On why I’m a trustee (and why you should be too)

Every once in a while, when I mention that I’m a trustee, someone will say to me “Oh I’ve always wanted to do that. I think it’s something I’ll do later in my career, when I’ve got the experience.” I’m here to tell you to do it now – because you’ve got what you need, and you have no idea how much more you’ll get out of it.

I’ve been a trustee sporadically since I was 18, first for Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), then for Croft House Settlement, a community centre in Sheffield (old blog here), and now for the Family Planning Association (FPA). Each role has been completely different, and has taught me something new about myself, my skills and how to run a charity. Each one had given me the chance to be a part of something I am passionate about. So here’s what I’ve learnt.

I really like spreadsheets

Full disclosure: I got a D in maths (sorry again, Mr Rome). I didn’t really expect to like the numbers side of being a trustee. At CRAE I got my first sight of charity accounts, and got the support from staff to understand them. I quickly learnt that I enjoy the kind of attention to detail and process involved in accounts scrutiny (read: am a massive nerd).

I also learnt that I don’t have to be an actual accountant. The boards I’ve been on have had other lovely trustees who are financial experts, and staff who take the time to explain the trickier technical detail to me in a way I can understand – and could explain to others if I were asked. I need to be confident that we have clear and robust accounts, we’re working to build our income base and we’re spending our money wisely. To do that I need to take time to read, be confident to ask questions and be mindful of our mission. I don’t need to be an accountancy whizz. Being a trustee is a team game; you’ll have skills and knowledge that a board needs, whether it’s fundraising and finance, strategy and campaigning or a fresh perspective, passion and lived experience. Your skills will be balanced by all those other people’s, and you’ll help each other to pick up more along the way.

I’m passionate about the causes I support – and I can show that off

There is a lot of focus on compliance, fraud, finance and other important technical things in the press about trustees, and rightly so. But I think that can sometimes mask the role a trustee can have in promoting and celebrating the work of their charity. This is such important work, for me, and it’s also I think the stuff that attracts people to this kind of role, so we shouldn’t downplay it.  It seems kind of obvious to say I’m passionate about the things I support, but I think it’s an important first step when you’re looking for opportunities – the right one will be one you really truly care about, and that will make you a better trustee.

I’ve learnt over the years that I can support these charities well just through social media, whether that means helping a community space with its own online presence, or just being vocal about how great FPA is and how important its campaigns are. Recently I’ve also been lucky enough to attend lots of FPA events; I’m so grateful for the team for letting me come along because it gives me an opportunity to see their great work first hand, and to be a part of the movement as well. If you’re passionate about a cause and want to support a great charity in that field, then being a trustee is a great role. It means making sure the charity is in a healthy state, but it also means getting involved, throwing yourself into opportunities and representing where you can.

I’m constantly learning

There’s a great set of top tips here from existing trustees, a lot of which focus on asking questions. This can be really hard when you’re new and you think you don’t know anything, but trust me, you do, and you’ll know a lot more if you ask. Trustees and staff should take responsibility for making sure people new to the role have the right support and information to understand what’s going on, and the tools to contribute fully to the role.

One of Leon Ward’s tips is that it can take a year to really get to know a board, and I think this is absolutely right. My time at Croft House was cut short because I had to leave Sheffield, which was a shame, because after a year of hard strategy work I felt like we were really at the start of something great – but again, my fab fellow trustees were there to carry that all forward, with their own expertise and passion. That role taught me about thinking strategically and looking creatively for opportunities. My previous role at CRAE, alongside the spreadsheet thing, taught me about the importance of involving beneficiaries and supporting them appropriately. In my current role I’m building on my skills and interests and developing new ones too. This, incidentally, also makes me a better charity worker, because it helps me to think about the bigger picture, strategic relationships and competing priorities.

You don’t have to know everything there is to know about governance and strategic leadership, and you don’t have to have worked in the sector (or anywhere) for 30 years to qualify you as a trustee, because being a trustee is so much more than that. It’s an opportunity to be part of a movement, to identify and develop your skills and experience and to bring your own creativity, passion or strategic vision to the table. So, if you’ve ever thought “maybe I could” – do it!

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A blog for Alice on deepest darkest theory…

My pal Alice, campaign wizard and general all-round good sort, made the mistake a while ago of asking what my Master’s dissertation was about. So I sent it to her. And received some justifiably rude words back. Ever keen to minimize my impact, this is a (very long, but still shorter than my dissertation) blog specifically to try and explain my theory-heavy tome to her. I have blogged about strategic action fields and other ways of understanding the voluntary sector before, but this develops my thoughts on the theory further and hopefully gives you (Alice) an idea of why I’m so keen on theoretical frameworks in general, and how they affect how we talk about charities.

Why does theory matter?

First a quick bit on why I use a theoretical frame in the first place. As Alice already knows, there are different ways of looking at and understanding the world. Some people might see the world as just what’s in front of them; as researchers they might gather evidence and analyse it in ways that might be described as scientific, looking at the data and seeing what it tells them about an object of study or an intervention. Others might look at assumptions, meanings and structures that act alongside phenomena that affect and shape them, and the way we perceive them. So, the voluntary sector might be characterised by its nuts and bolts and shared attributes, or it might be explored as a set of shared meanings, power structures and other associational factors.

This starting belief about how the world works affects how you study it, what questions you ask about it and how you try to make sense of it. The central point is that theory matters because at the other end, what you produce says something about and has a bearing on real organisations and the people who work within them, because it shapes understandings, discourses and debates which in turn shape practice. The existential debates about voluntary sector independence and voice, whether we’re campaigning too much or too little, relationships with government and groups’ role in society over recent years are, in part, a product of theoretical debates about how we understand and make sense of the ‘sector’ and its place in the wider world.

