Fortitude, tenacity and consistency: celebrating seemingly unremarkable people and organisations doing remarkable things in the Voluntary Sector

Paul Streets, CEO at Lloyds Bank Foundation

As we mark 30 years of funding small and medium-sized charities, we’ve developed an Awards Programme that celebrates and showcases their important work. We recently announced our regional winners across six categories. The differences between these categories, programmes and pitches is both interesting and refreshing: it reflects the diversity and richness of what people do with the support we give them. Two categories that particularly shone for me were Unsung Heroes and Against The Odds. Each one remarkable.

The first a set of stories about individuals. Volunteers who have been the bedrock of organisations – sometimes as founders, sometimes just in being there to do whatever, whenever. People who been through their own personal hell, come out the other side and have then accomplished more than they might ever have achieved without adversity by choosing to use their own journeys to help others. Often people who have turned adversity into a personal asset which they have shared with others.

In July we had a reception at the Senedd where we announced the Welsh winners (pictured above). The ‘Unsung Hero’ for Wales, Sarah Baker from TOGs Centre talked so positively about how her son’s Angelman’s Syndrome had been such a positive driver for her. If you could paint a kind of aggregated pen picture of such volunteers it would be one of fortitude, tenacity, consistency – often over years and years – and massive optimism that people can come through whatever life throws at them. In some respects seemingly unremarkable people doing remarkable things.

If you could paint a kind of aggregated pen picture of such volunteers it would be one of fortitude, tenacity, consistency…seemingly unremarkable people doing remarkable things.

The second set of stories about organisations and what they’ve done to pull through …sometimes more than once – uncomplaining, often in the face of big cuts or losing big contracts – which they report without anger just as facts – to find a new way forward. Boards and CEs refreshed. New money sought. New purpose and direction found. The twinkles shine through the text. A pen picture that would echo collectively that of the individual Unsung Heroes.

I am struck by the juxtaposition between those stories and the vision George Osborne set out in the July Budget and in launching the Spending Review. The government has argued that even after five years of austerity, cuts of 25–40% in a whole range of key public services should still be possible. Things feel just about OK, so why not do more?  After all, it is argued crime is down – despite cuts to the Police they have managed. Allegedly the public report high satisfaction with public services.

And indeed that’s probably true for many people. The odd extra pot hole perhaps. For many of us we’ve still got secure jobs, homes, the dustbins get collected, my local library is still there, my trains have even improved and will do even further as I crawl past the billions being spent to improve London Bridge, and my parents have had fantastic care through the NHS.

Now of course there has long been a divide between those who “have” and are OK and those who “haven’t” and are far from. The welfare state, public services and the voluntary sector have always, separately and together, been part of helping to narrow the gap and help the “have nots”. But the money to do so will remain in short supply.

The recent NCVO Financial Sustainability Report projects a £4.6bn shortfall in voluntary sector income in the next few years – largely driven by a reduction in Government funding. At one level that’s only about 10%. Sounds doable. But if you read below the headline figures, there has been a significant redistribution of the sector’s spending power from smaller to larger organisations. In the last few years the small/medium-sized charities we fund have seen a 30% cut in Government funding. The next few will likely see something similar…so over about six to eight years they’ll likely see any government funding they receive roughly halve and the challenge of winning increasingly competitive public service contracts means what flows to them may well be even lower.

Charities have been positively likened to cockroaches in their ability to withstand a nuclear war and continue. But we want good charities to not just survive but thrive.

Charities have been positively likened to cockroaches in their ability to withstand a nuclear war and continue. But we want good charities to not just survive but thrive – Our Against The Odds category demonstrates that. But these are the best, alongside the other 121 charities which won or were highly commended at a regional level. There are 36,000 small/medium charities working in health and social care alone – around 160,000 in total.

Foundations have a vital role to play here as the level of grants we provide now matches that from Government – leaving us as one of the few remaining sources of vital unrestricted funding. Whether we like it or not as Foundations that gives us extra responsibilities – to think about the accessibility and distribution of our grants across the country and against need.

