Paul Streets: The local charities that reach ‘invisible’ people

Niche organisations matter – they embody ‘lived experience’, writes our CEO Paul Streets.

Paul-Streets-018-20180123103542147
This blog was originally published in the November / December 2018 edition of Third Sector magazine.

As a sector we have quite rightly been challenged to demonstrate our connection to the lives of those we exist for.

Large organisations frequently set up complicated, sometimes expensive mechanisms to do this. And they often don’t work, becoming highly unrepresentative or tokenistic.

But for many small local organisations it’s part of their DNA. I recently visited two charities with our London grants manager that exemplify this, but which highlighted for me that it’s not as common practice as it should be.

The CSO team has plans to use a Lloyds Bank Foundation grant to meet the demand of service users. It will create employment and business support for recently arrived refugees, in a community with many talented entrepreneurs.

The Council of Somali Organisations is an umbrella body of more than 100, often small, Somali groups, mainly in London. It has only one full-time employee and four part-time staff. By contrast, the Latin American Women’s Rights Service is much longer established, with a team of 20-plus.

The CSO believes there are about 400,000 people in Britain who call themselves Somali, although no one knows for sure because the data lumps all “Africans” together.

And the LAWRS estimates there are about 250,000 Latin Americans in the UK.

But the factors that brought these migrant populations to the UK are different.

The CSO and the LAWRS illustrate why local niche charities matter: they embody “lived experience”, reaching people and places invisible to most of us.

Britain has a historical connection with Somalia, with sailors serving in the Navy in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the chaos of Somali civil war driving a more recent exodus. Many Latin Americans came here for economic reasons, yet sadly often occupy menial employment here, as cleaners or, more tragically, trafficked as sex workers.

Both charities are largely run, staffed and led by their communities, and it’s this that drives their ambition.

The CSO team has plans to use a Lloyds Bank Foundation grant to meet the demand of service users. It will create employment and business support for recently arrived refugees, in a community with many talented entrepreneurs.

Lucila Granada, director of the LAWRS, told me about the women she serves. Some were facing abuse from violent partners or severe domestic exploitation. She also spoke of people experiencing “honour-based violence”,”corrective rape” forced upon gay women, forced abortion or pregnancy. Intra-family rape is often unrecognised to “protect the family”.

Combined with the undocumented status of many of the victims, or the fact that their continued residency is sometimes dependent on EU nationals, you have a number of crimes that are often unspoken and rarely reported.

It’s why the LAWRS is running its Step up Migrant Women campaign. It is making headway in its influencing work with the London Victims Commissioner and the Mayor of London, bringing together about 30 local and national supporters, including Amnesty International and Liberty. But it has some way to go.

It’s hard enough to contemplate how domestic abuse victims cope, even with possible recourse through the law, and many of these people can’t even count on that. So it makes sense that you’d need a charity that speaks your language – literally and figuratively – to fill that gap.

The CSO and the LAWRS illustrate why local niche charities matter: they embody “lived experience”, reaching people and places invisible to most of us.

Advertisements

Paul Streets: Local austerity stories are corroborated by the statistics

And it’s this that helps to give the sector a voice on the most pressing issues of all, writes our CEO Paul Streets.

Paul-Streets-018-20180123103542147
This blog was originally published on Third Sector on 29 October 2018.

In the last month The Mighty Redcar hit our screens – the compelling docudrama of real lives played out in a small town where austerity and de-industrialisation have taken a massive toll.

Described by The Guardian as the antidote to the “poverty porn” of Benefits Streetand the like, it’s good to finally see the story told in a way that helps to illustrate how complex social issues occur and how hard they are to overcome.

But what’s also important is that the story of the micro – a single northern seaside town – is corroborated by the macro: a wealth of stats and reports on local authority spending cuts, which together command us to sit up in our armchairs and pay attention.

The Lloyds Bank Foundation’s recent research with the New Policy Institute revealed A Quiet Crisis in the distribution of the brunt of local authority cuts.

Its analysis of government spending data in England on a range of services for adults and children facing disadvantage shows that, though it looks like some councils have done their best to protect the disadvantaged, the most deprived areas have been hit the hardest.