This kind of work on the sector, even when it’s not the main focus, is fundamentally definitional; it sets the boundaries for what we understand and analyse as the sector. This, as Rob Macmillan says somewhere, is a political act. As such it is continuously influenced and influencing understandings, ideologies and spaces in society. So, say I take a nuts-and-bolts approach and define the sector as registered charities; there are inherent assumptions attached to such a definition – like the idea that legitimation comes from legal recognition, defined by the state; are unregistered organisations thus illegitimate? – that need to be examined, even before you get to that bit about most of ‘the sector’ being small and below the regulatory radar. That registered sector doesn’t exist in isolation from the rest of the world either; it is continuously being shaped by external events, political decisions and policy initiatives, as well as by those individuals and organisations who lead and speak for it. And by academics who write about it.

Some definitional theories rely on shared characteristics and modes of operation that go beyond the nuts and bolts, including organisational features that are distinct from those of private sector firms or public sector bureaucracies. These tend to run a serious risk of presenting a normative picture of what a voluntary organisation should look like. For me this often fails to reflect what they do look like. Too often they appeal to an ideal type grounded in a mythical and highly static golden age, which removes understanding of organisations from the changing dynamics, agendas and flows of associational activity that create understanding. It doesn’t encourage us to think about why we think, for instance, voluntary organisations should have unpaid boards, not distribute profits, a basis in membership and be acting for the public good – these principles don’t just exist, they have been constructed over years into norms of practice. Likewise there is also a question (again raised by Rob) about the extent to which ‘distinction’ is really a thing, or whether it’s an idea or construction that organisations trade on for advantage. That’s not necessarily a negative thing at all, more a useful way of considering how organisations collectively define and present themselves, and to what end.

There are many, many branches of theory used to understand the voluntary sector and what happens within it. Words like hybridity, isomorphism and embeddedness pop up on a fairly regular basis in the literature. In the interests of not taking up all of Alice’s time, however, I’m going to talk about just one here – the one that I find most exciting, and which best reflects my own experience of the voluntary sector (or maybe different bits of sector) – Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam’s theory of strategic action fields.

What’s a strategic action field?

Lots of different institutional theorists use the idea of ‘fields’; they’re described in different ways, even called different things, but they’re basically an arena in which organisations, groups or other actors come together around different things like shared goals (like existing for the public good) and organisational behaviours (say, being not-for-profit). Theories like Fligstein and McAdam’s are designed to help understand both what a field looks like, and how change happens (or doesn’t) within it. Like all theories, it builds on other people’s work that’s gone before – in this case people like Bourdieu, Webber, Giddens and other neo-institutional theorists. I’m hoping I can build on it in turn.

There are some key building blocks to this theory which are important to understand before we start thinking about applying it. The field itself is a ‘social order’ or an organised space within our social world. It is made up of incumbents and challengers. An incumbent is an organisation or actor that essentially dominates the field – sets the rules and messages and understandings, and reproduces them too. They’re basically interested in preserving the stability of the field, and their own position. When there’s a crisis they’ll seek to find a message or solution that helps them maintain their position. A challenger is likely to have fewer resources, will contest messages or ways of working, and challenge an incumbent in order to better their own position. When there’s a crisis, skilled social actors might offer alternative messages and solutions that, if they’re accepted by other actors in the field, will help them to make gains. This doesn’t mean fields are always desperate battle grounds, and it also doesn’t exclude collaboration and cooperation (there’s a kind of spectrum of fields from hierarchical to cooperative) but contestation seems to be a fairly permanent fixture. Incidentally, as Alice is a campaigner, I think this can be particularly useful for analysing the dynamics in different campaigning fields. The shared language, (implicitly) agreed methods and dominant players versus those that challenge the predominant practices are pretty easy to identify, and even in coalition campaigning there are hierarchical dynamics, often driven by resources, at play. I think we quite naturally identify these and work out how to work with (or against) them to suit our own aims – this isn’t a bad or a cynical thing, although considering it critically might help us to consider whether there are other possibilities.

Crises happen for different reasons. There might be an exogenous shock – something that happens outside of the field, like a new government after an election or a big financial crisis – that destabilises the field, and can lead to big changes in the rules of the game. Lots of voluntary sector histories are hooked on these – the ‘rediscovery of poverty’ moment in the 1960s, Thatcher’s neoliberal experiment, New Labour orthodoxy of partnership in service delivery, then the era of austerity and, arguably, political delegitimisation of the voluntary sector. These are often related to activity in proximate fields (those nearby, with links to the field you’re looking at), and proximate state fields are particularly important. This tends to place policy and ideology rather at the centre of things – Alice will start to see why this appeals to me.

But changes to fields might also come from within; because there is constant contention and jostling for position, challenges can make a difference to internal hierarchies over time. I’m quite interested in how this process happens, and the extent to which it’s measurable. For instance, I think we’ve recently seen a number of shifts in rhetoric from charities themselves on charity campaigning – both in terms of how the ‘problem’ is framed and who’s ‘to blame’ – tied up with attitudes to and relationships with Government. As much as these are legitimate conversations themselves, I think they can also be seen as part of the contention within a field still trying to reassert its role in society, in the face of a state field that’s changed the rules of the game.

The last thing that’s important to note is fields can exist within organisations, as well as being something they inhabit. You can look at, for instance, a large charity as a series of nested, hierarchically organised fields. There will be the same incumbent/challenger hierarchy, the same sets of shared goals, understandings and rules of the game, and the same type of contention over these, as within a field of organisations. I find this really useful; too often I think we talk about organisations as just being one thing – a campaign organisation, service delivery organisation, a fundraising organisation – whereas this type of frame lets us look at the multiple roles an organisation has, and the conflict and contention inherent within that.

