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Garry Jones's Blog

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.

Fri 9 Aug 2019

We live in uncertain times and for once such a statement actually means something, as since I last wrote we have a new government and a renewed promise to leave the EU. I’d like to focus on the former if I may and flag up a minor detail of the new government – the charities brief.

In fact this is interesting in itself, as the role used to be known as the Minister for Civil Society and in hindsight we had a pretty good one from 2010 to 2014 in Nick Hurd MP. By all accounts he protected the sector from what could have been much worse during the austerity years. He was followed in quick succession by the disgraced Brooks Newmark and then Rob Wilson who subsequently lost his seat at the 2017 general election. And that’s where the role ended.  It seems as Theresa May never bothered to appoint a new one.

I mislead slightly as it was in fact merged with the Minister for Sport role when the whole team - the Office for Civil Society was shunted over to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (we still assume this makes us ‘culture’) – and whilst there was much hand wringing, the general assumption was that this was primarily to make room for Brexit at the Cabinet Office. And in fact the first such joint Minister, Tracy Crouch did after some years in the complete wilderness, bring the sector back to the fore in her much anticipated ‘Civil Society Strategy’ of 2018 – unfortunately she resigned just after this on principle and much to her credit, over the government U-turn on fixed-odd betting terminals (part of her brief) – and it worked as they have indeed since been banned. Mims Davies took up the role, not that anyone really noticed, until she fell as part of Boris’ cull a few weeks back. It was strongly rumoured that he offered Tracy Crouch her job back, but she perhaps wisely decided to put family first and declined.

So, we then got around a week of absolute silence as the charity brief seemed to fall lower and lower down Boris’ list of appointments, until assuming it had actually fallen off his list altogether (having appointed a Sports only Minister), it eventually emerged that he (or perhaps an underling) had demoted the role yet again to Parliamentary Under Secretary for Civil Society and assigned the role to Baroness Barran – a member of the House of Lords. So what does that mean?

The Lady seems to have some qualifications in our sector, having served as the CEO of Safe Lives, a national Domestic Violence charity from 2004-2017, but before you get too excited, that seems to be her only real connection with the sector in terms of delivery, having previous worked as an investment banker for most of her working life. She has also been a trustee of Comic Relief and three other grant giving foundations.  She has only been in the House of lords for just over a year, so isn’t an experienced parliamentarian either. I wish her every luck in the role and hope she makes a success of it, but for me critically, this now means that ‘our’ minister can’t even ask a question, in fact cannot actually step foot inside the House of Commons – the elected chamber of our parliament. Equally she can’t be asked a question by any of our MPs, at least not publicly.

And as such, I think this represents a true low point for our sector’s place in public life, as viewed by the government of the day. This is the most junior and side-lined role we have had to represent our interests in government in the last decade, since it was elevated to a ministerial post in the latter part of the new labour administration. And as for the Civil Society Strategy; there has been no updated content on the .gov website since it was published over a year ago.

Some will say this is immaterial, and not what really matters and they are right, its action that counts… but there is none of that either.

For me it is very much indicative of where central government sees the sector’s role in public discourse and service at present.

Voluntary sector, what voluntary sector?

Tue 16 Jul 2019

As I write we are in the depths of discussions with PCNs (Primary Care Networks – clusters of GPs, working together) about the opportunity provided by national funding for social prescribing link workers. Ourselves and VAST have pitched a bold proposition to place this service at the heart of the local voluntary sector, by employing the workers through a consortia approach. This would mean generalists working for ourselves and VAST, able to signpost and support patients to access the broadest range of community and voluntary sector services; instead of drawing upon medical services. But crucially, and growing over time, we would work with our members to harness their expertise in mental health, older people, learning disabilities, end of life care and much more; and yes this means resources and you employing the workers.

Our ambition is to build a voluntary sector led team of link workers, with the right mix of knowledge, experience and connections to the huge potential of our sector. We are also resolute in our campaign that the services or ‘prescriptions’ if you will, must also be funded, especially as demand upon them grows – you wouldn’t expect a drugs company to give away its medicines for free!

I know this sounds ambitious, and I’m not naïve enough to believe we will succeed straight away.

In fact there are already signs of some PCNs, taking a more direct approach and employing mental health workers or engaging mental health charities to ‘just do’ the work direct. I can understand the temptation of this ‘route one’ approach, especially when GPs face such a demand from their patients right now. But I believe this is short-sighted, and wont ultimately achieve what the whole Health & Care system is seeking.

