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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

Small charities need a big voice in Westminster

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L-R: Baroness Rennie Fritchie, Chair of Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, Lord Blackwell, Chairman of Lloyds Banking Group and Judith Ford, CEO of Wyre Forest Nightstop and Paul Streets, Chief Executive, Lloyds Bank Foundation of England and Wales

Judith Ford, CEO of Wyre Forest Nightstop, a charity funded by the Foundation, spoke at our Westminster Reception yesterday and called for MPs to take forward the experiences of small and local charities with them to Westminster. Here she shares her thoughts:

At Wyre Forest Nightstop we work with young people aged 16-25 who are homeless, or at risk of being homeless. We support them with a range of services from emergency accommodation to family mediation, volunteering opportunities and give them a chance to develop skills and experience.

“You have nothing but the clothes on your back…”

I can’t do justice to the difference this support makes to the young people we support so I’ll share with you a few words from Courteney, a young woman who we first worked with when she was 18. She recently blogged:

“Everyone’s opinion on homelessness is different but you truly won’t understand how it feels until you experience it yourself. Try to imagine; you have nothing but the clothes on your back, you have nobody to help you as they just walk past, you feel invisible to all those who you thought cared about you. You want to scream and get somebody’s attention and nobody listens. The street lamps are your only source of light as you’re under the slide trying not to get wet from the rain.

Many people aren’t aware of the important role small charities like Wyre Forest Nightstop make. It’s why we need the support from others – from MPs, government, businesses and supporters.

“I’m lucky I found Nightstop because I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t. They provided me with the care I needed and helped me to get into supported lodgings. They are such a friendly bunch of people, they made me feel like I am a part of the family and welcomed me with open arms. “

Courteney is just one of the hundreds of young people we see every year who fall through the gaps in our care or welfare systems and find themselves with nowhere to live.

As a local charity we’re able to take time to get to know the people we work with so we can provide targeted and personalised support that responds to their unique and individual experiences. We can only work this way because we know our community and we know the support they need.

Support through difficult times

When I joined Nightstop back in 2011 we were on the point of going under – one of our first grants was paid in two instalments just in case we didn’t make it past the six month stage. Our turning point came two years ago when we were given an Enable grant from Lloyds Bank Foundation.

The grant allowed us to work on our organisational development, undertaking a review, training for trustees and myself that equipped me with vital leadership and business skills to lead the charity through the challenges we faced and continue to face. It really ‘Enabled’ us to move forward!

Listen to small charities, our local solutions have the potential to solve national issues too.

Like many of the other charities funded by the Foundation we’re operating in difficult times. We’ve had cuts in statutory funds but at the same time have seen a big increase in demand for our services.  Thanks to the support from Lloyds and out Enable grant we’ve been in a position where we were able to tackle these challenges head on. We’ve since secured a partnership grant for over £500,000 from the Big Lottery Fund. I know that part of the reason we got that grant was because we had gained stronger governance, robust systems and passionate staff thanks to our support from the Foundation.

All the way through our journey the Foundation has been by our side. They have just awarded us an Invest grant of £68,000 to cover some of our core costs like salaries. It’s rare for grantmakers to fund core costs, most want to fund new and exciting projects, but they understand that it’s our core costs that keep us going, and allow us to provide the support and services we know our community needs.

Small but vital voices

Yesterday the Foundation brought together charity leaders with MPs in Parliament to recognise and celebrate the role small charities have in their communities. They’ve given the small charities they fund the opportunity to not just keep doing what we do best but also doing but make the case to politicians why they are so vital to the communities they serve.

Sadly though many people aren’t aware of the important role small charities like Wyre Forest Nightstop make. It’s why we need the support from others – from MPs, government, businesses and supporters but it’s also why we need to make raise our own voices to champion who we are and what we do.

We need those MPs particularly to take what they see, hear and learn from their local charities back with them to Westminster. When they are making policies they need to be aware of the impact their decisions can have on the most vulnerable members of our community. To take just one example – no-one should have to wait 6 weeks before they can buy food or pay their rent. That policy around Universal Credit alone has a huge impact on our ability to do our work and help people like Courteney.

So I say please talk to and listen to small charities, our local solutions have the potential to solve national issues too. Please use our experience to inform decisions and improve the lives of the people we support.

 

 

 

Putting out the fires of ‘burning injustice’

It’s hard to reconcile public sector contracting with our values and mission, so we must return to our campaigning roots, writes our Chief Executive Paul Streets.

This was originally posted in Third Sector on 2nd November 2017. 

I am encouraged by recent events I’ve been to and by comment in social media that the third sector’s relations with government might finally be turning away from a preoccupation with delivering public services to remembering why most charities were set up in the first place.

third secotr in publicJames Rees and David Mullins’ book, The Third Sector Delivering Public Services helpfully sets out the historical context for our relationship with government over the past 30 years. It begins with the Thatcher-driven “contract culture” to Labour’s third way of what Rees and co call “hyperactive mainstreaming” – seeking to build us centrally into public provision – and on to Cameron’s volunteer-driven big society.