So it’s all pretty simple really, right? Well now let’s look at the problems with it.

Is there anything this theory can’t do?

Yes, I reckon so. But I also reckon we can borrow from some other theories, and maybe recast a couple of elements, to give us a solid basis for understanding and measuring change and development in the voluntary sector.

It can’t account for consensus

Or rather it can, but the emphasis is so much on contention that this sometimes gets lost. I think it would be good to draw the consensus and joint collaborative action  side of life more, because I don’t believe that improving one’s position over another group’s is really a sole, or even prime, motivator in lots of situations.

It can’t tell everyone’s story within the field (but it could…)

This is linked to the consensus issue; is it necessary that everyone must be grouped as a challenger or incumbent, or does that leave some people out? I think creating a third category – something like ‘passenger’ – for those organisations that clearly exist within the field but don’t either lead it in the sense of an incumbent, or challenge the agreed rules, might enable a more realistic picture. These organisations would still be engaged in reproducing the status quo, through following the rules, aims and ways of working agreed and promoted by the incumbents, but because of reasons of resources, or even just satisfaction, may not engage in contention. You couldn’t reasonably call them incumbents because they do not make the decisions that shape the field, but rather go along with them and work within them.

There’s a separate but linked issue here about outsiders. I am concerned – as I am with other theories – that the work involved in boundary setting (saying who’s inside or outside of the field) is problematic. In some ways setting boundaries is a pragmatic decision that has to be made and justified. What I’m more concerned about is an organisation’s ability to say ‘nope, not me’, and where that leaves them if they do. There are radical organisations engaging in what I would still identify as associative voluntary action, and indeed which are often identified in the historical literature as such, who explicitly site themselves as outside of any ‘voluntary sector’ field (check out #solidaritynotcharity on your social media platform of choice). So where does this place them? Does including them in the field, as I’d be tempted to do, co-opt or ignore their radical identity? I’ve seen raised elsewhere the issue of larger charities benefiting from associating themselves with the strengths of small local grass roots groups; I’m not wholly convinced by this line of argument, but it’s one that needs to be considered when thinking about defining the edges of a field.

Organisations are only in one field

The way the theory is written, and usually the way it is applied, is to look at organisations as inhabiting one field. Proximate fields are important, and have knock on effects in the field you’re choosing to look at, but the complexity of existing across multiple fields isn’t really explored, as far as I can see. It is, however, touched on in an article by Taylor, Rees and Damm on the Work Programme as a sub-field of the wider employment services field. Challengers came into this field and successfully changed the rules of the game, bringing a focus on generic employability services rather than specialist ones. Private sector organisations were ready and able to react to these new rules, and reaffirm their position. Voluntary sector organisations weren’t, because they had to consider their mission and the reputational risk inherent in moving away from specialist work with a defined client base. This is surely the result of those organisations existing across different fields – in the Work Programme field, employment services, but also their sector fields. I think the theory can allow for this but it doesn’t account for it. My proposal is to borrow one part of a theory put forward by academic David Billis – the ‘prime sector’ approach – which suggests organisations will have their root in a particular field, and will act or refer to that field’s rules (Billis isn’t into fields, I’m adapting it to my needs here). I think this is a moveable feast – an organisation might choose to position itself strongly in one field over another for its own gain – which also helps to explore how different bits of an organisation can act in different fields at once. This does make it sound quite complicated, but I think as a researcher you can choose which bit to focus on within that system. And I also think it reflects a reality for organisations that do span multiple fields, and are defined by actions, goals and frames, rather than static characteristics.

It doesn’t tell us what resources are important

There is a question about how the relative importance of different resources is assessed, because this makes a huge difference to how the field is structured, and how you can realistically make sense of it. In studies I’ve looked at, authors tend to maybe pick something like income or number of contracts, or sometimes position on a published list of ‘top 50 businesses’. They’re all valid (I think the last one has a dual function of acting as a measure for relative strength, but also determining or reinforcing that strength, and the associated behaviours for success), but I think there are more abstract resources like reputation, relationships, mass appeal, and so on. I think there’s also a need to consider how class, race, gender and other factors play into field hierarchies, potentially as forms of capital (or capital deficits), but I’ve not quite worked out how.

So, are you glad you asked? Are you exhausted? I sure am. I’m sure there are other criticisms that can be levelled, and other theories that offer elements of strength to build on further (I’ve got 3 more years to find all that out. Only 3 years…) But, dear Alice, these are the principle questions the dissertation asks. I’m 100% sure I’ll come up with new problems next week.

How Rob Wilson views the sector: singing the refrain

If you’re a voluntary sector fan, you’ll probably have seen Rob Wilson’s comment piece in Third Sector magazine by now (summarised in Civil Society if you get stuck behind the paywall). Described by some as interesting, others as insightful, and by one newsletter compiler as full of good lols, there’s certainly a lot to get one’s teeth into. So here goes.

The relationships thing

Mr Wilson talks a lot about the attitudes of charities to his and the Government’s work. He says it didn’t matter to him that charities ‘might not be naturally sympathetic’, and that there was significant mistrust as he took the helm from Brooks Newmark. He was disappointed at what he characterises as ‘group think’ mentality, with a lack of ‘ideas that challenge orthodox sectoral thinking’. He advises charities to ‘get closer’ to the Conservative Party, to ‘get involved, help shape policy development and be open minded’ about the Party’s views of how things should be delivered.

