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Opinions and insights from the Rocket Science team

Tough at the top for a trustee

Tough at the top for a trustee

Becoming a trustee of a community organisation or member of a management committee can be both rewarding and daunting in equal measure.  I have been a trustee in a number of organisations of various sizes and reach and have found my experiences to be very different in all cases including setting up a community organisation as well as helping to close one down.

Reflecting on these experiences, and regardless of the size of the organisation I have learned the importance of

  • having clear roles and accountability,
  • a trusted and respectful relationship between trustees and
  • above all remaining focused on the purpose of the organisation and protecting the interests of the people and communities they were serving.

Many of the organisations I work with on a day to day basis are predominantly small, work for and are based in local communities and are mainly run by volunteers with some paid staff.  They often comment on their difficulty in recruiting new trustees as well as helping the organisation move forward, particularly at a time where money and funding is tight but not feeling able to make change for fear of failure, lack of resource and sometimes lack of energy.  I am sure many organisations feel this way whether they are large or small.

As a trustee it can definitely feel tough at the top!

When you are reviewing your governance arrangements or going through some form of change and transition (i.e. a new direction, project) or recruiting new people to your board getting the following three things right will ensure a much more effective outcome for your organisation:

Clear roles and accountability

This is obviously important, but you need to make sure that you are using your skills and expertise appropriately and spread work equally amongst the board so that individuals do not feel overburdened with responsibility. It also helps share expertise.  Where you have gaps in skills actively recruit people to fill those gaps or use short-term volunteer support instead.

A trusted and respectful relationship

When new people join or you are just beginning spending time building your relationship is really important.  It took me quite a few months to find my feet in my first trustee role, it felt very overwhelming at the beginning and I was not effective until about four months into my role.

You must also think about how you work together as a team and how you behave as all of these things impact on the effectiveness of your meetings and your ability to make good decisions.  Remember being challenging is important but not for the hell of it and making a decision (positive or negative) is better than going around in circles from meeting to meeting.

Remain focused on the purpose and interests of the communities you are supporting

And finally, but probably most importantly is making sure that every decision you make as a trustee is in the best interests of the communities you are supporting.  This might appear to be an obvious statement, but I have seen some instances where decisions made at the board level should have been taken earlier or been entirely different.  This would have avoided some of the challenges and difficult decisions that came later on down the line.

There are many tools and products to help organisations move forward, find out more about how Rocket Science can help here  or get in touch with Caroline Masundire. 

What about Dorothy? How our services fail the vulnerable

What about Dorothy? How our services fail the vulnerable

Dorothy is 94, living alone, her husband died 25 years ago and with no children or family living near she relies on a telecare kit, an hour of care a day and more recently a meals on wheels service which brings her a meal to microwave each day. Her next door neighbour gets her some shopping each week and she relies on the good will of the other residents in the block to help her out.

Last Tuesday she had another fall, trying to get up from her chair to get to her bedroom.  She had called an ambulance, but it had not arrived, so she rang my partner, who lives nearby to come and help her.  Within ten minutes he had arrived but could not get in as the carer who attended that day did not replace the key in the secure box.  So she had to shuffle her way on her knees to the door to open it for him.  The ambulance men arrived a little later but decided she was well enough to remain at home. This is not the first time she has fallen.

Earlier in the summer we received an anxious call from her, she had arrived back from hospital the previous day after a fall earlier in the week (something down to blood pressure and medication).  She had spent the last twenty four hours without electricity or heating, her services had been turned off whilst she was away but no one had checked to turn them back on when she was sent home.  She had not eaten anything as the food in the fridge had gone off and she could not make herself a hot drink.  My partner went to help her, turned the utilities back on and brought her some provisions to help see her through.  She decided to pay for meals on wheels so she would not be put in that situation again.

When we saw her a couple of days later she said she was ok, but really missed cooking for herself and really wanted to eat some pasta.  So every time we make a bolognese we do a portion for her and buy her some ready meals when we go shopping if we remember.

