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Garry Jones's Blog

Fri 5 Feb 2021

We often hear about the fragility of natural habitats or ecosystems, such as rainforests, which gives us the impression that by comparison to our man made world, these wild places are some how sub-standard, teetering on a precipice, where at any moment they could collapse. Sometimes the motivation for such descriptions comes from those who probably should know better, those who are actually trying to shock us into action to support these places, or at least to give money to their organisation in the name of ‘saving the rainforest’. Anyone with any ecological training or knowledge knows this is bunkum.

Rainforests and other complex ecosystems (savannahs, coral-reefs, even good old British Forests, in fact all large natural ecosystems) are actually extremely resilient and strong. It is self-evident that rainforests must be very tough, for they have survived the most horrific assaults upon them by humanity, from logging and hunting to pollution and fossil fuel driven climate change. Their survival is precisely because of there complexity, not in spite of it. They depend not on any one individual, and rarely on any one species or family/genus (group) of species, but on an intricate, superbly complex and interwoven network of species all of whom hold dependencies for and upon others within the ecosystem. This is characterised as making them fragile or weak, unable to stand on their own two feet, but in fact it’s the very reason that the system doesn’t collapse when it is disrupted, even when that disruption becomes extremely destructive. Alas, that pressure is now, all too often, becoming so pervasive and extensive that collapses are being observed; for even a system that is inherently self-protective and regenerating can’t keep going forever in the face of unrelenting power.

By this point you may well be checking the title of this blog, website or e-news piece to check what you are reading. And whilst I do have a background in biology, I must now turn to what this all has to do with the voluntary and community sector. First I note unusually, I am using that phrase, rather than including social enterprise under the acronym VCSE. This is really because social enterprise is to a degree in its infancy and as such I personally don’t feel confident that what I am about to say can be guaranteed to hold true for SE in the same way I think it does for V&C (though instinctively I think it will). So here is my claim: The Voluntary and Community Sector is a Rainforest – its complexity is its strength. Again we often hear commentary, that we are hard to understand, difficult to navigate, even harder to work with. We hear that we are unsustainable, too dependent on government funding or ‘grants’ (assumed to be negative) or worse still ‘hand outs’. And yes we are sometimes said to be weak and fragile, at risk, unreliable. I have to say that most of this generally comes from statutory organisations, rather than business (except the handouts bit, where it is assumed we haven’t really earned those funds in the way a ‘proper’ business does – but I will leave that myth for another day). And in this we can perhaps understand the partial and ill-judged perspective, as by comparison to the state funded, tax-guaranteed income and legislatively agreed institutions of the state, any one VC organisation does look rather puny and vulnerable.

And so the metaphor stands – any one organisation perhaps, but a sector, a system, a network of support, interwoven with other organisations, formal and informal, integrated and rooted with service users, beneficiaries, patients, residents – its not fragile at all – its sustainable, its resilient, its bloody marvellous. And it’s a fact: the Voluntary and Community Sector is not the third sector, it’s the first. It existed way before the state, by several hundred years at the least. And no political whim or power grab can sweep it aside unlike what may befall statutory bodies from time to time. In all likelihood it pre-dates the private/business sector too. Mutual cooperation, driven by good purpose, facilitated by exchange of resources but with people and progress and fairness and inclusion at its heart. Like I say, it’s a Rainforest.

And so, to take the metaphor just one further step. Public Sector Commissioning treats the sector not like a Rainforest but like a Zoo. It chooses which individual species, even individual specimens of species, that it is going to support. It even makes them perform a merry dance to justify why they are worthy of being included in the Zoo (you know you’ve walked straight past whole sections of more enlightened zoos where ecologically important but dull animals are either asleep, brown or hiding – they tend not to last when the Marketing Director has their say). It sucks them out of their ecosystem, forces them to live in unnatural conditions, eat the food they choose to feed them, perform at pre-arranged visitor times… anyway you get the general idea.