He also states ‘I liked and respected the people I met from the sector, who often sat around my office table and gave me their views.’ There is, however, a serious question about who these people were, and what organisations they represented. Some top digging by Kirsty Weakly of Civil Society magazine revealed that, for instance, Wilson did not meet independently with Charity Finance Group, Charities Aid Foundation or Small Charities Coalition at all in 2016, although there was a single joint meeting on Brexit between the Minister and 11 organisations/groups, including these three. There were, of course, meetings with other charities on subjects like fundraising regulation and young people’s volunteering, but these representative bodies are specialists in cross-sector issues, with access to a membership and a duty to represent their members’ views. If they’re not allowed around the table, it is difficult to see how they can make their voices heard, dissenting or otherwise.

There is, of course, a broader point about campaigning here. There is a contradiction between Mr Wilson’s proclaimed desire to see an independent voluntary sector, and his dissatisfaction with what they’re saying. On non-sector specific issues, my experience working on social care and benefits policy was that Government had very little interest in listening to the negative impact that bad policy will have on people’s lives – even where technical issues mean the policy is unworkable. Last week’s poor response to Lord Hodgson’s recommendations on the Lobbying Act might be one sectoral example. Having a ‘relationship’ with the incumbent government doesn’t and mustn’t mean failing to challenge them on these issues. Characterising challenge as failing to have an ‘open mind’ or as ‘group think’ (by the way we’ve been told for years that Ministers like to have a single point of contact with a well-organised and articulated platform so…) seeks to de-legitimise such efforts. This needs to be challenged itself.

The funding thing

Among Wilson’s three pieces of advice is the strong statement: ‘what matters is creating new funding sources.’ This is framed in terms of long-term stretched public funds, increased independence for the sector, removing the burden from tax-payers and the need to build reputation and robust regulation, presumably so people feel more comfortable giving. Wilson seems sad that his attempts to create ‘a multibillion-pound, long-term flow of funding’, and in turn his vision of ‘a generous country and an innovative government working closely with an open-minded, well-regulated and efficient sector’ has not been celebrated by the voluntary sector.

Sector people will be quick to point out that fashionable funding practices promoted by government as new sustainable and appropriate forms  – payment by results, social impact bonds, the dominance of contracts over grants – are problematic. As Nick Davies, formerly of NCVO, now of Institute for Government tweeted in response to the former Minister’s call for a focus on funding:

He goes onto point out that, in fact, charities have done lots of work diversifying their income base and improving their balance sheets:

Government funding from things like the Libor fines has been doled out to certain selected charities, but this does not equate, in my mind at least, to sustainable, innovative or needs-driven funding. Indeed, the Libor scheme has come under fire for failing to be transparent in the way in which funds are awarded, and for not monitoring impact.  Likewise there have been questions raised about the Dormant Assets Fund; a substantial amount has been transferred to the Big Lottery Fund, some more to Big Society Capital, but a lot is still waiting to be spent.

There has been a certain amount of noise from the Department about trying to improve funding arrangements so that small and medium-sized charities are better able to compete for contracts, but comparatively little action or engagement with the sector. And so it continues to struggle, often unable to engage with social investment, compete with large charities and businesses, and battling what Lloyds Bank Foundation calls a ‘capacity crunch’. Small Charities Coalition’s submission to the Lords Select Committee on Charities Inquiry last year has more detail on these issues.

And finally, nailing my colours to the mast, I’m a firm believer that there are some things that the state should fund. Public services, an adequate and compassionate welfare safety-net, roads and rails, research (thanks again, ESRC). But also the sort of infrastructure that means voluntary organisations are able to function and improve; core costs, capacity building, actual buildings, volunteer management. All of these things are difficult to fundraise for, either from public, trust or government sources. Market solutions are not appropriate solutions for these kinds of fields. But these things benefit public services and local communities. There is room for improvement, innovation and change, sure, but those things also cost. It’s easy enough to say creating new funding streams is the one big strategic issue for the voluntary sector (not that I agree), but if you take that attitude you have to be realistic, intelligent and nuanced about exactly what that looks like for a full range of essential voluntary services, and think about the full range of funding approaches necessary. Take a look at Grants for Good for more on why, for instance, grants are good.

The framing thing

During recent budgets there has been a narrative from some sector representatives of ‘no news is good news’ – it doesn’t matter that the sector isn’t mentioned in key economic and policy speeches. It doesn’t mean Government doesn’t care. Mentions don’t equate to action. Well, that last one’s sometimes true, but where the noise from MPs and ministers (even ex-ones), is either a shut door or a public shaming this kind of framing, or lack thereof, really does matter. Wilson himself says that the ‘third’ sector is not a priority for Government. Where there is rhetoric about the role of civil society, it is left up to civil society organisations to organise and promote themselves within marketised spaces, following rules of the game that are influenced by current discourses, including those from the state.

Lots of ground about Wilson’s framing choices has already been covered here – the sector is characterised as in need of greater financial independence, greater transparency and a more open mind regarding policy approaches. Diverse income bases and transparent governance are both important things practically, but there is also a convenience for governments who may want to divest themselves of fiscal responsibility, and de-legitimise voices of dissent through onerous or unrealistic standards. There may be benefits to charities of being viewed as ‘transparent’, ‘accountable’ and ‘professional’, but these are values that shouldn’t be seen as separate from the economic context in which they are embedded. I do not view the sector as straightforwardly a ‘victim’ or co-conspirator in neo-liberalism, as some do – I think there are more complicated mechanisms at play – but I do think this framing deserves some scrutiny.

So what’s next?

