen 1,500 new volunteers come forward to Support Staffordshire, at its peak a 4000% increase on our usual expectations; and that’s around ¼ million new volunteers across our CVS/volunteer centre colleagues in England. We have referred on over 2/3 of them already, but please get in touch if you want more!

We have also been working with partners to get funding up and running and accessed, in particular friends at the Community Foundation. If you need any support with applications or wider work around sustaining yourselves at this time, please pick up the phone to us. If you don’t know who to speak to call us on 0300 777 1207.

I want to conclude this month, with a brief word about the national government response to charities, and I must point out that this is always used as a convenient short hand to mean – support for our beneficiaries, who are many of the most vulnerable in our communities. To start I was dismayed at the effort and time it took to make the case, over 3 weeks before anything was announced. The funding (£750k) was of course most welcome, especially for hospices who are as much at the front line, as NHS and social care colleagues. But it’s simply not enough. The delay and the small scale of the response says something deeply concerning about central government /charity sector relations – we are clearly not well understood, not sufficiently valued and too readily dismissed. This is a troubling state of affairs when we know that every charity that goes under will be twice as hard to restart and many fold more expensive to be replaced with statutory services. Yet central government simply must not believe this.

My colleague at CFG, Caron Bradshaw wrote a fantastic piece late last week, in which she says: ‘Charity isn’t gentle. It’s messy and hard and difficult and painful…[The Chancellor said] he couldn’t guarantee he could save every job. I agree. But that isn’t the point - it never has been. It’s not about charity jobs. It’s about the people we serve. It’s not about preserving the institution of charity so it can carry on after this crisis has passed. It’s about ensuring that the marginalised, the vulnerable, the bits of society that are unseen and unsupported by all but charities, do not carry the greatest burden.’

And so, we at Support Staffordshire will continue to press behind the scenes as well as publicly, with local MPs and through our national bodies, to ensure that funds are distributed fairly, that the immediate crisis response (necessary as it is) does not totally crowd out the longer term response. The virus hasn’t taken away all the other issues; domestic violence, child poverty, homelessness, disabilities, mental health, employability and much more, and many will be exacerbated by it.

We need your help in this, to paint a fair and accurate and compelling case – please respond to the Staffordshire Covid-19 State of the Sector Survey.  It would be helpful if you could complete the survey by 30th April

 

Garry Jones, Chief Executive, Support Staffordshire

Tue 10 Mar 2020

Hi folks

Hope you are staying calm and well. Instead of my usual piece this month I’m just saying to read this (see link below). Really useful and practical stuff from our friends at NCVO.

If you need any help with plans or issues arising from this guidance and want to talk it over then remember we are here to help locally. 

https://www.ncvo.org.uk/practical-support/information/coronavirus

 

Filed under: Support Staffordshire  

Fri 14 Feb 2020

One of the perennial bug bears I hear from local members in the voluntary sector is how frustrating it is to see local businesses and employee groups raising funds for Cancer Research UK, Macmillan or the British Heart Foundation (to name a few), whilst they struggle to make it by to the end of the year. The amounts involved will often be a drop in the ocean for such national ‘corporate’ charities, but locally could literally save a charity or community group from closure. Even more frustrating, is that these big names probably don’t even work locally in Staffordshire or Stoke-on-Trent. And the stats back up this frustration, with a huge majority of both public donations and corporate giving, going to a short list of the top national charities, leaving the other hundred thousand or more in the shade.

The answers are not simple and this behaviour is deeply entrenched on all parts. The businesses may be deliberately seeking publicity alongside the donation, which those national brands are well placed to deliver upon. Local charities are not going to give them the kudos they seek. Locally we don’t have anything like the marketing budgets, if any at all and the more they earn, the more they must reinvest in marketing to earn even more! Locally we can't even get started.

Equally though, we aren’t making it easy for local businesses to get much out of a relationship – we don’t always market ourselves well, even locally. We often don’t tell the stories well enough, even when we have them. The employees themselves may drive the decision about what to support and its often the most emotive and personal experiences that direct such giving, where Cancer really hits home. The elderly relative supported via a luncheon club, week in and out for 20 years perhaps doesn’t tend to resonate quite so much with your colleagues… let alone the 2000 or more charitable groups in Staffordshire that you’ve probably never heard of, but are deeply intertwined in communities of place and need.