And, faced with the increasing demands for help, cash-strapped councils have cut spending on the preventive measures that stop problems such as homelessness or having to take children into care in the first place.

In parallel, 360 Giving data crunched by data scientists shows that the pattern of our funding for small charities maps directly onto deprivation. It’s encouraging, because at the Lloyds Bank Foundation our spend is driven entirely by demand and need: we don’t target the most deprived areas; it’s just where most of our money ends up.

While small local charities are playing a vital role in trying to fill the gaps, we’ve yet to see the rise in unmet need that A Quiet Crisis warns us of, as funding reductions play out for anything that looks like prevention and is deemed non-statutory (think youth services or Home Start).

It’s little wonder, then, that the demands on those we fund are rising inexorably at the same time as their publicly funded grants evaporate. This is a story they have been telling us repeatedly for years as they fight for survival in a society that hasn’t yet heard them.

What’s more, we also know from research by Southampton University and the ESRC, and from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, that charities do not map well onto need overall. A more recent report, Patchwork Philanthropy by The Young Foundation, used 360Giving data to show that the combined pattern of philanthropy and public spending maps poorly onto need. Camden, St Albans and Kensington & Chelsea are spending hotspots, while Mansfield, Great Yarmouth and West Lancashire are coldspots. And Blackpool has the lowest charitable spend per head, which makes no sense at all.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government response to the cuts, which said that “local authorities are responsible for their own decisions” doesn’t offer much hope. Tracey Crouch, through the Civil Society Strategy, seems to understand the need to focus on deprived areas, but it looks like she’s going to have an uphill battle to kick the ostriches at the top of the hill out of their bunkers.

Maybe it’s the link between coldspots and pro-Brexit areas that, as The Guardian’s John Harris recently flagged, could act as the catalyst. Once complex social issues start mattering to politics and power, something might happen.

As a sector, we’re now in the fortunate position of having more data than we’ve ever had to make our case, enough to make sure the parties and interests that will fight the next post-Brexit election know the facts. But knowing about a problem doesn’t translate into caring enough to act.

Given the importance of this to the people who need us most we should be testing the Civil Society Strategy’s recognition that charities should have a “voice” – lobbying act and all – to its limits, in making sure politicians of all parties heed the warnings of the charities surviving against the odds, while they’re still there to be heard.

Paul Streets: My own loss reminded me why charities matter

For many, charity staff are the only people ‘in the corner’ of their beneficiaries, writes our CEO Paul Streets.

Paul-Streets-018-20180123103542147
This blog was originally published in the September / October edition of Third Sector.

This summer has been a sad one for me. My mother died. She was 85. She had not been well for some time, but it already feels like she leaves a huge hole, especially as my father also died three years ago, also aged 85.

Who will listen unconditionally? Who will support me whatever I do? Who knew me from the moment I arrived and has been with me ever since?

The lack of any effective family support network is one reason they end up turning to the charities we fund.

I was already aware, but have been reminded, that I’m among those lucky enough to have lived life as part of a stable, supportive family and, at times, I have taken that for granted. It is not so for many of the people we seek to reach through the charities we fund: the single homeless man; the refugee; many of those who leave prison; the woman fleeing home for a refuge; the young person who leaves care. The lack of any effective family support network is one reason they end up turning to the charities we fund.

Nothing can replace the wraparound of a supportive family, but from what I see from visiting small charities, and as evidenced by our recent report The Value of Small, this ability to provide unconditional, flexible, yet structured support is one of the main reasons small charities work. No contract would ever specify this approach and no state institution could ever provide it. It’s intimate, immediate and initially intangible. Yet, without that kind of support provided throughout my life I wouldn’t be the person I am.

The other brief glimpse I had into the lives of the people we seek to reach was during mum’s tortuous last two weeks, as she experienced the ill effects of a well-meaning and benign, but confused and disconnected NHS. She was told one thing, then another. Doctors dropped in and out, issuing rapid verdicts, then leaving the excellent nurses to pick up and interpret the pieces. At times it felt like she was an interesting case study. It was agonising. Yet we as family faced all of that with her, as advocates.