It’s tempting to say ‘more of the same’ at this point, especially given the lack of room for anything non-Brexit. I know lots of good people are doing lots of good work behind the scenes and in front of the curtain trying to work with Government on charity policy, but I am less convinced than Mr Wilson that Government is prepared to listen. In other policy areas, perhaps there is more chance for engagement, and there are always different approaches to be made, both quiet and loud. And regardless of whether anyone’s listening, I’m of the firm opinion that we should always keep talking, because good messages can provide a counter-frame themselves.

From a research point of view I always like seeing new, robust and relevant explorations of discourse versus practice (which is not necessarily to say the two don’t marry up) but they can be hard to do in real time. Angela Ellis-Paine and Rob Macmillan’s work is an example I’m particularly excited about though. I hope to do more, albeit historically, myself.

Tracey Crouch MP, the new(ish) Minister, hopefully has a few years to work on sector issues, alongside other aspects of her brief. She recently launched the second ‘local charities day’, there’s likely to be much more on young people’s volunteering, and she has pledged to help the sector ‘understand’ the Lobbying Act – so far, so consistent, although there’s a suggestion that she’s frustrated with her senior colleagues over that last one. It will be interesting whether there is room or appetite for change as the administration continues.

Local community action: Birmingham Community Matters

As it’s the very last day of Volunteers’ Week 2017 today, I thought I’d share my experience of one of the bits of volunteering I’ve picked up since moving to Birmingham (I’ll tell you about all the others another time, no doubt).

Birmingham Community Matters is a ‘surgery’ style event held in different venues across Birmingham, which is run by a group of people including, among others, top community organiser Ridhi Kalaria (who has made me feel really welcome, and who has great chat about local networks – so thanks Ridhi). Today’s was at Billesley Ark, home to Malachi Family Centre: a community interest company originally founded on Christian principles, but now operating on a non-denominational basis to help whoever needs support in a ward that has some challenges (but some great assets too). It’s a fab, bright place full of enthusiastic volunteers, willing to support projects that come from the community to support the people living there – a good example of a community hub, something you hear a lot about in Birmingham, and something I might write about later. Others have been at Stirchley Baths, Ort Café, Erdington Welcome Centre, and next week’s is at Soho House. It’s a good way of getting to know bits of the city, for sure.

The surgery itself brings together lots of volunteers who think they have something to offer, some expertise or are just willing to have a chat with people who need help and advice running their own group, getting an idea off the ground or generally making their communities better. If you come looking for advice you’ll get ‘triaged’ (essentially you’ll have a quick chat about what you need help with) then joined up with someone who can offer that help. I’ve talked to people about how to get more volunteers involved and organise workloads, what different legal forms of organisation there are (still learning that one), and about really new ideas that are just starting to form – giving an outside perspective, some pointers, links and encouragement. Today I talked to someone who had identified a gap in services, and wanted to do something about it. They had all the passion, frustration and great ideas they needed, but an event like Birmingham Community Matters gave them the headspace and sounding board to start getting all that organised into the makings of a plan. I wish them all the luck in the world, and I hope I was of some use.

From a volunteer perspective it’s really minimal commitment. You can sign up to as many or as few sessions as you like – they’re usually a couple of hours in the morning or evening at an ever-increasing range of venues – and you’re just there for that time. There’s no commitment to do anything or take anything on outside of the events, although I’m naturally super keen to hear about how people and groups get on. In my view it complements and extends other forms of voluntary sector infrastructure in the city; as a model its strength is in its flexibility; it can get around to local communities and meet with very small groups, even single people with good ideas, and start conversations, plans, developments and partnerships going. It can also bring in partners to provide opportunities for networking and promoting opportunities; today there were people from the City Council who are responsible for building partnerships, networks and neighbourhoods, a Sergeant from Billesley Police, building links with local groups, and others from more established charities looking to join up their work with others. And if you’re interested in getting to know your local sector (in its widest sense) in its geographical context, and if you’re interested in seeing that process of people starting to take action and build groups and better communities – well it’s just my own research nerd heaven.

So, I’ll be back for another next week, and hopefully will be of some use. I hope you’ve all had a lovely Volunteers’ Week 2017, and a chance to reflect on and celebrate all the great work volunteers do.

Campaigning with privilege: we need to start listening

This is a blog about disability,* so I’ll start it by saying I don’t have a disability. I have layers of privilege that come with being non-disabled, and not having to fight at every turn against a society that does not understand, and often does not try to understand, what it’s like to live and work with a disability. I have learnt a lot from some campaigners who are disabled and who are carers for disabled people about that fight. I have been privileged to work with them and to learn from them, even though it’s not their responsibility to school me.

I’m writing this in response to a couple of things. Firstly, I’m currently meant to be writing an essay on power, which has made me think a lot about access; if you’ve worked in policy and public affairs you’ll know that some organisations and groups seem to get more access than others, and some issues will get further than others. It can be a struggle in a crowded market place to get your item on the agenda. Resources, relationship-building, history, timing and a myriad of other factors can make it possible, but there are structural societal barriers that make it more difficult for certain groups to make their voices heard. The voluntary sector has a key role in representing and amplifying the voice of groups, but itself works within this system, and organisations have to make sure they’re representing their particular interest group to the best of their ability. Competition for political clout among charities is an interesting if sometimes uncomfortable topic, and one I might come back to in a more academic moment.