But we also need to find a way to speak these truths about the sector to power. Maybe Central Government has no money anymore, but it can recognise the vital role of the sector in reaching those who are not seeing any light at the end of their tunnels.

Maybe Central Government has no money anymore, but it can recognise the vital role of the sector in reaching those who are not seeing any light at the end of their tunnels.

It does have the power to seek for the money left to reach the right places through the right ways. But for that to happen it needs a narrative for the sector which is sadly absent.

Too often the voluntary sector is allowing its story, purpose and achievements to be told, or indeed mis-told by others. It is striking that no-one is telling a positive story about the sector and in particular what small and local charities are doing day-in day-out to help the people who need it most to get back on their feet and rebuild their lives. But these charities cannot have a voice if they don’t exist.

These charities cannot have a voice if they don’t exist.

If I sound angry I am. But anger has always been a big personal motivator in my work on different ‘lost’ causes through the years.

And all hope is not lost.

If we honestly believed this Government didn’t care – as some in the sector have said to me – then perhaps it would be.

But David Cameron has been noted as a person driven by a motivation for social reform. George Osborne’s commitment to a higher minimum wage is a clear sign that this government can take ideas from across the political spectrum and be influenced by evidence and effective campaigning (Living Wage Foundation and all who have supported and worked with it take a bow).

Yes, we need to hold the Government to account… but most of all we need to work with them to find a way to ‘socially reform’ which can work for those who know better than they ever will: our Unsung Heroes battling Against the Odds.

It is them we betray if we keep quiet and continue to wring our hands because it’s oh so difficult…

…if they had  done the same and not responded to the call to help their fellow citizens we’d have no charities and no-one to give Awards to.

A new dialogue for the voluntary sector

By Paul Streets, CEO at the Lloyds Bank Foundation

After decades of (relatively) safe London cycling….a three minute ride to my local choir in a sleepy East Sussex village and a wet manhole cover, did it for me. The full Casualty – even on a Wednesday Night! Blue lights, A&E, multiple scans, fractured skull, scapula, clavicle etc. And spectacular facial cuts and bruises …worthy of Halloween.

Enforced confinement gave me the opportunity to ponder the nature of big and small organisations – having contributed singlehandedly to the NHS overspend through the array of treatments.

Well. Everything that the Localities ‘Diseconomies of scale report’ last year tells me is right. Large organisations pass you from pillar and post (six specialists so far and still counting two months later) and, as part of that, consider you as an exercise in anatomy and different organs, rather than a whole person. Work gets missed because no-one knows who is responsible for what or assumes someone else has done it (spinal scan four hours after I’d been laid out without a neck brace – it was fine!); duplicate effort (everyone in the NHS knows my name, rank and number by heart); repeat communications (no specialist seems to have spoken to any other so I become the means of transmission) and systems that make the easiest things the hardest and most stressful.

Earlier in the year, I reread the seminal work by E F. Schumacher ‘Small is Beautiful’. He perfectly describes this. Writing in 1973 he states ‘Even today, we are generally told that gigantic organisations are an inescapable necessity: but when we look closely we can notice that as soon as great size has been created there is often a strenuous attempt to attain smallness with bigness’. This is exactly true of the organisation of professional teams within the NHS.

But there’s an important rub….it may be chaotic, disconnected and disembodied but it works. Albeit like a set of organs on the dissection table rather than a whole person. Specialists do their thing and you’re grateful they know what they’re talking about and are expert because we have a professional education and regulation system that ensures standards. You do get referred to the right places – eventually.

Whilst you’re laid up they take over by checking, feeding, medicating/checking, feeding; medicating/checking. And reassuring you by telling you what you’re experiencing is normal.