What can you do about it? Start small and try to build relationships with a small number of open ears – via your own employees, trustees or volunteers, businesses they work with, are employed by or used to be, your neighbouring businesses, and don’t forget your own suppliers, who may be so close you didn’t even think of them? Tell your own stories, use your frontline staff and volunteers and your service users or beneficiaries – video is great, photos if not, and it’s so much quicker and easier than a written case study. If it’s really all new to you, then book onto our Right Start Course covering Basic Marketing Principles, or talk it through with one of our Locality Officers near you – both are free to members.

Local businesses out there? Not sure where to start? One option is to get involved via Support Staffordshire. In June we hold a series of local Awards, recognising the great volunteers and organisations around Staffordshire. You can sponsor an award from as little as £150, which will bring you into direct contact with a room full of the brightest and best of local charities and community groups. Who knows where an introduction on that summer evening could lead? If you want to know more call Jennie on 01785 413162 or email jennie.stewart@supportstaffordshire.org.uk.

Lastly, don’t miss our AGM with guest speaker Karl Wilding, Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations – our biggest and best voice at a national level. It’s on Thursday, but we still have some tickets left, so book here without delay. Looking forward to seeing many of you there.

Garry Jones

Chief Executive, Support Staffordshire

Mon 13 Jan 2020

We are kicking off the new year as we mean to go on with a positive celebration of our sector – the 2020 Support Staffordshire Volunteer Star Awards are here and nominations are now open. There are a range of categories in which to nominate your local unsung hero and we will be holding special awards events in June, across the county, with 8 events in total. For the full visit the awards pages of our website. We are already looking forward to reading your wonderful stories of local giving.

At this time of year thoughts will also turn for many of our members to budgets for next financial year and tying up your current year of activities, reports and finances. Remember, we offer a friendly and very competitively priced year end accounts and independent examination service for organisations with a turnover under £250k. We are also here to support and advise you on all matters pertaining to business plans and funding for the year ahead – just call and ask for your Locality Officer.

At home we too are planning the year ahead and this year we will be embarking on a new stream of income through corporate support. For many smaller charities this is an untapped area of support and whilst most local businesses say they favour donating to local causes, when it comes to the stats, they tend to give to well-known nationals. Why? Probably because it’s easier to do so. We are planning to change that and hope to shine a spotlight on the smaller, local charities we support as a result. We want to ensure we don’t clash with any corporate fundraising our members are already engaged with, so don’t expect fun runs and cake bakes from us, but we do want to be open and honest that as public finances continue to feel the squeeze, we will have to diversify, if our free advice and support to almost 1,000 local charities and community groups is to be maintained.

Finally don't foget to book your place at our AGM which will take place on Thursday 20 February at Lea Hall Miners Welfare and Social Club in Rugeley.  We are delighted that Karl Wilding Chief Executive at the NCVO has agreed to be our guest speaker so it promises to be an interesting afternoon.

Mon 16 Dec 2019

What a week, and whoever you voted for, I expect we are all glad that politics is somewhat off the table for Christmas.

Congratulations to all our local Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent MPS, especially those new to role, and I would give a special well done to Kate Griffiths MP for Burton, who has been a great local supporter of the voluntary sector over the last five years, regularly supporting our Volunteer Star Awards – we hope you’ll continue to be an advocate for the sector.

In the new year I and colleagues from Team Staffordshire, will be taking upon an invite extended by Karen Bradley MP (Staffordshire Moorlands) on behalf of local conservative MPs, before the election. This was in reply to our open letter sent in the autumn, which eventually received several replies. The most detailed and thoughtful of these was from Jeremy Lefroy (former MP for Stafford), for which I want to thank him. We also received pretty detailed replies from all three local labour MPs, though they have each stood down or lost their seats. The meeting which we expect to be at Westminster with all (or most) of the now 12 conservative MPs, is a great opportunity to put across our priorities at the start of a new term of office. So what will be your priority? I shall write to all members in the new year asking for a clear steer on this, but start thinking…

To get you started, we should remember that even though the election has been hailed a landslide victory, more people didn’t exercise their right to vote at all, than voted conservative (just 30% of the electorate voted for the winners) – which I point out, in order to remind us that 70% of the population felt strongly enough to vote for something else, or apathetic enough not to vote at all. There remain big problems to be solved in this country and both the new government, our local governments, and our civil society has a major role to play in bringing more people together for the betterment of their communities.