Secondly, and more practically, I’ve been reflecting on some stuff I’ve heard about and seen when working with fellow campaigners, about the things that conspire to tilt the playing field against them (one campaigner described it as ‘sloping uphill’). Things like the extra costs of getting around – usually by taxi, often by black cab, and often with a battle to get any money back. If you’re in a professional role, Access to Work doesn’t always cover the cost of travel to meetings, and you have to pay upfront. I’ve heard one story about a disabled person fighting for months to claim taxi expenses back having been asked to sit on a patient representative group, because the internal procurement processes were so complicated. It costs a lot to live in this country if you have a disability – on average £550 extra per month – so the hidden costs of being a disabled campaigner can be prohibitive. When you’re constantly worried about your benefits being cut, it can be doubly difficult to balance those costs.**

Then there is the issue of accessibility. Last year the Houses of Parliament won an award for its ‘outstanding disability performance and commitment to disabled people’, which some of my pals found pretty funny (in a really not-funny sort of way). I will say I’ve met some lovely and supportive staff at Parliament. But I have also been with campaigners who have had their disabilities questioned by parliamentary staff because they don’t have an immediately obvious disability (they need hardware for proof, apparently). I have walked the ‘accessible’ route with a colleague with mobility problems – you have to go round behind the bins, it takes bloody ages, and you’re not allowed to sit down and rest because of security issues, which all makes it rather inaccessible. I know of times when people haven’t been able to attend events or debates because the room isn’t accessible or the classic ‘the lift is broken’ situation, and you wouldn’t believe the battles involved in finding accessible meeting spaces (unless you’re disabled or a carer or an organiser, in which case you probably will). I have heard about the impact of not being able to get to meetings, debriefs, photo calls, all those networking chats that happen over coffee because it takes so much longer for your security escort to show up, for you to get around, and because other people don’t make the time. I’ve had to be told about the fact that sometimes it involves a lot of extra physical and psychologic effort to engage, not least if you’re having to explain your disability all the time, which means people might not be able to engage for as long, or in the same physical space, or using the same methods. I’ve also recognised how often I or others haven’t taken this into account.

I write this as an ally, because I think it’s important for allies to write. It’s more important for us to listen, to do things differently and to make sure things change. People should not have to battle at every single stage for even the opportunity to be listened to. But they do, and they’ve been doing it for too long.

*This is actually a blog about some types of disability – predominantly physical. Campaigners with learning disabilities and mental ill health may share some experiences or may have unique ones, good and bad. I don’t know enough about it though, and I don’t intend to guess. Would love to hear from people who want to share though.

**I’m also very cross about PIP today. Again.

I wrote this blog with the permission of the people who’s examples I’ve used, but I don’t want to speak for them, or any other disabled people. If you’d like to share your own campaign experiences, or to challenge or add, please feel free to do so.

The Aves Report: the old debate on volunteering and public services

This month I have mostly been reading The Voluntary Worker in the Social Services, known as the Aves Report. It was named after Geraldine Aves who chaired the Committee on the nature of volunteering in this developing public sector field, set up in 1966 and reporting in 1968. If you’re an avid voluntary sector fan like me, you might have noticed this age-old debate has popped back into the narrative over the past month or so, prompted by a letter from NCVO Chief Executive Sir Stuart Etherington. Ill-disguised historian that I am, I thought it was a good time to think about what it looked like in the olden days. (It’s another long read – sorry.)

What was going on in the 1960s?

Aside from the Beatles and naughty spies and all that boring stuff, there was also a significant re-examination of the nature of social work, its organisation and the role of local government in providing it. Conversations about a multi-layered conception of social work, encompassing neighbourhood-level community work as well as case and group work, played out across reports, committees and organisations like the Younghusband Report on social workers’ roles and training (1959 – I’m cheating), Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s report Community Work and Social Change (1968) and the Seebohm Committee report on local authorities and allied personal social services (1968). This one recommended that local authorities start to take a much larger degree of responsibility for social services, proposing the creation of specific local government departments. Government was also experimenting with longish-term, community-based projects like the Urban Programme (1968) and the Community Development Project (1968) in poor neighbourhoods and areas where recent immigration had brought with it perceived changes and tensions in local places. Voluntary organisations and volunteers ran like a thread through these programmes and debates, and at the same time new voluntary organisations like the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG – 1965) and Shelter (1966) were being formed as the country ‘rediscovered’ poverty and thought they’d better do something about it.

The Aves report on the role of volunteers in personal social services at a point where there was a sense that things needed to change. As the report itself says:

Social services had become more comprehensive and more complex than ever before, and there was increasing realization of the part that they needed to play. The aims of the services were becoming more explicit; their limitations as well as their potentialities were more clearly realized… it had become apparent that only by the intelligent mobilization of every resource could society hope to realise its aspirations to meet a very wide range of human needs.

So what does it say about volunteers?

The report includes some great material on volunteer roles, frustrations, relationships with social workers and views on the support they got (or lack thereof). There’s a real sense of celebration of the role volunteers played, including their relative freedom compared to bureaucratic services, a perceived stronger focus on individuals and human needs, and the ability to offer continuity where an individual might encounter a wide range of different professionals. It is not without criticism; things like ‘’friendly’ visiting’ comes under fire where it exists without any real purpose and without adequate support from organisations, and there’s a powerful reflection from a disabled person who feels they are a ‘captive audience’, obliged to keep up conversation with their volunteer visitor. There is plenty in there, both good and bad, that will be familiar to anyone who’s volunteered or worked with volunteers.