Over the years some governments just paid us lip service, while others were well intentioned. But taken as a whole, they’ve seen charities pushed from pillar to post by shifting transient visions of their role in society, driven by whoever ruled the Whitehall and Westminster roost. No wonder the sector is confused about its identity. And no wonder the public are confused too. If Serco wins a public contract it doesn’t ask the public to dip their hands in their pockets to cross-subsidise the cost. So why should big, national, contract-providing charities?

No wonder the sector is confused about its identity. And no wonder the public are confused too.

As the screws tighten it’s becoming increasingly hard to reconcile public sector contracting with our values and mission. Small charities we fund at the foundation are seeing their public funding slashed as grants disappear, and a reducing pot is captured in contracts they have little chance of securing as the big players – voluntary and private – slug it out between them.

I hope the Children’s Society and Scope are showing the way by withdrawing from large-scale public provision, deciding it is incompatible with their mission to improve the lives of the majority they exist for. Just like Polly Neate at Shelter who called recently on big charities to focus less on brand and more on partnership so that they use their scale around a united front with smaller charities to achieve influence.

Different commentators have commented on this government’s lack of vision for the sector, but perhaps being ignored by a government battered by Brexit thunderclouds brings its own silver lining. We no longer have a government that sees the third sector as an instrument to be played. It doesn’t know what we’re here for. It doesn’t seem to care and, even it did, it doesn’t have the time.

Perhaps being ignored by a government battered by Brexit thunderclouds brings its own silver lining.

Basic RGBIn the absence of someone else’s vision for the sector, maybe we can reclaim our own. Julia Unwin’s Civil Society Futures inquiry should help us. Given what’s happening to the lives of those many of us exist for, there is no more important time to do this. Every day at the foundation we see the battles of universal credit, homelessness, poverty and failing services played out on the front line of the hundreds of small, local charities we fund. The government’s focus on helping the “just about managing” compounds our charities’ sense of being alone in reaching the “nowhere near managing”. Society’s marginalised are fast becoming collateral damage, ignored or inconsequential – a new norm in austerity Britain. No wonder the government’s been happy to co-opt our silence with a contract.

In the absence of someone else’s vision for the sector, maybe we can reclaim our own.

Charities won’t do what’s right by those we serve unless they return to their campaigning roots, projecting what they know and hear every day into public and parliamentary consciousness.

Many of us were founded just to do that. Most charities are an embodiment of previous calls for action from someone who knew enough to care, and who cared enough to respond.

If that means our relationship with government is less comfortable than it might have been in the past, all to the good if that discomfort is being driven by our intimate first-hand knowledge of the “burning injustice” at the heart of austerity pre-Brexit Britain. If Theresa May is true to her word she will welcome it, listen and act.

‘Digital transformation’ doesn’t have to be mysterious

The annual launch of Lloyds Banking Group’s Business Digital Index is an important reminder that the digital world is constantly moving and that charities, just like businesses, must keep abreast of the change. For that reason, we’ve invested £576,830 in digital support for 380 of our charities, in addition to the grants we provide to make sure they are working as smartly as possible.

The digital world is constantly moving and that charities, just like businesses, must keep abreast of the change

However while ‘Digital transformation’ seems to be on everyone’s lips lately, it seems to come with the implication that it is something mysterious or unknown. This is causing a significant attitudinal barrier towards technology for some charities who fear they might get it wrong, therefore creating procrastination and stagnation. So we’ve been considering some of the opportunities and barriers to embracing digital.

We know technology needs to be discussed as an enabler, for example the postage costs saved when emailing a newsletter, easily getting stock for a charity shop from a Facebook appeal, organising a supporters’ meeting through Whatsapp etc.

We know technology needs to be discussed as an enabler

Yet among charities we fund, investment in technology is often viewed as a ‘nice to have’ with staff pondering the implications of what they can’t deliver if they spend their funds on digital tools. Often the converse is actually true and they should instead consider what they can deliver more efficiently and more effectively with technology on a day to day level.

Taking a longer term view, we know from the Charity Digital Skills Report that only 27% of charities have aligned their organisational and digital strategy. Doing this makes the best use of any investment and ensures the consideration of purpose first. Digital no longer sits separately with an IT person, rather it underpins the work of the whole organisation and should affect everybody who interacts with it.

When working with charities on digital transformation we encourage them to get advice from multiple sources. They often face a lack of unbiased advice coupled with a lack of knowledge of the digital market place, which means that the advice they’re given may lean towards preferred suppliers rather than the best solution for their service.

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The Lloyds Bank Digital Index states that 50% of charity leaders lack confidence in introducing technological change and many lack digital leadership, so recruiting someone on the Board and at senior executive level that embraces and champions technological change can be influential when investment is needed. Making time for peer-to-peer learning and sharing about how best to use technology will also reap rewards in the long run.

