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.

 

Advertisements

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.

Paul Streets: I need to tell you about “John”

Despite increasing demand and complexity, and the effects of cuts, he remains relentlessly positive and innovative, writes our Chief Executive Paul Streets

Paul-Streets-018-20180123103542147

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

John’s world is a microcosm of what’s happening to small charities across England and Wales. He runs a charity in a county town – let’s call the charity “LocalSave” – which he set up more than 20 years ago. It works with families and deals with a range of issues, including addiction and domestic abuse. He worked as a volunteer for three years, before receiving his first grants from the Tudor Trust and the Lloyds Bank Foundation, which got the charity going.

It now has nine staff and about 35 volunteers, including trainee counsellors, from a local university. It supports about 300 parents whose drug, alcohol and associated problems put them at risk of losing their children into care. He’s determined the service should be one-stop and holistic. So, alongside practical support and counselling, it provides a range of services, including acupuncture. It is increasingly targeting dads and has initiated work with the perpetrators of domestic violence in response to the growing number of women who’ve faced abuse from partners.

Over recent years, John tells me, he’s seen an increase in demand and an increase in complexity, which he puts down to austerity.

In his words the “just about managing are coming to us now”.

The charity is finding it hard to stem the tide of referrals from social services, from which it receives no income.

The local university has conservatively calculated that keeping a child in care costs £119,000 a year. This ignores the post-care costs, as evidenced by care leavers, who are massively over-represented in our prisons and sex work. If John was paid the equivalent of the care costs for just three children, he’d cover his annual running costs.

When John was starting out, his first grants led to grants and contracts from statutory services. About eight years ago this was all subsumed in a county-wide contract that went to a large national charity. He refused to subcontract because he didn’t like the larger charity’s model. This proved to be a wise choice, because the larger charity did not deliver on the contact and was replaced by another large charity that undercut its competitors to win the bid.

This time, John did subcontract. Three years in, the health agency squeezed the contract and the large national charity found itself facing a cut of about 16 per cent, part of which it passed on in an unnegotiated 40 per cent cut to LocalSave’s subcontract, reducing the latter’s overall income by a fifth. It nearly broke the organisation.

In spite of this, John remains relentlessly positive and upbeat about what he does, the people he works with and the women and men he reaches.

He talks warmly of the young woman we met volunteering in the “Caff”, a young mum with a full-time job in a pub and “no more contact with social services” after coming to LocalSave with a drug habit fed by money from sex work. “She alone makes it all worth it,” John tells me.

John is also fiercely collaborative and networked. He works with other local charities to think about how they can connect with local businesses and people. And he’s in contact with an informal set of peers around the UK, whom he met through a course the Lloyds Bank Foundation funded at the School for Social Entrepreneurs. These include POW, which works with sex workers in Nottingham, and My Sister’s Place, which tackles domestic abuse in Middlesbrough.

John is innovative too. Even after 20-plus years, he’s buzzing with new ideas he wants to try and things the charity has just set up, such as the perpetrator and dads programmes.

As I travel back I’m met from the train by the ubiquitous large cancer charity chuggers. “We raise three times what we cost,” they tell me. Perhaps.

But I wonder what John could do with that three times if only we knew about him, and thousands like him across the UK. Our unsung but much-loved local charity heroes.

Digital is important, but face-to-face is still vital

The sector must play to its strengths and ensure people are not just reduced to algorithms, writes our Chief Executive Paul Streets.

Paul-Streets-018-20180123103542147

This was originally posted in Third Sector on 23rd January 2018. 

At the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales we aim to help small and local charities thrive, including by providing funding to help them develop their digital capabilities. But we also acknowledge the critical need for the human touch. Human interaction is vital to reach the digitally and societally excluded.

The small organisations that we fund establish face-to-face relationships with people whom society routinely ostracises as offenders, ignores as homeless, chastises as sex workers, rejects as migrants or misunderstands as mentally ill. The human touch is the only way to re-establish trust and create the kind of bespoke, but direct, customer service and support to which digital platforms can only aspire.