For me the biggest unaddressed questions are around tackling and mitigating climate change, addressing the adult social care conundrum and addressing decent affordable housing. Each of these is of course interwoven with our ability to pay, the economy and trade, and thus of course Brexit remains crucial.

However, at least for Christmas, perhaps we can all consider what unites us as a nation, enjoy the company of family and friends and look forward to the possibilities of what the new year brings. Merry Christmas to all our members, colleagues and partners and thanks for your support and collaboration this year.

Garry

Wed 30 Oct 2019

Trust in Charities and why the Charity Commission is so off the mark

In recent weeks there has been another raft of critical opinion from the Charity Commission, largely via its Chair, Baroness Tina Stowell. It hopefully passed you by and doesn’t affect your opinion of charities or indeed your own organisational self-esteem too much. To expand on my Twitter comments @suschief I want to say a few words here about why this is a poor strategy by the Commission, poor execution and totally misses the mark.

This repeated commentary largely relies on this 2018 Commission report.  If you have time to read it, you will actually see that trust in charities has gone up since 2016 and that charities remain one of the most trusted of any institutions; though overall trust is seen to be down in the longer term and remains of concern to the public, mostly linked to negative media and publicity about charities in recent years (something the Commission seems intent on contributing too?!?)

I have to say there are serious questions as to the method and statistical significance of the results in this report. If this is to be the basis of what seems to be their flagship ‘campaign’ then it needs to be a much broader and sounder (and independent) evidence base of the supposed problem. At this juncture I would also remind readers that Baroness Stowell isn’t the independent regulator she is supposed to be, walking straight out of the revolving door from being a Conservative Peer and former Cabinet Member into this job, against the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee asked to endorse her. Indeed they stated she wasn’t fit for the job… she was given it anyway.

So, where exactly is the supposed trust problem? If we accept there is an issue, or at least that further building up of trust in charities is good, whatever its current status; surely there are two obvious next questions: which of the 160,000 charities are and are not trusted, and why? Are there significant differences based on geography, theme or size of charity? I strongly suspect so and certainly the negative media ‘scandals’ have been overwhelmingly dominated by a handful of large corporate national charities. But analytically, what are the main reasons people give for trusting or not trusting charities? I see little of this analysis and in particular, it practically never seems to provide any direction to the Commission Chair’s public speeches on the matter. Instead she repeatedly says ‘charities’   - what all 160,000 of them?

More fundamentally though, can Trust even be regulated? The current discourse is really shallow. It doesn’t recognise that Trust is not something any of us can directly create, not charities and not the Commission. Trust is an emergent property of complex systems (people and organisations), influenced by a very wide range of factors, many of them subjective and irrational. I would argue Trust is as much, if not more, an emotion or feeling, as a thought or fact. The Commission can strongly effect some of these factors through regulation and those are the things they should concentrate on: transparency in reporting, the registration process itself, compliance with legal duties, punishment for abuse of the law etc. They have some way to go on these things!

Still, I genuinely wouldn’t mind them giving a view on our behaviours as a sector, if it were done, with us, instead of about us. The public discourse from the Commission on this is too dominated by a top down approach, telling us off and telling us to do better. Where is the attempt to work with us? Charity Leaders are by far the best placed people to influence this agenda as they are the ones who have most control over their charities’ behaviours. There seems to have been very little effort put into working with us. When I questioned this approach with the Chair, at the NAVCA AGM last year, her first response was to say ‘try not to take it personally’. For me this speaks volumes about the Commission’s relationship with the local (small) sector vs the corporate charity sector. For us lot, we work in this sector, not solely or even primarily because of a transactional employment relationship. We do it because we care and we almost all go well above and beyond. This means that telling us we are not trusted, feels personal, and if it feels personal, then it is!

This brings me to my main point, which is that this trust debate detracts from the real issue – public misunderstanding. When you do delve into the data you find massive misunderstanding shines through and surely if you are to trust something, misunderstanding it, ain’t a great place to start. Just one example of many; a large proportion of the ‘public’ think Charity Chief Executives shouldn’t be paid. Not shouldn’t be paid a lot, no, shouldn’t be paid at all. This must mean that for those people there would be something to mistrust in any charity boss who got paid even the minimum wage. The public understanding of what charity is and charities are is a very real and factual thing that the Commission absolutely could do something about, if it chose to change its ‘campaign’ to one of public education.