My point is, Commissioning is on the whole a bit like poaching, when it should be more like conservation. It should treat the sector like the Rainforest it is and all its intent and purpose should be turned to supporting, restoring and even increasing complexity and relationships, because these are the things that ensure any ecosystem flourishes. If Commissioners really do want communities full of self-supporting networks, independent mutual aid, services funded from multiple sources, supporting all members of a community, they must change and they must support the ecosystem above all else. Zoos are controlled and you know exactly what you’ve got, you can measure it, photograph it, literally stick it on a T-shirt, but whatever amount of marketing it will only ever be a poor imitation of the real thing and like real zoos, state commissioned services are totally dependent on their ‘wild’ counterparts. Without the Rainforest, ultimately there are no Zoos, so Commissioners, please become conservationists and leave your zookeeper fantasies behind, because if you don’t change your ways then one day when your Zoo has run its course and you turn to check on the natural habitats that must now suffice, they may no longer exist.

Garry

Garry Jones, Chief Exectutive, Support Staffordshire

@SuSChief

Support Staffordshire logo

Fri 5 Feb 2021

Support Staffordshire are delighted to announce the publication of their first comprehensive State of the Sector report.

The report shows the local sector has a turnover of more than £112M, employs almost 8,000 people, and engages over 50,000 volunteers worth another £90M.

To see the full report go to our website here.

Tue 5 Jan 2021

Happy New Year and welcome to this our first new look E-bulletin of the year, now focussed upon news, jobs and features – with our other ‘member support’ bulletin coming separately around the 25th of the month instead.

I hope that our members, partners and supporters got a rest over the Christmas break, spent some precious time with loved ones and feel at least a little renewed for the year ahead. With developments over recent days its not going to be an easy start and the VCSE sector will once again continue to play its key role supporting children and families struggling to meet the challenge of school closures and income insecurity, young people doing their best to keep positive as their mental wellbeing is rocked time and again by changes to their freedoms and education, older people anxious about leaving home at all, people who are unwell, disabled or otherwise vulnerable, cut off from their usual support networks of family and friends, those still in need of urgent affordable transport options, and those speaking up for others whose own voice is quiet or ignored.

And those using their creativity to break down social distance and return it to what it is, just physical distance, through art, befriending, nature and more. To those supporting people with learning disabilities, difficulties and autism, dementia, and sensory impairment where all this is even more incomprehensible and frightening. To those offering counselling and bereavement support for those who have suffered the greatest loss. To all those supporting carers, who continue to put their loved ones needs above their own on a daily basis. To the food banks, churches, parish groups and community organisations sharing food and supplies with the most vulnerable. To those supporting victims of domestic abuse to escape their perpetrators and rebuild their lives, whilst often losing their only ‘safe’ havens of home. To those getting folks off the streets, out of insecure housing, and others into drug and alcohol support schemes.

To the outdoor and open space groups keeping our now essential green spaces accessible in time when nature is one of the few things we can rely upon for connection and calm. To the community facilities whether in emergency use or being kept going until we can use them to renew our community connections again. To the organisations supporting already marginalised and seldom listened to groups, those tackling hate crime, supporting veterans and supporting diversity and freedom of expression for all.

Every day of every year these volunteers and employees, trustees (and most of their often overlooked family and friends in support), work to make life better, in some cases bearable, for all of us. If they were all to stop for one day, only then might we truly understand what our hidden sector does. But we won’t, we will keep going, so my New Year Resolution Request is to those who hold power and decision makers – those who have the ability to support, financially or otherwise, and the power to withdraw support, or even hinder or cripple these efforts…

Tinker at your peril, for do you truly understand what you are tinkering with?

 

Garry

Garry Jones, Chief Executive, Support Staffordshire

@SuSChief

Tue 15 Dec 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m sure that most people will on the whole be rather glad to see the back of 2020 and with a vaccination programme rolling out over the next several months there is now a solution in touching distance to this otherwise intractable crisis.

Many of us will have lost loved ones during 2020 and I want to pay tribute to all of the wider VCSE family of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent who have experienced loss this year. Your loved ones should be remembered for all they have done either within their communities, our wider voluntary sector or to support you in your own endeavours.

For those who can, I am sure we will want to remember to pick up the phone to those who aren’t lucky enough to be surrounded by family, a little bit extra this Christmas, in place of all those mad dash visits to friends and relatives.

We have made the hard decision to not take advantage of the Christmas relaxation window in our household despite a yearning to let Nannies and Grandads see the kids and vice versa. It is of course a personal choice, but we have agreed that with light at the end of the tunnel, a crisp winter walk in the lovely Staffordshire countryside will do for now and help to ensure we truly put Covid behind us in 2021.