For many, those charity staff represent the only people “in the corner” of their beneficiaries

It reminded me that small charities are family in all but name for people with chaotic lives. They’re the people advocating and joining up different state actors: welfare agencies, social services, health services, housing, the police and criminal justice system, and so on.

For many, those charity staff represent the only people “in the corner” of their beneficiaries, reading letters for people who aren’t able to, arranging transport to appointments or appealing decisions made in offices based on statistics for people who don’t value themselves enough to know they deserve better. In my mum’s final weeks it felt like my family had given over control. It’s hard to imagine how that must feel when that’s all you know.

No wonder it is to so hard to turn people’s lives around. We are so lucky to have dedicated people on the front line of thousands of charities around the country committed to trying to do just that.

Paul Streets: The devil of the Civil Society Strategy lies in the delivery

We should applaud the supportive tone. We should welcome the commitments to smaller charities. But we should equally question the lack of concrete proposals, writes our CEO Paul Streets.

Paul-Streets-018-20180123103542147
This blog was originally posted in Third Sector on 10 August 2018.

The long-awaited Civil Society Strategy  has been published. There’s much to welcome, especially its tone. Even in the ministerial foreword the strategy recognises the “pressures civil society is under” and the “extraordinary job” it does alongside the role of government as an “enabler”, citing the strategy as “the beginning of a process of collaboration”.

As Lloyds Banking Group’s corporate foundation, it is good to see the recognition for cross-sector support in addressing societal issues, and the important pressure of ethical consumerism.

Crucially, there is a recognition of the importance of giving charities more of a voice, allowing them to feed into policy and taking steps to strengthen their confidence around campaigning. The strategy sets out promising plans around new guidance on commissioning for small and local charities and also around new approaches to strengthening social value.

It is broad in scope, encompassing civil society as inclusive of all activities whose “primary purpose is social value, independent of state of control” and, critically, the role of government more broadly in enabling that. While charities are at the heart of a strong civil society, as Lloyds Banking Group’s corporate foundation, it is good to see the recognition for cross-sector support in addressing societal issues, and the important pressure of ethical consumerism.  We see first-hand how valuable a truly responsible approach to business can be – not just in terms of funding but in skills transfer and in-kind support. Public, private and social sectors need to work better together.

And it is helpful to see supportive acknowledgement of the role of civil society from other government departments, having long called for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport to influence the approach to the voluntary sector across government as an exemplar.

The breadth and scope of the strategy risks the government appearing as a convenor, rather than the central actor it needs to be. So while it’s a good framework, the devil will be in the delivery.

But this scope and breadth is also its weakness. It risks being everything and nothing.

Without concrete action on issues such as commissioning and joint working, there is a risk that this is simply warm words. We will watch with interest to see what replaces the community rehabilitation companies contracts under Transforming Rehabilitation given recent commitments by the Justice Secretary David Gauke: a critical litmus test for whether DCMS has the clout it needs.

The strategy recognises the need for “new approaches in communities that have not benefited from growth” but it fails to translate that recognition into tangible and targeted action to address the most marginalised people and places. This is a critical issue for small and local charities working right at the coalface.

And while it hints at the potential significance of dormant assets and The UK Shared Prosperity Fund, small nuggets are offered rather than the wholesale and targeted significant investment where it is needed most.

We have elsewhere highlighted the critical need for the sector to rethink sustainability post-austerity but doing this will require commitment and clarity of purpose and not just from the sector but from government. Without this there is a risk that what could be large amounts of money are frittered away on disconnected piecemeal approaches. We need to see these opportunities as we did the post-war Marshall plan, an opportunity to restructure the support we provide to the most in need in society and to the poorest places – alongside more effective welfare provision, which doesn’t get a mention.

The breadth and scope of the strategy risks the government appearing as a convenor, rather than the central actor it needs to be. So while it’s a good framework, the devil will be in the delivery. Can DCMS translate these welcome and very broad intentions into tangible and substantive action on the ground?

Paul Streets: The value of small is far bigger than imagined

A visit to the buzzing Hive Avon in Bristol brought home the value of small charities, writes our CEO Paul Streets.

Paul-Streets-018-20180123103542147
This blog was originally posted in Third Sector on 31st July 2018.