Finally, via Twitter, I have received a very strong counter argument against my statements that this approach is ‘unfair’. My friendly adversary argued that the Commission should be able to criticise charities and to do so very publicly and that we shouldn’t cry ‘unfair’. I’ve given this a lot of thought and I agree with him up to a point – they should criticise us where it is merited. But where I come from, if something is unfair, you can say it and you shouldn’t have to take the blame for things you didn’t do. I re-read the list of supposed charity scandals from poor fundraising practice, excessive chief exec pay, horrendous lack of safeguarding and the impacts, kids company and other high profile collapses, supposed duplication of ‘too many charities’, and charity shops proliferating on the high street. I concluded, our Charity has nothing to do with any of these and I couldn’t think of any of our member orgs locally who had either.

So yes, it’s unfair and I will keep saying so. Follow my rants and occasional insights @suschief

Fri 11 Oct 2019

I recently celebrated 5 years with Support Staffordshire, 7 as an employee in the CVS world and 14 overall (previously as a volunteer/trustee) but you might not know my first career was in nature conservation. I have worked with 3 Local Wildlife Trusts and worked and volunteered for the RSPB twice as well as short spells in both the private and statutory sector – what’s that got to do with anything I hear you say?

Well, my bit was education, volunteering and community engagement and I loved my work. But one of the main reasons I left was a nagging doubt that we could ever really change anything whilst too many in the leadership of that sector essentially viewed people as the problem, instead of the solution. Personally I hit a glass ceiling, where my face didn’t fit and I vividly remember being told that social inclusion wasn’t the job of environmentalists… how times change.

Yet, I suppose I have thus far failed to really marry up my love of nature and passion to conserve what we have left, with my current career in the world of people and social challenges – where the challenges are so great in their own right and my own work is under constant pressure to balance the books and keep our services going for all that use and rely upon them. I still feel there is a deep disconnect between environmental justice and social justice in too many communities and with too many decision makers and influencers.

But Greta Thunberg’s recent UN Climate Summit speech reminded me that I should keep trying. Personally I can probably feel quite smug – I am a vegetarian, don’t take flights, don’t buy much stuff, have a renewable energy supplier, recycle etc. etc. I do a lot of car miles and tell myself I can’t afford an electric car (not that this is a solution in itself anyway) and that in a rural county I have little choice but to drive (which in many ways is true). I have vowed to use less baby wipes, but you know it’s really hard when your 2 year old runs at you with his sticky fingers when you have an important meeting that morning!

Greta reminds us all that our generation and our parents have ‘stolen her dreams’ and then have the audacity to come to young people ‘for hope’. How dare we indeed. Of course, her message is targeted with precision, not at the everyday Joe, but at the national politicians, financers and media moguls who could actually make the gear shifts we need. I feel pretty confident that Joe public would actually respond well, if supported and enabled to change behaviour as a society, rather than feel they are making lonely sacrifices whilst the rich and powerful keep jet setting and burning fossil fuels at will. It is no coincidence that the abuse Greta receives on social media (its immense and vile) largely emanates from white, middle aged, well-off, western, angry, men. This is a young woman standing up for what she believes in and I for one think she must be one of the bravest people I have ever come across, as well as being right.

So, at Support Staffordshire, we have made two tiny steps in the right direction: Firstly, we have written climate change into our new Business Plan – no we don’t really know what we are going to do about it; but it’s there, so it can’t keep being ignored. Secondly, my colleague Jill Norman is convening a conversation with a cross-organisation group of staff, to see what we all think we can do about it. We are a small organisation, tiny by world standards, and could easily say there is nothing we can do without the USA and China on Board. But actually, we all have to do something, only in that way will we reach a tipping point where more people than not ‘get it' – that the social, political, economic and technological fabric of society, worldwide, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment and there is no ‘away’ into which we can throw our climate emergency.

 

Filed under: Support Staffordshire  

Wed 11 Sep 2019

So, I have avoided the topic for months, but it seems there really would be little point this month, in me talking about anything except….. Brexit.

However, I hope to give a different and perhaps more positive take, whilst also walking the political tightrope that Charity leaders must.