May I wish you all a peaceful and safe Christmas period and a happy, healthy and at the right time, a more sociable 2021.

Garry

Garry Jones, Chief Executive, Support Staffordshire

Fri 13 Nov 2020

I’ve been in a few meetings recently where people have used a phrase approximating to ‘X group have been the worst affected by Covid’ quickly followed by something like ‘…so they should get more resources’.

I wince every time, for two reasons:

  1. Rarely have I heard ‘older people’  in this context. I assume this is because so many older people are judged to be sat at home quite safely? That they have not suffered from lack of education or work? However, if we follow the basic evidence no other category can really make even the slightest claim for having been worst hit beyond older people – 45,000 people aged over 65 have died from Covid-19 in the UK– 90% of deaths. End of conversation but!
  2. Far more importantly, this sort of competition for the ‘worse hit’ is a futile and unhelpful narrative – I implore anyone who is stuttering on the verge of using it to have a rethink.

I would argue, not since the second world war, has a public health or social issue been so widespread in its impact upon our communities of all demographics, either through direct ill health or indirect restrictions on our lives or through the mental wellbeing and emotional distress it continues to cause. And yet we have seen the largest surge in neighbourliness, mutual support, care and kindness for our fellow citizen, often strangers, in post-war times. We can take heart that behind the busyness and anonymity of modern Britain, lies a hitherto untapped humanity that many had thought was part of history. I am sure everyone wants to see this continue in whatever way it can, and in the VCSE sector I have seen new, renewed and strengthened partnerships by far outweigh any tensions that such a crisis might reasonably have caused. Let’s not allow competition for resources to disrupt this local collaboration, even when national funders might inadvertently contribute to it.

And let’s keep the narrative kind and collaborative too, not divisive and competitive.

My preschool children miss their grandparents and our parents miss their grandchildren – who is worse hit by this is a nonsense conversation.

Garry

 

Garry Jones, Chief Executive, Support Staffordshire

Thu 15 Oct 2020

Last month I promised to give you an update on our Team Staffordshire meeting with MPs which finally happened on 29 September. You can view our follow up letter here which outlines our proposed next steps. We had good discussions with those MPs in attendance, particularly Theo Clarke (MP for Stafford) and Jo Gideon (MP for Stoke Central)  as well as the convening MP, Aaron Bell (MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme). Jonathan Gullis (MP for Stoke North & Kidsgrove) also attended the meeting. A number of other MPs sent representatives to listen in to the conversation. Taking into account communication received during the lockdown this means all MPs, except Gavin Williamson (MP for South Staffordshire and Secretary of State for Education) have been in contact with me either as chair of Team Staffordshire or directly as Chief Executive of Support Staffordshire in recent months; I guess he is a busy man.

As can be seen from the letter, we view this as the start of what we hope will be more regular dialogue with our elected representatives. The relationship between the VCSE sector and central government has variously been described as strained, broken and one of mutual disinterest in recent years. This is in a small way a sliver of light that the relationship can be fixed. We have committed to produce an initial proposal of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent VCSE ‘asks’ which we believe we can formulate based on experience to date. Not because we don’t want to consult you, our members, further (and we will if this proves to be a fruitful route), but rather because we know you all have a lot on in your day to day at the moment and we want to go back to MPs in a timely way to keep up the momentum. That said, if there is a burning issue you think needs to be included then feel free to email me and I will see how we can work it into our thoughts. Take it as read that fairer funding and commissioning will be in there.

Our response will need to be clear and realistic if our elected members are to come together and advocate it on our behalf to their otherwise engaged, and ever more distant, ministerial colleagues. Yet the scale and scope of our sector and the challenges it faces is potentially huge, never more so than in current times. I can’t help thinking that mutual understanding and respect lies at the heart of what is a necessary foundation stone. Government has shown time and again during the pandemic that it thinks it knows best, imposing national solutions that are then implemented on a spectrum from incompleteness through to incompetence. And its own reaction to this tends to be to seek to control even more – if only we could just control everything then everything would be under control!

This is of course utter folly.

In truth, VCSE organisations, along with many colleagues in local government and even to some extent local NHS providers, feel misunderstood, ignored and mistrusted by those who hold power and make decisions in Whitehall. The tiniest silver lining in the Covid cloud is that more, and more senior, people are now willing to say so. There is little sign yet that central government is listening to this line of thought, let alone considering seriously any policies that might genuinely reverse the command and control mantra. However, we can hope (and vote in due course) and establishing lines of regular communication through our back bench MPs in particular is a crucial piece of the puzzle; indeed, something that ought to be mandatory for all MPs!