The Hive Avon works with people who have learning disabilities and their families in Bristol and surrounding areas. It is based in an unprepossessing building some way up a hill beside a shabby garage on the outskirts of Bristol. It has one full-time staff member, a couple of part-timers – including the chief executive – and about 30 volunteers. It has an income of about £100,000 a year. When I visited earlier this year it was celebrating its 50th year and was buzzing with people and ideas for how it could do more.

The research is clear: small and local charities make a real difference to individual lives, they help local economies and are often the glue that binds communities together.

The charity’s Bringing Independent Lives Together programme brings together parents and their disabled sons and daughters in separate structured sessions to tackle the tough questions about how ageing parents help their children to plan for a life after they’re gone. It’s challenging stuff. The first parent-focused session starts with discussion on what happens when they die and the consequences for their children, some of whom might be in their fifties, but still live at home.

Many people with learning disabilities who live with their parents don’t make basic life decisions for themselves, such as when to get to up, what to wear or what to eat. Hive talks parents through what they can do to help their children become more independent. Some of those who access Hive’s projects are hidden from statutory services because their needs are not acute. They don’t have social workers, they have no personal independence plans and nor are they on housing lists. Instead, it’s all “been kept in the family”.

Adults with learning disabilities who’ve made the break to live independently provide useful role models at this time. This sharing of lived experience, fears and hopes is critical, but it is possible only through the hard work of the charity. About 250 families receive support from Hive, and it is vital stuff.

Small Charities Week took place between 18 and 23 June. It was an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the work of the thousands of small charities such as Hive. But welcome as it was to have that focus for a week, too much debate and policy in government, and within our own sector, focuses on the much fewer, much larger charities.

Small charities need all our help to enable them to do and be their best. That’s why they need to be at the front and centre of the government’s forthcoming civil society strategy.

That’s why the research The Value of Small, commissioned by the Lloyds Bank Foundation but done independently by academics, is so important. Published during Small Charities Week, it concludes that size does indeed matter and there is something clearly distinctive in who small and local charities work with and how.

The research is clear: small and local charities make a real difference to individual lives, they help local economies and are often the glue that binds communities together. Yet there is a critical mismatch between the benefits, distinctiveness and value of small and local charities and the way commissioning is undertaken. Eighty-four per cent of local government spending on charities is now going to larger charities as they shift from grants to ever-larger contracts. This is despite the clear benefits of small charities to local communities and economies.

Small charities need all our help to enable them to do and be their best. That’s why they need to be at the front and centre of the government’s forthcoming civil society strategy.

Paul Streets: Llanelli charity is best cure for merger mania

Threshold DAS shows it’s not true that small local charities lack innovation, are inefficient and need to be merged, writes our CEO Paul Streets

Paul-Streets-018-20180123103542147

This blog was originally posted in Third Sector on 31st May 2018.

Mergers have their place, but I’m frustrated by the small charity merger mania that usually emanates from those in national positions. It’s here again after the think tank NPC recently published a report. The report is good, well-balanced and shows the benefits of mergers. But it has allowed others to jump on the merger bandwagon, somehow suggesting we should seek out merged charities like good pubs.

I recently visited Threshold DAS, a domestic abuse charity in Llanelli, Wales, which dispels all the myths about small charities often churned out by advocates for mergers. It shows that, sometimes, independence is key.

Threshold DAS is a beacon of hope and energy dealing with domestic abuse, one of the toughest issues we fund. Its name comes from the concept of “no threshold” being acceptable.

Llanelli is five hours from London, at the end of a slow, rickety train journey from Cardiff. It’s anything but prosperous: shabby streets, small shops just about surviving and high unemployment. Fish ’n’ chips for a fiver in the empty fish bar. It’s the rugby team, the Scarlets, that sets it apart from similar towns.

Threshold DAS is a beacon of hope and energy dealing with domestic abuse, one of the toughest issues we fund. Its name comes from the concept of “no threshold” being acceptable. As we chat over tea and Welsh cakes in front of a wall full of news cuttings – including the headline “8-year-old rings 999 to tell the emergency services ‘Daddy is headbutting Mummy’” – Vicky Pedicini, the chief executive, tells me about her work. She started out as a volunteer after a social work attachment instilled a desire to be hands-on. Twenty-one years later she’s running DAS, overseeing 29 staff and 30 volunteers, as the charity has transformed structurally and in every aspect of service delivery.