There are also some key themes about the nature and role of volunteering in relation to the state, which is what I’m most interested in:

  • The report is absolutely clear that volunteers should not be used to replace services, and should not be expected to do jobs where normally somebody would be paid. Voluntary workers, it says, ‘should be seen as part of an overall social work plan, not as a stop-gap for lack of trained workers’. Volunteers should complement, expand and extend the work done by professional social workers and services. It isn’t prescriptive about what volunteers should and shouldn’t do, but does make a call for clearer policy and role definitions in different service areas.
  • The report doesn’t talk about prevention. Obviously it is written at a time where this is not really on the agenda in the way it is now, but nevertheless there is no question that the people receiving help from volunteers need that help. There is no idea of preventing people from needing to use services, but rather volunteers are described as reducing loneliness, providing an ‘outside world’ perspective to people in hospitals or other institutions, befriending, being a conduit for service-user involvement and so on.
  • The Committee talked to different government departments about their views on volunteering. Some departments were more engaged than others, but it generally found that there wasn’t a great understanding, and that departments would talk about volunteers and voluntary organisations interchangeably. The report recommends establishing a national volunteer ‘foundation’; Government took them up on this, setting up the national-level Volunteer Centre (and the Voluntary Services Unit too).
  • There’s a serious tension between public services recognising the potential value of volunteering as part of service delivery, and having the resources and skills to make it a reality, particularly at a time when belts were tightening. In the report’s words, ‘the feeling was that voluntary workers could be very useful of only we had time to cope with them.’ There is lots of discussion about potential solutions to this problem, but throughout there is a recognition that the only way to increase volunteering is to invest in roles and services for recruiting and supporting them.
  • Volunteer bureaux weren’t such a big thing at this time. Councils for Voluntary Service and Settlements were well-established and had important roles in recruiting and supporting volunteers, as did other service-focussed organisations, but there were only a handful of organisations dedicated to advising and advertising to people who wanted to volunteer. The report calls for a much more comprehensive network. Noting the reluctance of the general public to donate to cover admin costs, it argues this should be funded by local and/or national government, given they will reap the rewards of having local organisations in place to organise volunteer recruitment, training and management.

How does this match up with debates going on today?

Well, it’s a very different narrative. It’s the perception of the purpose of volunteering that’s important here; for Aves it is clearly about complementing and extending, whereas in much of Sir Stuart et al.’s writing it is about preventing recourse to the state – an idea with a much longer lineage. This isn’t all that surprising; Aves comes after 20 years of the state as prime deliverer (broadly speaking), whereas Stu’s speaking after 20 years of New Public Management (likewise). The policy and rhetorical environment is different, as is the dominant ideology. Sir Stuart criticises people who take an ‘ideological’ position against government cuts, but his own is far from ideologically neutral (and neither is that of Aves, or mine). It says something about how far the conversation has developed and how far these concepts have been normalised that this is being presented as an inevitable path (or even, however tongue-in-cheek, as the only thing standing between us and our new robot overlords). I think we need to view this much more critically, and be careful with how we frame things like what volunteers do, what service users want and need, and the social care crisis within the conversation – which after all is affecting lots of voluntary organisations, whose business models are becoming unsustainable or whose beneficiaries are losing the services they need. I also think we need to talk to people who’ve been at the hard end of this, because ‘more volunteering’ is never going to be a remedy to the social harm inflicted by recent policy.

It is nevertheless striking how much of what’s in the Aves report resonates today. In my personal experience being a volunteer and working with them, the complaints of 1968 are still often complaints today (although I have been privileged enough to always volunteer for fantastic organisations who support me exceptionally well). So are many descriptions of the value of volunteering, and both pieces make the point that volunteering carries costs. Etherington says ‘it is time for the sector to renew its commitment to volunteering’. I’m not sure the sector ever disavowed itself, but it is worth considering why some of the same battles are going on, what new ones are being fought, and how we can keep on fighting in the right places.

I’m still exploring some of these issues – would appreciate any challenges, contradictions or other comments!

A long post on a little campaign with a big roar

I really enjoyed Andrew Purkis’ blog last week showcasing the power of charity campaigning with a great example from the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (now Action on Hearing Loss – love their rebrand by the way). I liked the framing of the campaign within an idea of partnership between charity and government, with a view to creating meaningful change. And as a former Policy Officer with a large-ish charity, and a general fan of the democratic and expert role that the voluntary sector can and should play, I definitely support the message that we need to be standing up for this campaigning role.

Purkis’ point is, rightly, to defend the big charity, so often a focal point for criticism, and its role in campaigning. The example is of a large charity, with, as Purkis puts it, its concentrated passion, deep knowledge of user experience, 300,000 supporters and diversified funding base, professional staff and expert allies, long term staying power and its status as ‘a great national charity’. In the spirit of sharing good stories I’d like to add in an example from the other end of the spectrum to show how diverse the campaigning field can be, and how powerful. As a sector, indeed as a bunch of people, I think we can sometimes feel that successful campaigning can’t be done unless you’re one of the big guys. Likewise I think small charities and groups can sometimes get pigeon-holed as mutual aid, shared interest or hobby groups (all of which exist and are great, obviously), ignoring the fact that they can also be an incredible force for driving change. IC Change is a great example of doing just that.

I can’t remember exactly how I got involved in IC Change (although I think wine was involved). A friend, Robyn Boosey, had set up the campaign with two other amazing women, Rebecca Bunce and Rachel Nye, in 2014. The idea was to get Government to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a comprehensive strategy for ending violence against women and domestic violence. The UK signed the Convention in 2012, but has been dragging its feet on ratification, meaning the protections it promises aren’t yet written into law. These three women didn’t think this was good enough, and decided to do something about it. They started to build partnerships with women’s organisations across the UK, write letters to ministers, and even sent some birthday treats – cards and retro mix tapes – to the Home Office. And they roped all of their friends in to help – I started by glancing at a couple of policy submissions for them and ended running social media. They had to because they were all volunteers – the three of them all have day jobs and have funded these activities almost exclusively from their own pockets. I’ll rudely speak for everyone, I think we were happy to volunteer because, as much as it is a cause we all care about, they are fantastic, passionate leaders who leave you believing you really can make a difference.