We will keep you posted on progress.

Garry Jones | Chief Executive | Support Staffordshire

@SuSChief

Mon 14 Sep 2020

The weather this week can’t seem to decide if it’s going back to summer or moving onto a crisp cold autumn. It remains a funny time for us all – just as many plan returns to work, so the national picture has shifted and returned us to greater restrictions.  You could be forgiven for feeling despondent and confused. If you are unsure what to do about your group’s plans, or still struggling with remote/digital options, then please get in touch, we are here to help and support you – even if that just means listening.

Two weeks today I and a couple of Team Staffordshire  colleagues finally have our slot with Staffordshire’s MPs. We have discussed all manner of items that we could readily discuss with them, but with just half an hour on the agenda we are keen to keep it focussed. We will be asking them what they are personally going to do to ensure the heightened awareness of the voluntary sector’s important role is maintained and mainstreamed (so any of you who are reading, there you go, you have a heads up). We will let you know who attended and what they said in the October E-news.

In the meantime here are three other IMPORTANT things to do in September:

  1. Start drawing up your ideas to apply for up to £2,500 from the new #DoingOurBit Community Grant Scheme – this new investment from Staffordshire County Council is for any VCSE organisation that helps vulnerable people stay connected and independent – we have worked with the council to make this as painless as possible and will let you know the application route as soon as we have it! (And just for clarity, yes this is on top of the People Helping People Fund - the one you apply for via your local Cllr).
  2. Do our Survey – we are continuing to advocate for more local investments and to shape our support around what you need – click here to tell us how things are for you right now.
  3. Know a mutual aid or neighbourhood support group that isn’t sure what to do next? Encourage them to access our support for ‘Good Neighbours’ and we can help them to consider their options, scale back, re-organise or establish something for the longer term.

Take care all, Garry

Filed under: Support Staffordshire  

Fri 14 Aug 2020

Ok so its starting to wear a bit isn’t it now? We are all a little weary for sure. We need a break (PLEASE get one, as we need you all refreshed for what lies ahead) and we are all wanting to get back to seeing our friends and colleagues, I mean really see them. So, instead of dwelling too much on the new (not at all) normal, which is really very abnormal but becoming routine; I decided to just tell you about some stuff we are doing this month. I’ll leave the more ranty stuff til the new local politicians have settled in (welcome new cabinet at county council) and the MPs are back from their hols in September. In any case there is a lot of really good stuff happening!

VOLUNTEERING   

We know its getting tougher to recruit than it has been in recent months, so the volunteering webform mobilised overnight for Covid response has been mainstreamed on our website here and we are also sharing new opportunities and volunteering news with those who sign up through 8 new district newsletters. We have been working with the county council to bring you Do-it Staffordshire, a local version of the national volunteering website, with lots of additional functionality. Existing VCSE organisations using our volunteer brokerage service will have already received a personal invite to claim their ‘profiles’ which will be migrated from the Do-it.org website. All members will also be contacted to take up the offer shortly or can email volunteering@supportstaffordshire.org.uk. Our Senior Volunteering Officer, Zoe, is taking a well earned break but Do-it enquiries will be answered and Zoe will be back soon to help out any members who need assistance in volunteer recruitment.

DEVELOPMENT  

Support Staffordshire now has 996 members, so we will soon be having a little celebration of our 1,000th member. We’ve been in touch with about 40% of you directly during Covid, with funding the top enquiry and supported you to bring in over 1¾ Million Pounds in that time, a huge boost to Staffordshire communities. We are currently planning our FREE training for the autumn (funded by Staffordshire County Council), so any suggestions are very welcome to consultancy@supportstaffordshire.org.uk. We are also delighted to have just been awarded over £60k from the National Lottery Community Fund, to offer support to mutual aid groups that want to grow into Good Neighbour Schemes, supporting their communities with tasks such as travel, shopping and social activities. These can be start up orgs that began in Covid or projects of existing organisations, so if we aren’t already aware of you please contact us again at consultancy@supportstaffordshire.org.uk.