We popped round to see her on Saturday to see how she was doing and if she needed anything.   She was still aching from her fall but was getting worried about her money situation.   She uses cheques to pay for bills and to get money out (through another neighbour who does her shopping).  But she had only one cheque left, our first reaction was that perhaps her replacement book had been stolen, banks usually send these out automatically.  We rang the bank for her and after ten minutes of the usual automated system we got through to a person.  I explained the difficulty of the situation, Dorothy has hearing problems and cannot see very well.  But we had to go through security questions and explain to Dorothy that she needed to respond.  Some half an hour later the adviser spoke to us and explained that the bank does not send out chequebooks, this policy stopped some time ago and they have to be requested by phone or in person at the bank. We explained about Dorothy’s situation but there is nothing they could do, other than rely on someone to order a book with her next time.

Reflecting on Dorothy’s situation made me realise how difficult her life is made.  She wants to remain independent in her flat, something all public service organisations want as it is much cheaper than providing full time care in a home.  Her carers are all different, so she does not get the chance to form a relationship or bond with them, sometimes she cannot tell who is a carer as they change so often.  Her reliance on her neighbours means that she can live her life, but these neighbours are also getting older and more frail and likely to need support too in the future.  The local area is changing, flats are being taken over by private landlords and people are coming and going, so it is much harder to know and build a relationship with a neighbour.  Her financial situation makes her vulnerable to people who may use the opportunity to take advantage of this.  There is no other support for her.

And I have to ask myself why are we not getting the basics of living right for those older and more vulnerable people in our society? 

Personally I think we (policymakers, commissioners and funders) are so caught up with chasing the next big thing in public service design, responding to cuts, reducing demand and looking to scale and replicate what works, that we are neglecting to get the basics and fundamentals right.   Impact maps, disruptive innovation, innovation in technology, social action what do all these things mean to people in situations like Dorothy?

Situations where you cannot scale and replicate support that requires such individual attention or people are living in areas where there is a clear deficit in social and community capital and little motivation or investment to help stimulate it.  Where technology serves to frustrate rather than enhance someone’s life and your ability to survive and remain independent is at the mercy of the goodwill and trustworthy nature of your neighbours or family (if you have one).

We need to reboot our thinking and actions and we need to do it quickly and when we are looking at designing an approach, fund or service then ask ourselves a fundamental question before we go ahead… what about people like Dorothy?

Till next time
Caroline Masundire

Change for good?  The increasing role of the private sector in supporting civil society

Change for good? The increasing role of the private sector in supporting civil society

Earlier this year, the Report of the Independent Commission on the future of local infrastructure, Change for Good made a series of recommendations to try to ensure that, despite further cuts in public funding, support for civil society organisations is sustained for the common good.  It recognised, however, that “a call for more money and a return to the previous status quo were out of the question.”  By highlighting the emergence of new forms of infrastructure and resourcing for civil society, the Commission’s Report gave some truth to the maxim that austerity can be the mother of innovation.  The Commission also argued that responsibility for the implementation of Change for Good rested with others who could more easily tailor future infrastructure to the needs of specific places or communities of interest.  Taking up that challenge, a group of London Funders are commissioning a detailed assessment of the future of civil society support in the capital.  Whoever carries out the work is required, not surprisingly, to have a “good understanding of civil society and its existing infrastructure in London” but also, in a clear sign of the times, an understanding of “what the private sector can offer.”

Rocket Science’s recent reviews of VCS infrastructure, both in London and other parts of the country (eg Buckinghamshire, Barnsley,  Sheffield and Knowsley) and the way civil society organisations seek and engage support, show a significant role being played by support services other than Councils for Voluntary Service, including the private sector.  This confirmed a trend we noticed when conducting research for the Big Lottery Fund (“Supporting Change and Impact”) to assess the different sources of external advice and support used by Civil Society Organisations.  In our survey of 300 organisations (2013) we found that whilst around a third (37%) of grant-holders received support from their local Council for Voluntary Service, almost two thirds (63%) opted to source support from a consultancy or freelance.

Change for Good graph
Supporting Change and Impact Evaluation – Big Lottery Fund 2013: Where organisations choose to go for support

 

Change for Good does comment on the role of the private sector in supporting and investing in civil society.  However, its recommendations to business (eg “work with your local infrastructure bodies to implement your corporate social responsibility strategy” or “deploy the skills of your workforce for the benefit of local charities and communities”) seemed to be a decade or more behind the times.  The report failed, for example, to reflect on the way far-reaching changes to the delivery of public services in the UK have become a significant driver for businesses to engage and interact with certain civil society organisations, albeit for commercial as much as charitable purposes.