Instead we need a collaborative approach, which breaks down barriers and disrupts the old competitive mind-set both within the NHS and the voluntary sector. If what we are seeking is a community approach, where people look after themselves, their families and their neighbours more, we can’t start by putting more voluntary sector services into neat and tidy boxes; and which categorise patients largely by their condition. It would be regrettable indeed if the social prescribing initiative were to falter at the first hurdle by taking such an approach – medicalising what are social issues, categorising them, systematising them.

Individuals are complex collaborations of social factors; from work, to friends, to family to mental health, pets, diet, exercise, environment, parenting, relationships, education and so much more – to support those patients who are manifestly unwell by addressing one or two of this issues in isolation, completely misses the point.

So I call on GPs and the sector to work together on this; and together we can make a fundamental change.

Garry

 

Fri 14 Jun 2019

I am delighted to have been present at two of our six Volunteer Star Awards this year, which have been rolled out from a firm foundation in the east of the county. These awards have been delivered through the hard work of our local teams, supported by our countywide staff, and made possible through the generous sponsorship of local businesses and organisations. May I offer my sincere thanks to everyone who has been involved in making them happen; and there are still two to come!

Volunteers Week is all about taking some time to recognise the people in our community who give their time freely, without promise of material reward, to help the people and places around them. Some people may have volunteered all their life, some may have that volunteering has its own rewards since they retired, or whilst on breaks from school or university. Those who manage to squeeze it into otherwise busy family and working lives, especially have my personal admiration; and in that sense it’s not always about how much you do, but how valued what you do is.

Our Awards and the many events and activities that are being held by our members and partners this month are a tribute to the often unsung heroes in our community, who we may sometimes come to take for granted. It’s a time to step back and say – wow that person is really amazing – they do all that stuff not because they have to, or because they are paid to, but because they choose to – because they aren’t afraid to show they care about the people and world around them. The people who instead of saying ‘ someone should do something about that’, just roll up their sleeves and do it, often quietly, but usually doggedly.

As someone who works with organisations who rely upon volunteers to deliver services to some of the most vulnerable in our community, I am all too aware of the step up that our county’s volunteers have already made in recent years. Whether it be in running libraries, in providing community transport, in supporting older people, in running youth clubs or in hospitals, volunteers have become an integral part of our public services; and I believe those services are usually all the better for that involvement.

But we must also remember that the home of volunteering is here in the voluntary sector – that’s why it is called the voluntary sector; and those taking part do so, not because of statutory requirements or persons in authority. They volunteer because of a sense of commitment to their friends, family, neighbours, and their community.

So, Volunteers Week, is also a reminder to anyone in a position of responsibility or power, especially those who can influence central government through their MP or otherwise, that volunteering is not free. Volunteering is superbly good value for money with dozens of added value extras.

We would really welcome a renewed focus from Central Government, upon how we can all better support the existing volunteers and encourage more residents to get involved, as well as through their places of work; to ensure the future sustainability of local volunteering.

So, to the volunteers, in all your variety. You support, advise, inform, assist. You garden and build. You care and create. You are older, younger, of all backgrounds and demographics. From me and from Support Staffordshire a huge personal thank you for continuing to be the lifeblood of our sector.

In a world of ever faster and more jam-packed stuff – the gift of time remains the most precious that any of us can give.

Filed under: Support Staffordshire  

Wed 15 May 2019

I expect you are all election’d out at the moment, with local elections and the impending European elections.

It can be easy to dismiss elections in the current climate: ‘nothing ever changes’ or ‘they are all the same’ can be common comments. However, if you dig a little deeper, the local elections have actually resulted in a quite interesting outcome, with a range of people, who are brand new to local government, being elected, both as independents and from smaller parties, plus there has been some ‘changing of the guard’ with the mainstream parties too. And even amongst the more established councillors, we have been having some very different, positive, conversations of late. Many now recognise, more than ever, the crucial role, that small and medium charities and community groups play. They understand that for all residents to ‘do their bit’, they will often need support, to come together as a community, and this means, the voluntary sector, in its many forms. I encourage you to contact them and build new relationships.