It’s time the charity sector played to its strengths. Rather than follow the commercial sector and reduce people to digital algorithms…

In the thirst for growth, some of the big names in the sector see silver in digital bullets, adopting the best commercial sector practices in their fundraising techniques. But they risk becoming remote and indistinguishable from the myriad commercial organisations that invade the virtual space.

The thirst for scale by a government seeking blanket solutions delivered by fewer, larger providers has driven too much public sector contracting. Standardised payment-by-results specifications distort services in favour of the contract manager as the “client” rather than the person who comes through the door with multiple needs and strengths.

It’s time the charity sector played to its strengths. Rather than follow the commercial sector and reduce people to digital algorithms, the sector needs to keep the human connection at its heart.

When I visit the small local charities we support, I am repeatedly humbled by how much time they spend working one to one with the most disadvantaged. Their staff display great compassion and create more hopeful futures for those who face seemingly insurmountable challenges.

So my new year resolution is to ensure the full story of the sector is told: one where the vast majority of charities operate locally and support the most vulnerable with a helping hand.

Local heroes I’ve encountered over the past few years include Kim Shutler-Jones, chief executive at the Cellar Trust, which supports people with mental health problems in the Bradford area, and Ruth Robb, chief executive of Azalea, which supports street sex workers in Luton. There are thousands more like them working in the charity sector. Their approach is truly person-centred, never assuming that technology can gain the insights that can be gleaned by staff on the ground, nor filtering out who they will help based on whether it helps them hit the targets against which they’re funded. Don’t get me wrong, technology and measurement tools are indisputably important, but not as much as the insight you can glean from the person in front of you as they stare silently into the mug of tea you’ve just made for them.

So my new year resolution is to ensure the full story of the sector is told: one where the vast majority of charities operate locally and support the most vulnerable with a helping hand. That story requires a different measurement of success: not based on commercial sector metrics of growth and a rise in income, but voluntary sector values measured by the quality of human interaction and lives changed. Viewed that way, the sector is a bright jewel in our national crown.

A sector to be thankful for

Spare a thought for those who will hold the fort over Christmas, writes our Chief Executive Paul Streets.

This was originally posted in Third Sector on 20th December 2017. 

Many of us will be feeling stressed as we hurtle through high streets towards Christmas Day. But away from office parties and well-earned time off, many charity beneficiaries across the country will be experiencing real stress that puts our panic over mismatching baubles into alarming perspective. Not just because problems don’t go away at Christmas, but because it’s a trigger for many kinds of crisis. A time for those struggling with addiction to relapse; a time of acute awareness of loneliness or isolation; a time of bitterly cold nights for homeless people; and a time when those struggling to make ends meet find the pressures even greater.

So how will charities respond to Christmas? For some staff, and a vast number of community volunteers, it will mean that Christmas is a day spent serving others. They’ll trade turkey for ten around their family dining table to cooking for 100 they might not know in their local community centre. At the same time, many local charities will be closing their doors, and that’s important too. One of our grant managers, Emma Beeston, blogged earlier this year that, although it’s hard to find time, we need front-line workers to go on holiday so they can care effectively for those in crisis.

Issues such as financial crises, addiction and domestic abuse are all exacerbated by Christmas, when good cheer can sometimes put a spotlight on what isn’t going so well in people’s lives.

Thankfully, where some charities reduce services or close over Christmas, larger organisations with more capacity will hold the fort, and this is when the breadth and scale of the third sector (and the public sector) are invaluable. Health services and larger charities such as Samaritans or Shelter will stay at the end of the telephone when no one else is, often responding to life-saving calls. This means those in need might still have somewhere to turn until services and support reopen in the new year.

And January will be busy. Issues such as financial crises, addiction and domestic abuse are all exacerbated by Christmas, when good cheer can sometimes put a spotlight on what isn’t going so well in people’s lives. For example, the Somerset and Wessex Eating Disorders Association told us that the prevalence of and emphasis on festive food can make the season hugely daunting for those with eating disorders (it created a video with 12 top tips for beneficiaries while it’s closed).

But like every Christmas story there is hope amidst the dark nights.