A steady blurring of the distinctions that traditionally existed between the public, private and voluntary sectors has been one effect of three decades of opening up of public service contracts to providers irrespective of their legal form.  The process has been given further impetus by the new government’s championing of a bigger stronger society”;  private companies which have benefited from this considerable market, and a relatively low-tax business environment, are  being strongly encouraged by government to reciprocate, not only by demonstrating their corporate social responsibility, but also the additional social value they can bring to the delivery of public services.

The increasing outsourcing of services in employment, criminal justice and now health has had the possibly unintended consequence of developing new sources of support for certain voluntary organisations and charities.  Civil Society Organisations which have been able to work with lead or “prime” private-sector contractors have, to a varying degree, benefited from the latter’s recognising the value of investing in their supply chains, including specialist VCSE providers.

Rocket Science has worked with a number of the prime contractors of both employment services (eg the Work Programme) and criminal justice (eg Transforming Rehabilitation).  Whilst we are aware of different approaches which these companies use to win large public-service contracts by offering to invest in civil society, it would be beneficial as part of any future redesign of infrastructure to ascertain the true scale and value of such investment, whilst also recognising its inherent flaws and weaknesses.  Relying on the business winners in an increasingly cut-throat, public-service market to provide support for selected civil society organisations is risky, potentially divisive and could severely compromise one of the central tenets of the sector, its independence.

Instruments like the Social Value Act, the intention outlined in the Conservative Party’s Manifesto (2015) to encourage more  employee volunteering and the increasing interest in local place-based giving initiatives, are all aspects of an ecology of cross-sector working and different sources of investment which has considerable implications for the way elements of civil society may access support in future.  To this effect, there has been a proliferation of intermediary and brokerage organisations which match private companies with civil society organisations.  For example, in London alone, East London Business Alliance; Heart of the City; City Action and Team London as well as local, borough models like Business and Community Together in Kensington and Chelsea, or Love Kingston pair companies with charities, source employee volunteers and introduce business skills to community organisations. This is a fast maturing market place, but it is no panacea for the cuts to publicly-funded support for civil society.  The potential, but also the limitations and motivations of private sector investment have to be far better understood in any assessment of the future of infrastructure and the need for continued support for Civil Society Organisations.

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science and Trustee of London Funders

Health – a question of Sport?

Health – a question of Sport?

Give health a sporting chance

So the NHS is going to be bankrupted by an obesity epidemic, participation in physical activity despite the ‘olympic effect’  has fallen prompting a government consultation into why this is the case and sitting at your desk all day is bad for your heart. We instinctively know all of this, exercise is good, excess calories are bad, lethargy leads to illness and sugary foods lead to obesity.  The correlation between inactive and unhealthy lifestyles and costs on health services is well documented but reversing this negative impact is much harder and more complicated than we realise.

For those of you that know me, you would probably be forgiven for thinking that I am not that interested in sport per se.   Back in the early noughties and in the days of area-based funding programmes and ‘action zone-itis’ of the first Blair government, I ran an action learning and  development programme over three years for Sport Action Zones, (SAZ).  These worked in a number of areas across England to raise the participation levels of communities in sports and physical activities.  The programme had a lot of success in raising participation, not least because of the partnership approach and linking of sport to other funding pots and wider social outcomes.  The new Sports Minister,  Tracey Crouch could learn a lot from the SAZ experience, in that structures to make it happen and investment to make participation sustainable needs to be in place. But its not just about funding and infrastructure.

My experience of sport, like many others, was informed from my school days. Being a plump child and not particularly good at anything, I was often left standing in my aertex top, plimsolls and chest high PE knickers in the blistering rain, waiting to be picked reluctantly by a fit, competent team captain.

My PE teachers were not much better, their focus was on winning coveted inter-school competitions and stragglers and poor performers like myself were, at best, tolerated and at worst ignored.  My parents could not have been more disinterested in sport and did not encourage any of us to take part in activities.  So if  campaigns like This Girl Can were around in my day, I am sure this would have motivated me and many others who had little direction and role models to keep on trying.

It was based on my experiences that I was determined that my children would find an interest in some form of physical activity, to ensure that my history did not repeat itself. My daughter found kick-boxing and my son found football, despite neither of them having a good experience with sport at school.  This meant lots of trips, forgoing Saturday and Sunday mornings to ferry him around to matches and events and the cost of replacing equipment particularly football boots every few months to cope with ever expanding feet.  My kids continue in physical activity now they are older and I put this down to them having opportunities and a supportive single parent with sufficient resources to make it happen.