COLLABORATION 

I’m also really excited to report that this month we will begin a new kind of collaboration with Hednesford Town Council, working in partnership to offer a Community Officer resource to the people of that ‘parish’. Many town and parish councils have played a key role during Covid, so if you aren’t already a Support Staffordshire Parish/Town Council Associate and want to know more then email membership@supportstaffordshire.org.uk, and if you’d like to discuss ways we can collaborate such as Hednesford have then drop me a line directly garry.jones@supportstaffordshire.org.uk.

VOICE

Despite the operational challenges we’ve found it crucial to keep engaging members during this period, in fact we’ve done even more of it, with over 200 of you attending our forums online. Thanks to everyone who contributed to our Covid survey too, which has helped shape thinking for us, the councils and has been fed into national evidence. I know there are a lot of surveys around at present including this important one for all residents from the county council so please try to add your voice if you have 5 minutes. As such I’m reluctant to launch another one but we may try to put out something short in the weeks ahead to check our understanding of your current challenges. We know funding remains up there with the ongoing costs of cleaning/hygiene and PPE plus lower beneficiary numbers at any one time, but so does the practical matter of getting together at all for many of our smaller member groups with vulnerable participants and organisers! If you don’t think you are being heard please talk to our locality staff near you or email me directly garry.jones@supportstaffordshire.org.uk. We do have finally have half an hour in the diary with the county’s MPs after four communications to them with little response (Theo Clarke MP aside). A small group of Team Staffordshire partners will be meeting them in late September. We will be pressing the need for much better VCSE consideration in economic recovery plans alongside our shared fate wrapped up with local government, not least adult social care reform, which is as urgent as ever.

That’s a snapshot, much else going on too.

Thank you for your ongoing dedication to your communities and for being part of this wider movement of all of ours.

And take that break!

Garry Jones

Chief Executive

@SuSChief


 

Wed 15 Jul 2020

I find myself in a pensive mood this week and full of conflicting emotions. On the one hand I'm feeling proud and uncharacteristically, almost patriotic. I've been catching up on reporting and trying to get those sorts of things back to normal. Those reports evidence numerically that we've had an extraordinary time.

Having been in touch with over 300 member organisations from April to June, directly supporting about half of these, we've undertaken around three times our usual volume of work. We have also continued to build on covid response work,offering support to mutual aid groups who wish to explore becoming good neighbour schemes and have just held a second network meeting for some of the voluntary sector lead organisations involved in response.

Together they alone made over 5,000 weekly shopping deliveries, over 6,000 prepared meals and almost 3,000 prescription collections. Beyond that we estimate tenfold more support was offered at a very local level, and this was richly diverse from bereavement support to relief from domestic abuse, action on mental well-being and help to alleviate poverty. Much of this goes on uninterrupted today and is going to be needed for many months.

I honestly couldn't be prouder to be a cog in the local VCSE and wider public response and on this occasion that very much includes our public sector colleagues, at local councils in particular.

And yet, in recent weeks I've also sat in briefings and meetings with national charities and national statutory bodies where I've endured what I can only term excuses for things being less than satisfactory, followed by explanations of how they will be improved from here in, when often the best thing would be a fundamental rethink or to simply stop.

This has included national volunteer schemes, national funding programmes, and national support structures that have all failed to greater or lesser extents. And the failure is obvious to me and my counterparts, with the common factor being top down imposition.

The rationale for carrying on is usually predicated on the assumption that a. They were doing their best in a difficult situation, b. They have helped and we should be grateful for that and c. Local couldn't have coped without them.

The sheer audacity of some of these claims has been staggering to me and the eye watering waste of money that sits behind them is just as infuriating when I see effective and efficient local organisations week in and week out that would run on a fraction of the investment.

Yet the messages that I and many local sector colleagues keep feeding in, and again I include in this local authorities who are experiencing similar frustrations (if more privately and politely); well they just seem to glance off those who have any real say in the matter. If our local MPs are listening then it's certainly not to me. With the exception of a decent chat to Theo Clarke MP for Stafford, the other 8 Staffordshire MPs have failed to reply to any of my 3 letters to each of them in any meaningful way.

So, yes I'm pensive this month and won't finish with my usual call to action or key point in summary, because I don't have an answer to this one as yet... But one must be found, so postcards please....

 

Filed under: Support Staffordshire  

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.