Interestingly, as Shumacher suggests, what’s most impressive is the small team work. Ambulance team – utterly amazing, compassionate and professional. A&E team – ‘we can fix you – you may think you look terrible – we’ve seen worse’. Surgical assessment….lull you into a calm sense of routine which is what you need.  The small teams visibly work in spite, or ignorant of, the dysfunctional system of which they are a part. Schumacher wouldn’t be surprised.

So as a Foundation which has put at the core of its new strategy  supporting small and medium sized (sub £1m) charities does it mean anything? It tells me we need to be clear when small is beautiful and why?

What ‘small’ might have done is treat me as a whole person with a one stop shop that meant I didn’t have to navigate my own very complex and confusing journey. Or it might have become the translator, mediator and advocate if I needed that. It might have considered my mental and longer term health post hospital needs….as well as my acute needs at crisis. And stuck with me beyond the critical few days by making the connections needed to make things happen. Offering the post acute basic needs that mean so much when you’re vulnerable: a decent meal, comfy bed, peace and quiet, rest and no pressure – that rely on family and friends. The voluntary effort rather than the professional.

In the context of our strategy it would probably have dealt with my ‘transition’ far more effectively. These are the things that we need to argue for when we make the case for small charities and their worth. They feel exactly right for people who are vulnerable – often without networks and support.

But we should also be clear when the specialist and large service has its place. Much as the NHS shares the dysfunction of all large entities, I’m sure as hell I wouldn’t have wanted to live this experience through a collection of a dozen different small charities.

Now, I am told that a head injury causes some strange effects so I am going to use my ‘concussion syndrome’ to give license to some personal opinions which may not be shared. In my view, for too long a part of the voluntary sector – and some of its leaders – have argued for level ‘playing fields’ with the inference almost that the sector should take over the state. Their arguments have fallen into the favour of politicians of left and right with dubious motive – or dangerous naivety. Naivety which has done those we wish to reach no favours…because the ‘level playing field’ argument has been far more effectively deployed by the private sector at immense cost to individuals. This was borne out on a visit earlier in the year to a South Devon CAB where we were supporting appeal work (almost always successful) against a large private sector work programme provider assessing whether disabled people could go back to work (bitter sweet for those affected perhaps but they subsequently lost their contract. Even the Daily Mail got angry about the impact on disabled people).

Much as I like the analysis in Locality’s report there is a danger of them also falling into the same trap. With their excellent critique of state provision for people with complex needs they potentially risk not recognising the ‘horses for courses’ argument about when the state and scale can work. Personally I don’t believe the (current) voluntary sector will ever achieve scale and standardisation when it’s really needed as the best option – even the very largest charities in Britain are minnows compared to the size of the public sector – except perhaps in real niche areas.

The voluntary sector at its best is the defender of individuals when scale services fail them (like the South Devon CAB) or ignore them or ‘standardise’ them. We may do worse than look back at some of the things that Schumacher says as a start point. He talks about the need for both freedom and order and states ‘the centre can easily look after order: it is not so easy to look after freedom and creativity’. If we use my analogy – my effective treatment needed order and standards. No thank you ‘creative and free’ medical staff. Creative and free was what I needed when the ‘order’ was done with me!

I believe we urgently need a new (post Big Society?) dialogue about why and when the Voluntary Sector works. But equally importantly when it doesn’t.

With our historic work and reach as a Foundation (30 years; 42,000 small charities; £350m) and our new strategy (promoting practical approaches to lasting change) we are perhaps uniquely placed to contribute to that. As part of our new strategy we aim to develop our national impact to influence policy and practice by looking to generate, challenge and provoke debate around this crucial issue. Making the case for the VCS – and in particular for the small and local VCS – as key tools in tackling disadvantage. That case will be all the stronger if it recognises that small isn’t always beautiful.

As we develop our programmes, thinking and actions further I hope this blog will be the first of many. I hope they provoke thought and debate that you’ll engage with us. We all need to be open to new ideas and ways of working and thinking as we grapple with the shared challenges of most effectively tackling disadvantage against a background of austerity and ever greater complexity in the social issues we face together.