It should come as no surprise that my conclusions about healthy and active lifestyles are rooted in our early experience and dependent on the following conditions:

  • Parents/Guardians have to play a critical role in encouraging, supporting and motivating their children to take part in activities, regardless of their abilities
  • Parents/Guardians have to have the time and financial resources and access to transport to support this participation
  • Schools need to work with parents/guardians and recognise the value that extra-curricular activities have on a child’s development and reinforce positive messages about participation regardless of ability.

Taking this further, active participation in physical activity in adulthood comes down to having the time, resources and confidence to take part.  I discovered I was a reasonable swimmer in my thirties and really enjoyed it, swimming up to three miles a week.  But sustaining it was a problem because of working, commuting and family commitments which meant that something had to give way in my life. Now some of those responsibilities have abated I am looking to start swimming again but the cost of using a private gym where I can be guaranteed of a lane is going to set me back a pretty penny. 

But participation is also linked to facilities that fit around people’s lifestyles and culture. A small group of muslim women I work with really want to take part in women only swimming sessions, but lack of transport, cost and suitability of the facilities have so far served as barriers for taking part. They are not a big enough group to make it worthwhile for a dedicated session and will find a regular routine difficult to maintain with their caring responsibilities.  The costs of setting something up to cater specifically for these needs would be seen as disproportionate.

My point is that raising participation is not easy, when you factor in personal choice, family circumstances, resources and access.

European Sports Week starts in earnest in a couple of weeks time building european-wide momentum to drive sports participation.  And small grant programmes like Freesport we manage on behalf of the Mayor for London provide an essential lifeline to communities to take part in local activities.  But if we are to reverse the health challenges facing us through physical activity then we need a coordinated approach and one where we can make a generational difference.  Lets start with families and schools.

Caroline Masundire

Bigger and stronger?  How will the third sector fare under the new Government?

Bigger and stronger?  How will the third sector fare under the new Government?

So George Osborne’s July Budget has been and gone.  Did it tell us much about future funding of the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector?

The answer is not really.  There were, of course, many announcements that will have an impact on VCSE organisations’ beneficiaries.  But for actual funding details, it’s probably going to be September’s spending review when we learn this kind of detail.

There is, however, plenty that we do know about the direction of the Government’s VCS policies.  First, at a ministerial level, there’s continuity, with the Coalition Minister, Rob Wilson, re-appointed to the role.  After the Brooks Newmark imbroglio last year, a bit of continuity is probably no bad thing.

Secondly, Rob Wilson gave a speech in June on the theme of building civil society together.  This sets out a four point plan for working with and funding VCS organisations.  Before we get onto that plan though, there’s an important announcement to make: the Big Society is dead.  Back in April, I was quizzically surprised by the resurgence of the Big Society in the Conservative manifesto.  But it was a dead cat bounce: in 2,000 plus words of the Rob Wilson speech, there is no mention of Big Society.

Instead we have a “bigger stronger society” – all lower case, no capitals.  But, like its predecessor, a bigger stronger society seems rich on rhetoric and short on cash…  The one bit of new funding is a Local Sustainability Fund for high-impact charities and social enterprises.  However, this has been long expected (it was first announced in early 2014) and, indeed, seems to have halved from £40m to £20m.

However, we have long known that the Government regards itself as an enabler rather than a funder of the VCSE, so perhaps this lack of cash is only to be expected.  Which brings us to the four point plan.  I think the easiest thing is just to quote directly from the speech:

“This is our plan:

“First, we need a confident and capable voluntary sector, armed with the skills it needs to meet the challenges ahead.

“Second, we want to see more social action and volunteering, with community participation embedded in our lives from school days onwards.

“Third, increased levels of giving, and more social investment, helping people who want to use their money to transform lives to connect to organisations who can put those funds to work.

“And fourth, stronger, more resilient, more capable and more empowered communities.”

 

All of these aims are, of course, laudable.  The tricky bit, equally obviously, is achieving them.  It will be, perhaps, most interesting to see if the Government can help effect a shift in the levels of volunteering in the UK.  Right near the end of the speech, the Nesta-led (and Cabinet Office-funded) Cities of Service initiative gets a name check for its work in seven UK local authorities.  This was a scheme started in New York in 2009 and now including 170 Mayors in cities with a combined population of over 50m.  If this initiative can achieve the level of change it’s had in the States, maybe we will start to see a step change in volunteering levels.