Will charities be ready to respond to the extra demand in the new year? They will certainly try. In truth, many of them will be stringing out their funding, approaching the year-end in April, and because the climate remains tough for 97 per cent of the sector, their future hangs in the balance.

But like every Christmas story there is hope amidst the dark nights. First, the spirit of generosity prompts many to give money and volunteer time, sometimes for the first time – and once engaged they might continue to do so into the new year. Second, those who have a break and time with friends and family will probably return renewed and refreshed, ready to help people who experience disadvantage.

And finally, just as we are grateful for the downtime and the presents, we should be thankful for all those willing to give of themselves not just at Christmas, but every single day of the year. Charities are fighting hard to stay afloat as a result of poor commissioning and a mismatch between funding and demand, yet they’ll give what they can often, and way above what it is right to expect. A little like a certain inn-owner in a Middle-Eastern town, come to think of it…

Happy Christmas!

Feeling festive? You can also watch Lloyds Bank Foundation’s Festive Ode

To make impact charities must stay true to local roots

Our CEO Paul Streets joins the debate: is scaling up effective charities the way to solve social issues?

David Ainsworth wrote in Civil Society News this week that “By failing to grow, charities are failing beneficiaries.” His piece highlighted the million dollar question facing a stretched sector – namely how do we find the best that charities offer and ensure that it’s replicated so that everyone has the opportunity to benefit?

pme_3085-sajid-javid-l.jpg
Sajid Javid MP stands by Jackie Hooper, of small charity North Worcestershire Basement Projects at our Parliamentary Reception.

You can’t fault David’s call. It would be wrong to keep small charities small just because they’re beautiful.

At a time when organisations up and down the country are repeatedly being asked to do more with less, sharing great ideas and interventions is surely a no-brainer, and for many services where a high degree of standardisation – such as operating advice helplines – is possible, the economy of scale argument works.

But the point David seems to miss is this: for many small and local charities, the way they’re able to help their beneficiaries comes from the fact they are just that, small and local. Our experience with the charities we fund is that they have a unique understanding of the people they help and the context in which they do it. They’ve built trust with local people and have relationships that allow them to offer highly customised, bespoke and specialist support.

[charities] have a unique understanding of the people they help and the context in which they do it

The benefits of being small

As a funder of small and local charities, we’ve seen some of the great things these organisations are doing in their communities. From charities that support victims of domestic violence in Wales to those providing refugee support services in Manchester, these are some of the most successful and innovative organisations in the sector.

you wouldn’t expect a high-class restaurant to scale up without losing the quality

But just like in a commercial setting, you wouldn’t expect a high-class restaurant to scale up without losing the quality it offers its customers. We must acknowledge that increasing the volume of services in a charity may decrease quality, and lead to less satisfactory responses to the needs they’re addressing. If our independent bistros are driven to provide more scalable ‘fast food’, their specialist knowledge will be lost and our communities all the worse for it.

SMP07861.jpg
Bath City Farm – local charity embedded in the community it serves.

Crucially too, we would lose the additional value small and local charities provide in using local volunteers who, through helping to deliver services, often act as anchors within their community, providing stability and support to other groups. We’ve found small and local charities are uniquely placed to engage directly with those hardest-to-reach, because their independence, history and local connections can foster greater levels of trust than a larger, national organisation could. Local charity leaders have the autonomy to address these problems in their local communities as they see them whereas even the most dynamic of managers in national charities are constrained by pressures from the centre.

The role and rootedness of smaller charities in communities means these charities can also build and nurture social networks, creating positive relationships between people living and working around them. In doing this they have the power to boost levels of social capital building links between the people they serve, other communities and even the government to the benefit of the local area.

Some charities try to achieve the best of both worlds by operating as small charities under a bigger national umbrella. Mind and Emmaus are two who take a more federalist approach with individual groups in local communities operating as independent organisations affiliated to a national charity. At Lloyds Bank Foundation we fund some of these organisations and see their success. But as a model, it’s not right for every small charity.

Sharing what works

We need to learn from charities’ success where we can certainly, but that doesn’t mean expecting them to change how they work and who they serve. Why should a charity from Salford aspire to be a provider in Southend? Would they even be as effective?