Having a great internet presence can create and maintain local advantage and supporters in a fiercely competitive environment. A strong Facebook Whatsapp, Snapchat or Instagram presence, which lots of people use ‘in real life’, can often be better, more interactive and cheaper than a traditional website, so thinking about how your audience uses technology is important when deciding which platforms to use. The Lloyds Bank Digital Index states that charities using social media are 51% more likely to report an increase in donations.

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Having a great internet presence can create and maintain local advantage and supporters in a fiercely competitive environment.

As we know, the digital world is fast moving, so refreshing systems and people’s skills is something which needs doing every 18 months or so. It should be regarded as an investment that will support growth, innovation and succession. This needs to be built into the organisational strategy, otherwise investment in technology can be wasted and not properly embedded.  Getting your early adopters and your naysayers on board early is a useful tactic to support implementation.

Finally, it is important to use data, not just collect it, but select the right things to measure, rather than measuring everything which will tell you nothing. These key performance indicators can alert the charity to emerging issues before problems arise. Eliminating paper based systems and storing data in a consistent way brings data together for comparison. This, coupled with feedback from users can be used to drive service improvements.

At Lloyds Bank Foundation we are proud to fund charities who are punching above their weight with the services they deliver with the limited resources they have. The call for digital transformation shouldn’t draw focus from this, but should encourage charities to make their systems work harder for them; to streamline their processes, strengthen their evidence base, and make them stronger contenders for future funding so that they can focus on what they do best, which is changing lives for the better.

Harriet Stranks, Director of Grants, Lloyds Bank Foundation
@HarrietStranks

National Mentoring Day: A Mentor’s Story

National-Mentoring-Day-Logo1Today on National Mentoring Day we’re looking back at some of the great mentoring relationships between charities and staff from Lloyds Banking Group that have developed through the Charity Mentoring Programme we launched in 2015.

Chris Tucker, a Senior Manager at Lloyds Banking Group, is one of around 200 staff currently matched to a charity. He shares his experience of mentoring in London:

“Over the last two years then I’ve been a mentor to two charities tackling very different societal issues.”

Chris was initially paired up with Trailblazers, a prison-based charity which mentors young people to help them break the cycle of re-offending.

I’ve worked a range of roles at Lloyds which has given me a range of experience I felt I could bring to charity mentoring. I think we forget how many skills we learn in our professional lives that are useful outside of the office.

“With Trailblazers I was thrown straight in at the deep end. They were trying to fundraise, something which can be quite challenging as for some people it’s a controversial cause. At the same time, they were trying to recruit a new Trustee. I hadn’t dealt with either of these issues before but I still found I was able to use my general corporate experience to help support them.”

When that journey came to an end Chris was re-matched with Choice in Hackney, a community charity who provide advocacy and living support to disabled people in East London.

“At Choice in Hackney I work closely with Caroline Nelson, the Chief Executive, acting like a sounding board. Being a Chief Executive can be a lonely position with a lot of responsibility, so she uses me to bounce ideas off and offer a different perspective on whatever she’s working on. My experience at Lloyds in areas like risk management, fundraising and governance has been really useful for my work with Caroline.”

Mentoring seemed like an ideal fit. It was an opportunity contribute in a way that felt deeper than a one-off volunteering project, a way to make a sustained contribution to an organisation

Working as a mentor Chris has found that often change isn’t about instant impact and quick fixes but is about offering specific, longer lasting support.

“I initially signed up because I wanted to do something that makes a difference in the community but also challenge myself too. Mentoring seemed like an ideal fit. It was an opportunity contribute in a way that felt deeper than a one-off volunteering project, a way to make a sustained contribution to an organisation and to learn something new in the process.

“I’ve worked a range of roles at Lloyds which has given me a range of experience I felt I could bring to charity mentoring. I think we forget how many skills we learn in our professional lives that are useful outside of the office. You end up making jokes about the corporate language and tools we use, things like ‘best practice’ and ‘slide decks’ but the skills you learn in that environment are really in demand, especially in small charities.”

Using these skills Chris has been able to both have a positive impact on the charities he’s worked with but also gained a lot himself from his time as a mentor.

Chris Tucker“For me personally the experience has been really rewarding. I’ve learnt a lot from the charities and I feel they’ve appreciated my contribution. Choice in Hackney recently celebrated their 25th anniversary and as part of the celebrations I was presented with a big thank you certificate for the work I’d done. I really wasn’t expecting it – I feel like our work together has just started to get going and that I don’t deserve it yet, but it’s great to know they feel my support has been helpful.

“If anyone was thinking about becoming a Charity Mentor my response would be do it. As a LBG employee there’s lots of opportunities to volunteer and support great causes but I think mentoring is definitely one of the best.”

You can find more inspiring stories about our mentoring programme here.

If your charity is funded by the Foundation and would like a mentor contact your Grant Manager for more information.