So as the new Government settles in, the direction of its policies for VCSEs is certainly becoming clearer.  We might have to wait until September, though, to see what — if any — cash there is to help VCSEs down this path.

 

For more information contact James Turner

BIG Assist approved supplier

BIG Assist approved supplier

Rocket Science announced as BIG Assist approved supplier

BIG Assist is a programme for infrastructure organisations in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector; delivered under contract to the Big Lottery Fund by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

The programme works to support infrastructure organisations based in England, to be more efficient, effective, sustainable and better able to adapt to the current and future operating environment. For more information on the BIG Assist programme visit the BIG Assist website: www.bigassist.org.uk

Rocket Science have been approved as a BIG Assist Supplier to offer support to infrastructure organisations. We can be found in the BIG Assist ‘marketplace’ here

This recognition builds on the work we have done supporting a range of voluntary sector organisations and infrastructure to support their organisational development and resilience as well as their impact and income modelling.  You can find out more about our range of support here.

For more information contact James Turner in our Newcastle office or Caroline Masundire in our London office.

Is the third sector in Glasgow facing a boiled frog moment?

Is the third sector in Glasgow facing a boiled frog moment?

Richard Scothorne writes for the Glasgow Centre for Population Health on his perspectives facing the third sector in Glasgow following a recent review conducted by Rocket Science.

You can access the blog through this link on the GCPH website ….. or read on.

Is the third sector in Glasgow facing a ‘boiled frog’ moment? | Glasgow Centre for Population Health

Our recent research, commissioned by the GCPH, on the status of Glasgow’s third sector workforce revealed some stark facts. Third sector incomes are going down and demands on the sector are going up.

We came across lots of staff who were both dedicated and distressed – they were working harder because they remained committed to their clients. They still got reward from their jobs because they felt they were making a difference, but they wondered how much longer the squeeze could go on before something gave.

Organisational leaders felt that a tightening of finances was converting collaboration into competition as organisations fought for survival.

There appears little likelihood that these trends will reverse – or even slow down. What does this mean for the sector?

This looks horribly like a ‘boiled frog’ moment – referring to the anecdote that if a frog is placed in boiling water it will quickly jump out of the pot– but if put into cold water which is then slowly heated it will stay put until it is too late.

So, for me, one of the big questions from our work is ‘What can these organisations do to get on the front foot?’ The answer is not straightforward – not least because we didn’t see any convincing patterns in which approaches were working for those third sector organisations which had effective responses to the situation.

Approaches to the situation

As a veteran of various third sector Boards I have seen a range of responses to this question. These have included:

  • developing a stronger focus on doing a small number of roles really well – in other words, serious specialisation
  • ensuring that they can tell a persuasive story about the difference they make, directly and indirectly – through thorough evaluation and case studies – and so demonstrate the value they offer
  • developing strong alliances and partnerships around some important tasks and client groups
  • broadening the sources of income which might include social enterprise strands
  • merging with one or more organisations to reduce overheads and widen markets.

This is not easy stuff, particularly the last response. There are a lot of small organisations with strong teams, a clear focus and distinctive cultures and reputations. One of the strengths that small organisations can offer funders is that they can be fleet of foot and offer a highly personalised service to their clients.

Mergers, leadership and culture

But compared with larger organisations they are often incurring high overheads per client which in practice takes money away from clients and threatens their organisational survival. In principle, mergers look like the obvious solution. However, research suggests that, while there have been some notable successes, most mergers don’t work well – mainly because there is a fatal lack of clarity about leadership and culture.

And actually our impression was that the larger organisations felt under just as much pressure as the smaller ones.

So, just for starters, two questions, which I suspect third sector leaders are losing sleep about:

  • If I knew that current trends were going to continue for the foreseeable future – in terms of income and demands – what could I do to safeguard the support for my clients?
  • If I had to ensure that our current clients continued to receive a high quality service (from someone) – and that we respond to increasing demands – how could I make this happen?

….and one for the funders:

  • How can I work with my third sector partners to develop creative ways of responding to increased demands and less money – and sustain the commitment of their dedicated staff?

If this feels like a boiled frog moment to you – it may be time to jump.

Contact Richard Scothorne for more information