Then an SNP MP called Eilidh Whiteford got the chance to create a Private Members Bill, and decided to bring one on the Istanbul Convention. This was an incredible opportunity to get Government to step up and into action. We had lots of things on our side; we had cross-party support, we had a great team of volunteers doing graphics, photography, campaign materials, policy, social media, press work and more, we knew the Government was interested in tackling violence against women and we had those partnerships the three Rs had spent two years building up. What we needed was 100 MPs to come to the Bill debate, in order to stop it getting talked out (as so often happens with PMBs). The partnership kept growing and so did our supporter numbers. The Women’s Aid organisations across the UK were on board early on, as were Sisters of Frida, Southall Black Sisters and others. During the build-up to the PMB there was support from the Women’s Institute, Girlguiding UK, Fawcett Society, EHRC and the Women’s Equality Party, among many others (plus Emma Watson. Which was amazing.) WEP was able to mobilise a national network of party members, alongside our existing supporters, to hassle their MPs to turn up to the 2nd reading and vote in favour of the Bill which made a huge difference. On the day 137 MPs showed up, which meant a vote could be called, which meant the Bill passed through to Committee Stage, where it is now. This is a huge win. Once it’s finished we hope the Act will provide a timetable for ratification, and an annual reporting requirement on ending violence against women.

So, what made this one work, and what can we learn from it? I’ve touched on some of these already, but they’re worth looking at a bit more. So here goes.

  • We took advantage of a policy window… Just to put my MA learnin’ to use, this was a good example of an identifiable problem, a policy solution and a favourable political context coming together to open a policy window. Violence against women costs the state £15.8 billion a year in services and lost productivity – there’s your problem. The Istanbul Convention offers a comprehensive strategy for ending violence against women; the Government signed this four and a half years ago so it’s one they are on board with (they’d just gotten stuck…). And the positive political environment came courtesy of cross-party support, profile in the media, probably a sympathetic Prime Minister and, crucially, from us in civil society.
  • …but we were a key part of creating that window. Us, our volunteers and supporters, our partners, faith groups – civil society made a huge noise about why Government needed to get moving on this. We helped create a political context where Government would have faced significant criticism from inside and outside their own party had they not made some kind of commitment, by raising the profile of the Convention and the Bill in the media and among MPs. This didn’t happen overnight; it took two years and many Parliamentary Questions before we started to see a shift, but see a shift we did.
  • You don’t need loads of money to make change… One of my worries with this campaign was that we didn’t have handy tech tools like Engaging Networks which can make contacting supporters so much easier. Actually it didn’t matter at all. We emailed our supporters, our partners emailed theirs, we tweeted and facebooked endlessly and it all got results. We don’t know how many people contacted their MPs. We do know that they changed MPs minds, raised their awareness and made them as passionate as they were about this cause.
  • …but a little bit helps. We had a couple of pub quizzes to raise a little bit of money, and a lot came out of the pockets of the three. We had to pay, collectively or individually, for tea and coffee in the House of Lords, t-shirts for supporters, printing of briefings, posters and signs, banners (which I accidentally broke), train fares and so on. The point is there are some costs, which do add up, and which you don’t always think about. I would love to see more trusts offering small grants programme for community activism (community in the place and people sense) to make it easier for more people to do this kind of thing – whether or not they get what they’re campaigning for – because it’s such a great way to play an active part in democracy (Lush actually already has a pot for this. If you know of any others let me know!).
  • Social media is amazing. Although it takes a huge amount of coordination – by the last two weeks I was working full-time on it (sorry, PhD supervisors…). We did face some criticism from an MP that we were just encouraging ‘clicktivism’ and failing to engage in real activism. I think we need to be careful not to overstate the role of social media, and with this campaign there was a lot of other work going on behind the scenes. But we also have to be really careful not to dismiss it. Our online campaigners were amazing and we saw MPs change their minds in real-time after a good amount of twitter engagement. MPs tweeting their support meant other MPs saw it and supported in turn. It brought more campaigners on board who started to feel encouraged that they could get their MP to commit too. And I’ll never forget the moment Emma Watson retweeted a bunch of the campaign tweets and my tweetdeck went into total meltdown. Crumbs. A fairly cheap Facebook ad also helped bring us a good chunk of new ‘likes’, as did an amazing post by someone who actually wasn’t directly involved in the campaign but was really on board with the message – Susie’s post got shared hundreds of times with completely new audiences. Finally, it’s one form of campaigning among many, but one that’s open to some people who can’t engage in IRL forms of activism; some of our brilliant volunteers have disabilities, some people who want to campaign have kids or complicated lives, which means they can find it difficult to go door-knocking or attend meetings or have long days set in the diary. If they have access to the internet, then it’s another way to engage.
  • Volunteers are amazing. Most of this campaign was done entirely on volunteer power, and credit to Robyn, Rachel and Rebecca who managed us all brilliantly. It was an incredibly intense campaign but there were always opportunities to take a break, to check in, to self-care. We always made sure we thanked people for the time and effort they were giving, whether in real life or on social media, which kept them posting, following, sharing and writing to their MPs.

This campaign does have a little way to go – the Bill still needs to get through the rest of the parliamentary process, and then we need a bit more legislation before the Istanbul Convention is finally ratified. And, of course, then we need to make sure Government delivers on prevention, protection and prosecution requirements. But we’ve got a huge step closer. Small, informal, unregistered volunteer groups can be powerful agents for change, just like the big folk. I’m proud to have been a part of this one.

If you want to see some of the action, check out the Storify from the Istanbul Convention Bill’s 2nd reading here.