On our own part, we also are a democratic sector – a participative one on the whole, with a wide range of people taking part in decisions about their community, purely by being involved, not a ballot paper in sight. However, on this rare occasion, I am asking you to vote. Amongst our many inclusive and open access forums, we also have a county and city based strategic group, called Team Staffordshire, that engages with statutory bodies and also aims to bring more resources into the local sector. As well as representative bodies like ours, the ‘core group’ of Team Staffordshire has five elected places and these are now up for your votes! All VCSEs, even non-members (though what are you playing at there?) who are based in or operate in Staffordshire or Stoke-on-Trent, can vote before the 30 May.

PLEASE exercise your democratic vote in this election to give the candidates a strong mandate to speak with us, for the benefit of the whole sector. Vote here: https://forms.gle/Qw39B8yUQUfSFf7L9

 

Mon 15 Apr 2019

April sees Support Staffordshire enter its 6th year in operation. So, in late March we celebrated with our 5th birthday party; more of which below!

The last five years have seen us merge together (7 organisations!), moulded our new services, collaborate, share, pool resources, convene new and different conversations, reach out to our members and beyond, and look in at ourselves to see where we can improve and develop. Importantly we have done this together as one organisation with the shared ethos and aim of empowering our communities to grasp hold of the opportunities and decisions around them, to improve the lives of, well, us – because as most of us are local people, it truly is our community that we help to shape through Support Staffordshire’s advice, guidance and practical support.

There have been many challenges over those five years. The practicalities of delivering our services. The taxing and occasionally emotional pressures of problem solving with you, our member organisations; as you’ve faced ever more demand and frequently diminishing public resources. It’s hard when member organisations shrink or even windup; especially when we’ve been there on those journeys with you.

We have also navigated some big changes in how we work, taking on South Staffordshire in 2017, and a renewed rural focus from the Community Council last year. In January we established a new presence in Newcastle-under-Lyme for the first time, reopening the Guildhall, working closely with the borough council.

Over the last five years we have handled more than 3,000 volunteer enquiries, signposting and supporting a wide range of people to opportunities across the county; with at least 1,200 of them taking up long terms volunteer roles. In so doing, we have supported 731 organisations to newly register over a thousand volunteer vacancies. Thank you to all our volunteer advisers, and our volunteering officers, without which we couldn’t offer this important local service.

In five years we have supported over 2000 people at 987 member organisations, through 2665 support sessions; with a huge range of subjects and we know that there are community centres running, playgrounds built, older people’s luncheons being eaten and much more, happening today because of our advice and help. A crude but nonetheless impressive measure is that our funding advice has seen you secure over £10 million of inward investment into Staffordshire in that period and in reality we know it’s much higher as we’ve only been counting it half properly for the last couple of years. We are more pleased to say that in our feedback surveys some 98% of you would use our services again and would recommend us to a friend. Thank you to our growing band of Connectors, Volunteer Funding Advisers and to our Locality Officers, Social Action Officers, Rural and Landscape Partnership Staff; and our Development Consultants for making good our membership promise.

Of course we also support around 70 members a year through the provision of office and meeting space; including some 17 permanent tenants in Lichfield, Burton and Leek. Our merry band of office, finance and central support staff and volunteers make our buildings friendly and our services helpful to all our visitors; so a huge thanks to them for everything that support staff do behind the scenes to make all this happen.

Last but certainly not least, we pride ourselves on our collaborative and partnership based approach, founded on our member engagement at our popular locality forums – we now run 32 of these each year. We have had more than 1,262 attendees at these and the number grows year on year. They allow us to speak from an informed position and give a strong mandate when making the case for change with statutory partners.

Our partnership work includes a massive range of projects, statutory and partnership boards, informal networks and collaborations that remain hidden from public view most of the time; but which we know make a difference to the resources, policies and practices that affect the sector and our communities. We are especially proud of Team Staffordshire, a cooperation led by Support Staffordshire, between all the VCSE umbrella bodies and with frontline representation that has brought £4.6m of BBO money to the local sector in Stafford and South Staffs, and has formed the basis of our collaborative work on social prescribing which we hope is coming to fruition.

Of course, none of this is possible without great partners and we want to say thank you to all of our local councils, the peak district national park, NHS bodies, police, fire, local colleges and universities, SASSOT, the Community Foundation and our close local partners at SCVYS. Also our near neighbours VAST, the office for civil society in Birmingham, and our national bodies NAVCA, ACRE and NCVO for all your support over our first five years.

Despite the challenges, it has been truly inspiring to see our membership grow, year on year with new and fresh enthusiasm and ideas to tackle the challenges that you see in your own communities. I know that the drive and passion of individuals that walk through our doors week in, week out, is what keeps our team motivated to keep supporting you to turn those dreams into reality.