It isn’t right that organisations such as DAS are left jumping through hoops to survive and avoid merging. It’s delusional, disconnected madness.

No longer solely a refuge, it now supports male survivors and perpetrators as well as working intensively with women. Pedicini explained that it changed tack because “women wanted their men to change” and were “disengaging because we couldn’t offer anything that tried to keep them together”. She stressed that, although abuse can never be excused, its work is nuanced because “every man we have worked with was also abused, or witnessed abuse, as a child”. Often its work with perpetrators leads to couples splitting up because women feel safe to leave. DAS offers mediation services to enable “better exits” and minimise the damage to children.

Its counselling supports women with no awareness of what a “normal” relationship looks like.

In relative terms our funding could seem insignificant – just 3 per cent of its total spend – but it’s gold dust because it goes towards core costs while other funders will fund only “innovation” and contracts don’t realistically cover overheads. It isn’t right that organisations such as DAS are left jumping through hoops to survive and avoid merging. It’s delusional, disconnected madness.

The next time someone tells me small local charities lack innovation, are inefficient and need to be merged, I’ll offer to take them with me on the slow train to Llanelli. The proof of their evolution as service providers is there for all to see. I’d challenge anyone to take me to any large organisation that has gone through as much change and growth in services and yet retained intimately connected humanity at the top.

 

Paul Streets: Post-Oxfam, the key is to improve on the ground

Small charities are often closer to their clients, which makes safeguarding issues clearer – but that doesn’t mean they should be complacent, writes our Chief Executive Paul Streets.

Paul-Streets-018-20180123103542147

This blog was originally posted in Third Sector on 22nd March 2018.

The main rubric of patient safety training for medical students is “first, do no harm”.

We would do well to apply this as we search our souls in the wake of the Oxfam furore. Any feelings of relief that it’s not us in the spotlight should be matched by rigour in re-examining our own practices.

The small and local charities we support work with vulnerable, marginalised and disadvantaged people facing tremendous challenges. Many are underappreciated hidden “healers”, picking up the aftermath of sexual and physical abuse, dealing with domestic violence, trafficking, rape victims, historic child sexual abuse in adulthood and sex workers. But this also exposes them to risk.

Effective small charities have built-in early warning systems and high levels of beneficiary engagement, often with peer support provided by others with lived experience. These “communities of shared experience” are often highly supportive and protective of each other.

In these small charities the short distance between trustees and clients means the spotlight is close and bright, so incidents can be more visible. And the fact that local people support local people means they’re not as vulnerable to the risk the Oxfam story exposes, where external development workers from “foreign” agencies are contracted in, operating with less local support and oversight.

These factors might reduce risk, but don’t eliminate it and we should not be complacent. This isn’t a “small is beautiful; big is bad” story – people-powered change by its very nature involves people and human fallibility, so safeguarding matters for all of us and should make us aware that how we change the world for the better is as important as what we achieve.

Sometimes small organisations that support vulnerable people concentrate the risks. We know from abuse incidents across wider society that collusion between abusers in tight-knit groups gives cover, and imbalances in power can facilitate abuse and ensure it’s concealed.

From a funder’s perspective, we need to respond at three levels. First, what does it mean for existing practice? Is our due diligence before awarding a grant sufficient? How should we respond to incidents reported during the life of a grant?

Second, how can we support and encourage good practice in those we fund? Many of them will be wondering where to start in the blizzard of advice coming from funders, the Charity Commission and sector bodies. Third, how can we support our umbrella body the Association of Charitable Foundations in its wish to develop good practice standards?

Whatever steps we take, we need to balance action with proportionality, ensuring that above all else we help improve real practice on the ground. The worst thing that could happen is that regulators, umbrella bodies and funders impose multiple and competing requirements, chastisements to action and significant costs on charities in order to cover our own backs.

So “first, do no harm” seems a good place to start. In the meantime, those who want to cast the first stone at the poor can cancel their direct debits to Oxfam. I’ve increased mine. For decades it has reached millions and I trust that its leadership will learn from this, act and reach millions more.