PME_2037.jpg
Our recent Small Vital and Vocal Charity Summit

Studies have shown that it is the most disadvantaged who are often failed by one-size fits-all contract driven approaches to service delivery and that these groups can be better supported by a responsive and adaptive local system delivered by a small, local charity that allows a more proactive or person-centred approach to meet their specific needs.

we should be encouraging the sector to do more to learn core lessons

There are ways to take these local success stories and reach more people and we should be encouraging the sector to do more to learn core lessons and adapt them to work in their own areas. Better evaluation and measurement can offer insights that other charities can learn from and apply in a way that best suits them whilst avoiding a cookie cutter model of replication that we know won’t work.

What we can do

Here at the Foundation, we, like many other funders, have worked to bring charities addressing the same issues together. Allowing similar charities to meet through seminars, forums or taking part in learning sets can help them to share their successes and learn new approaches they can apply to their own communities. We know this is something that works but we know we can and should do more.

As David said, we need to be serious about taking the best ideas in the sector and sharing them if we’re going to tackle the challenges that face us as a country. His response to this has attracted much debate and rightly so. But before insisting on scaling up, we need to ask what this means, and ultimately what it adds, because, as we have found, when it comes to charities bigger is not always best.

We need to make the most of research

Given the lack of resources for research in the sector, we must extract every drop of value from what we learn, writes our Chief Executive Paul Streets in his latest column for Third Sector.

This blog was originally published on Third Sector on 3rd October 2017.

GD*40628393I recently spoke about how the foundation uses research at the annual Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference.

It was a potential undiscovered goldmine of useful research relevant to practitioners on subjects as wide as engaging black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, working with refugees, research methods and working with volunteers. It left me wondering why I’d never heard of it before. Researchers talking to researchers might improve knowledge but it won’t spread learning. And that’s a major challenge for a fragmented voluntary sector.

We know funders are fortunate to have the resources. This is why it’s so important that those who research the sector speak actively to those who work in the sector.

Our detractors, especially those in central and local government, often chastise the voluntary sector for being an evidence-free zone. Often with an assumption that small and local charities are particularly guilty.

When it comes to delivering services, local charities end up having to plead the case to would-be commissioners, often against much larger competitors. In my experience, commissioners should be beating at the doors of local charities that can reach people and places larger providers can’t get near. The Grenfell Tower tragedy showed this starkly. When the chips were down, only the local charities got anywhere near.

The evidence challenge is, of course, a big problem for small and local charities that rarely have the resources for research – or the time to engage with other researchers out there.

So what role can commissioners of research play?

Funders should certainly help practitioners to get back on the front foot – by building an evidence narrative that speaks to the intimate knowledge of local organisations that reach parts of our communities that others can’t.

Large funders such as Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales that work directly with frontline voluntary sector organisations have an important role in this. By bringing together what we learn from the many organisations we fund, we can produce unique insights into what matters and what works to tackle disadvantage. And because we can aggregate data from hundreds of small charities we can create a story of scale through hundreds of delivery points – not a single standard contract or provider.

Given how poorly resourced sector research is, we must extract every drop of value from what we learn.

We know funders are fortunate to have the resources. This is why it’s so important that those who research the sector speak actively to those who work in the sector.

Succinct summary evidence briefings, such as those produced by the Economic and Social Research Council, can be very useful for busy chief executives who only have 10 minutes to spare. But as Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said at the research conference this isn’t just about “disseminating findings”; it’s about active engagement between researchers and practitioners.

Given how poorly resourced sector research is, we must extract every drop of value from what we learn.

Those who fund research should insist researchers spend as much effort on discussing their findings with the practitioners they’ve researched, and asking how they can improve their own service evaluation, as they do on a glossy report that may tick a funder box, but will then likely gather dust. Without this, those researched are little more than lab rats.

It’s a huge task, but in gradually bringing together knowledge of what works to tackle disadvantage from those we fund, we hope to help reshape and re-educate the thinking on what others – with deeper public sector pockets – might value. And by doing this, we’ll bring the voices of those at the receiving end of services to the fore and help determine how services are commissioned and paid for. It’s what good consumer-driven organisations strive for and we should do the same.