Fri 15 Mar 2019

It’s not about the voluntary sector? 

I was given pause for thought at a recent event, when a prominent speaker talking about support within communities said ‘and it’s not about the voluntary sector’. I thought he’d simply misspoken so I collared him at the break, but he repeated it and added the explanation that in his view, when any activity is taken on by any organisation, it risks becoming self-serving. I challenged back, that surely he meant this in terms of large multimillion pound corporate charities, not the local sector? But no, he repeated, any organisation, even the smallest can, and in his view does, become centred around the ego of individuals – blimey I thought and thankfully the meeting was called back to order and we had to cut our conversation short. So, after some consideration I wanted to outline why I fundamentally disagree with this view of the voluntary sector for at least two main reasons. The first is that I genuinely believe the sector is deeply imbued with an ethos that strongly discourages selfishness. I simply don’t see the predominant behaviours of people within our sector as anything other than committed, caring and overwhelmingly self-deprecating; if anything we don’t sell ourselves enough. I do think this is reinforced strongly in the local sector because of its smallness, where the leaders remain close to their teams and the public, and don’t live in a bubble of smart cars and private estates. The second reason is our strong governance – on the whole led by voluntary trustees – who act not only as the strategy and policy setters, but more crucially as the scrutineers and conscience of our sector.

However, that said, the speaker did have a point and I think it’s this. There has been in recent years a welcome recognition of the damaging consequences of loneliness and isolation. In terms of impact upon health there are studies showing it’s just as serious as heart disease, obesity and other medical conditions. As such, councils, health bodies and voluntary groups, have and continue to try and formulate responses to loneliness; which on the face of it, is all good and is helping people right now to be more connected and less lonely, and therefore healthier. However, in this approach, we risk nationalising or commodifying what is at its simplest, human connectedness. The speaker’s point was that, it’s in our nature to be social and we miss it deeply when we don’t have it. We get it from family, friends, neighbours, and many other interactions when we work, shop, or just walk down the street. But within society today there are many pressures that push us away from these interactions including time pressures, fear and anxiety, individualism and selfishness, and much more. His point was that we shouldn’t primarily be replacing this with organised activity, even if it’s voluntary sector activity. Otherwise we just reinforce the absence of these more naturally occurring interactions and what we get will be strongly influenced by organisational interests, funding, statutory duties and agendas; rather than driven by the assets of ordinary people.

Of course, we shouldn’t stop doing good stuff in our communities, but this certainly gave me food for thought about not overly organising our work, not always demanding clear outcomes, defined structures, schemes and programmes. It’s made me think about how we could all do stuff that is unstructured, that is simply about encouraging interaction, that’s about building trust and relationships, irrespective of who with and to what end – indeed, not with any end in mind at the outset, without predetermining what that interaction is, or what it will result in.

I’ve no clear conclusion about this stream of thought, nor how you would resource such an apparently vague notion, but I feel sure it will come up again and again if we are to address this fundamental flaw in our fast paced, increasingly individualistic society…

 

Wed 13 Mar 2019

There's still time to complete Support Staffordshire's first ever Survey of Sector.

This questionnaire is for anyone who sits on your board, works or volunteers for your organisation or group to express their opinions, so please share it with your colleagues! It will provide invaluable information on strengths, good practice and areas of need, vulnerability and change, enabling us to target support and seek additional resources for the sector. It includes questions about your organisation, cross-sector working, how you are being affected by the external environment and the main issues and changes for your beneficiaries or cause. This survey is comprehensive; it should take you around twenty minutes.

Prizes - that's right, prizes. There are £180 worth of vouchers for our consultancy & training services up for grabs (split three ways)!  To automatically be entered into the competition, just complete this survey. Multiple people from your organisation can complete the survey and enter on behalf of your organisation, but your organisation can only win once! We will select the winners at random on 1 April 2019 so you don't have long if you want to be in with a chance of winning.

We are planning to do this periodically, perhaps every year or two, allowing us to collect diverse and representative information. Having this data will help us to represent your views and the sector with local government and other partners more accurately and comprehensively.

This is an opportunity for you and anyone within your group to shape the activities that Support Staffordshire delivers. So put the kettle on and fill it out, because we want our service to reflect your needs.

To fill out the survey follow this link: https://goo.gl/forms/oRqNyJ98Z7LZmTAz2

A big thank you to those who have already completed the survey - it really is appreciated