We find ourselves in highly charged political times, where every action and reaction is an outrage, a disgrace, a constitutional abomination. I’ve become somewhat immune to these terms when they emanate from politicians, whether they have some truth to them or not; because they are being seriously overused by all parties. And this is indicative of the extreme polarisation that has resulted from the Brexit saga. Leavers and Remainers, the two opposite identities that we must each now embody. Winners vs Losers. Parliament vs the People.

Let’s rewind. Back in 2015 when the referendum was a manifesto pledge of the David Cameron Conservative Party, was the EU question prominent in most folks’ minds? Amongst the NHS, Education, Policing, Social Care, Climate Change, Housing, Jobs and Employment? I don’t recall it being up there in most ordinary voters list of priorities, let alone capable of such division. It now splits families and communities down the middle if we are to believe the media. I know some will say it affects all these things and they are right, but how many of us, hand on heart can really truly say we were genuinely, truly, very, very bothered about the EU, back then?

And even when it came to the vote, how many of us were truly ‘die in a ditch’ leavers or remainers? I don’t mind saying that I was a late remainer, perhaps 65:35 remain in the end. I like some of the ideas of leaving (even now), especially of more local decision making and more direct accountability for elected leaders. But I also like some of the ideas of remain – current trade and travel arrangements (and I’m not a frequent traveller abroad by any means, nor do I trade internationally). I also like the more general sense of being part of Europe in terms of security and solidarity on global issues. I was probably 50:50 until some of the narrative descended into racism near the end, and that personally, pushed me to vote remain. But really I’m not a remainer or a leaver; I’m a middler and I don’t think I’m the only one.

I also think it’s pretty much an undeniable fact that we all know far more now than we did back then about the EU in general, and the implications of leaving or indeed of staying. Now, I’m absolutely not saying the much trotted out ‘you didn’t know what you were voting for’, nor ‘leavers are all stupid’ that is so often characterised and leads to pointless arguments. I’m pretty sure almost all people who voted leave had and still have a very clear idea and rationale as to why they voted leave and that the majority didn’t do so solely because of promises about the NHS which have since been brought into doubt. They voted leave for very good reasons.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that we now know leaving causes a serious headache around the Irish Border, a potentially irresolvable headache, at least in the short term. We also know now that it is really very complicated when it comes to things like customs borders, especially for fresh food and some medicines (not irresolvable, but very complicated!) And these things might possibly mean some folk have changed their mind, even if most have not. At the least it brings into doubt the decision by the Cameron Government, to sum it all up in one very short and simple phrase ‘leave’ – because it’s just not that simple. I hope we can all agree that any future referendum would benefit from a little more detail in the options presented.

This brings me onto two final points, even though they seemingly contradict one another.

I absolutely sympathise, very much, with those voters who feel let down, having voted for the first time in their lives, and now finding their (leave) vote is being ‘ignored’ by the parliamentary machine. However, on balance I don’t think that calls for a second vote (or a proxy in the form of a general election) are undemocratic. I mean, what if the Suffragettes had given up at the first hurdle? If you truly want to leave, including having considered any extra information you now have, well good for you. Vote again, it will take you all of about 10 minutes and a cross in a box. That’s not so very undemocratic or demanding is it? Two votes to leave would be incontrovertible, even the most ardent remainers would have to concede.

And in that vein, and despite my underlying feeling that there are so many more important issues, and the fact that I personally voted remain, I strongly suspect that we do now need to leave. We need to leave soon, with a deal if possible, but without one if no such deal can be found (which is a pretty foggy question to me at least). Because I think the many many reasons that underpin the mood of leave, the cry for change, are driven by dissatisfaction with the status quo. People are tired, they can’t see how their lives can be better. They lack opportunity, they lack fulfilment. They lack hope. Brexit is for many, that hope.

It might be false hope (many remainers will believe so), but we need the 52% (leavers) to engage if any of these things are going to change and having hope means they are engaged – we need to grasp that opportunity, to involve them in wider political change, locally and nationally, to say ‘Brexit is done – so how are we going to tackle the problems we face’. I personally doubt Brexit in and of itself will actually address many of those issues, but it seems to now be a necessary precursor to their engagement in other solutions; and I’m absolutely certain that those problems won’t be solved whilst 52% of the population are disengaged with politics and social policy. The 48% have to do this, even if we don’t really like it, because the 52% aren’t an alien species, they are our friends, our neighbours, our families. They are us and we have a duty to them.