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Charities need to meet people as equals

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  • Picture of Alex Fox FRSA
    Alex Fox FRSA
  • Communities
  • Public services

Many charities, like many households and businesses, are in survival mode.

Despite an increase in volunteering, fundraising and income have plummeted. But this isn’t a time for the sector to hunker down. Our long-term challenges – reputational and financial – haven’t gone away. Now more than ever, everyone who works for a charity needs to ask themselves how we must change to create a better future.

I believe we need to embrace making decisions together with the people we help. This starts by looking for people’s and communities’ strengths, assets and potential – not just their needs and problems. (This is called ‘asset-based thinking’.)

This starts with making decisions together (sometimes called ‘co-production’), because how we work is as important as what we do. And that how ‘we’ work is fundamentally about who ‘we’ are. Who is allowed in the room when we make decisions?

My new report with NCVO and the RSA, Meeting as equals: creating asset-based charities which have real impact, explores how we can make this change happen by talking to the charities who have done it – even in the most challenging of circumstances.

Making decisions together

Take Slung Low Arts. A theatre company which was already sharing its space with a working man’s club, it has now become a food bank for 7,500 households. In the words of co-founder Alan Lane, “My desire to make a big piece of outdoor theatre is irrelevant if people are too hungry to come to a play.”

This change came about when Covid hit and the team thought ‘what do we do now?’ Rather than decide that amongst themselves, they posted a letter through the nearest 200 doors to say ‘we are here, we have transport, what do you need?’. Crucially, they were willing to be led by the responses.

Slung Low

Another example is Recovery Connections. They believe the key to providing a more personalised substance misuse recovery service is that people with lived experience make up the majority of the team at every level.

CEO Dot Smith told me about working with what she calls the ‘messiness’ which can come with high levels of trauma in a team. But it’s embracing and valuing that humanity which has enabled Recovery Connections to be one of the few services of its kind to be rated as outstanding by the Care Quality Commission.

Finally, my own organisation – Shared Lives Plus. We support a national network of Shared Lives carers and Homesharers who share their homes and family lives with people seeking supportive householders. The 170+ local organisations who are part of our network coordinate supportive shared living for over 15,000 people. We’ve seen how more human, personal and deeply community-embedded forms of support can not only be safer and more effective during the pandemic, but part of creating more inclusive and active communities at a time of growing isolation and loneliness.

It’s not just about being willing to talk about new approaches, but also about being able to talk with a new group of co-decision makers. Co-production is the first step in embedding a culture of charities looking for assets, potential, and ways to build them.

Shared Lives Plus

Facing the challenges charities face

Charities don’t just need to overcome our immediate financial challenges. We need to recognise and engage with the reputational, public trust and financial crises we were facing as a sector before the pandemic hit. Those issues haven’t gone anywhere.

Some were rooted in the difficulties of running organisations which can be complex, large and under financial pressure, while demonstrating the close relationships with community and the very human ethos which all of us expect from charities.

Many charities rose to that challenge and won large public service contracts. They responded to the pressure on charities to professionalise and become more commercial and competitive.

But after ten years of government funding shrinking far below the level needed for consistently exceptional quality, and some private sector organisations co-opting the language of community to talk about their customers, the challenge now is for charities to demonstrate that we are different. That we can draw on community action just as much as service expertise and that we can work in ways which drive the social changes we call for.

Can a charity deliver government-contracted services and run genuinely independent campaigns? Can a financially struggling organisation become more commercial as well as more community-rooted? I believe that they can.

A concept underpinning asset-based thinking is the idea that some things we see as scarce are in fact abundant when we change our approach. Power and resources are not zero-sum. When we set out to combine the resources and expertise of charities with the resourcefulness and care of communities, we can create organisations which build community capacity and which make a compelling cost-benefit case to those commissioners willing and able to listen.

In the charity sector, we like to say that we ‘speak truth to power’. We must also recognise the power we have amassed ourselves - even at a time when our resources, capacity and influence can feel diminished.

The ‘asset-based’ charity will share its platforms, access, research expertise and resources with communities in support of the issues which feel most important to them, demanding less control in return.

When we look for ways of sharing our own power with those we purport to represent, our combined voices can be louder and the message more urgent.

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