One of the most urgent and important stories we need to turn around in the UK is welfare. Welfare has come to mean woe. It’s a negative tale of doom, gloom and despair with the dominant public narratives pitting the deserving poor (and their helplessness) against the undeserving (who the media feel its right to blame and vilify.) The mainstream story has the rest of us (fortunate enough not to be in the grip of serious hardship) on the sidelines, also feeling pretty helpless. It makes me angry when it’s suggested that it’s all about cuts, austerity and that as a country, even if we wanted to… we can’t afford to help. We don’t want to believe that people, and increasingly working people, need to go to a food bank in this day and age but what can we do?
So, here’s a different story, one in which a plucky but shy charity recognises the critical level of need in our communities, learns how to provide relief and assistance to individuals, families and local groups – and gets on and does it. I’m a proud trustee of a permanently endowed foundation, www.richardclousleycharity.co.uk we’re in the lucky position of benefitting from the will of a 15th century highly dubious character who bequeathed a stony field for the benefit of the poor and the sick of the Borough of Islington (and many of its churches).
In itself it’s a quirky tale – 500 years later, the stony field is one of the most expensive pieces of land in London and throws off an income that comes without strings and that we trustees try to use to make the most impact we can. As we’ve been around awhile, we’re able to build on great relationships between other foundations, key organisations providing services to vulnerable people and a vibrant bunch of community groups in the Borough. (Big thanks as always to our partners and friends). We decided to review what we were doing and have a year of learning, giving lots of small grants to local groups (£5-£10k) to give out up to £500 to individuals in need. Disbursed grant giving through trusted partners isn’t new, but here are some of the things we’ve learned and tried to do differently:
Connected – we focus on the relationships
We’ve trusted local groups to know what the individuals they work with need. We don’t know their stories, they do. But in order to make sure the money gets used for the most impact, we’ve had to build trust a deeper level of trust with the groups, to let them work out their own governance arrangements around the money and not bombard them with monitoring. We try to keep the infrastructure light and use what’s already there, and we’ve given money to develop relationships, pay for people’s time and support capacity building.
It’s a dynamic and hyper-local approach. We aim to add value to the positive work being done by the LB Islington and other statutory agencies, spot the gaps and fill them. In such a fast changing situation, with government funding slashed and only a year left of our Council local Residents Support Scheme, we can only tackle need together and this can only be done if our relationships are strong.
Catalyst – understanding root causes
It’s about unlocking (sometimes hidden) blockages that stop people solving the problems that put them in situations of hardship. We wanted our groups to be able to do what was needed most. When we reflected on what this meant in practice, we decided to remove all restrictions on funding. This is challenging, for example in the past we wouldn’t have paid for support for people to get a passport as they can easily be sold, but we’ve learned that what will make the difference to people’s lives, that’s what matters. We’ve paid for people to get licenses to work in the security industry, its low paid work but a vital first step. Translation services, debt relief orders, paying for medical reports and train fares – for e.g. an asylum seeker had to go to from London to Liverpool for a hearing (!) – all these things have made progress possible.
It’s not so different from 500 years ago when Cloudesley himself took clothes into debtor’s prisons to provide people with assistance to get on with their lives. And although we may be old, in some respects we can move quickly – these days it is about speed in a crisis. Now ours funders can be faced with a family turning up on their doorstep with nothing and are able to respond immediately, be it giving a volunteer cash to go with the individual to buy a coat or emergency food supplies to cover the weekend.
Collaborative – facilitating the dialogue
It annoys me that collaboration is so under-valued as a way of meeting need. It’s often the first thing that gets cuts and yet without it, the danger is that you waste resources and are working in the dark. We’ve worked hard to build connections and facilitate dialogue. Where many networks are disappearing, we’ve facilitated our local partners to come together and learn from each other – as well as us learning from them. Our partners have also taken their level of collaboration further, asking us if it’s ok to pass on grants between themselves where it’s made most sense to help the individual. We’ve also experimented with supporting new groups to give out grants so that we reach into not so well connected communities and got them involved with the dialogue. And we are sharing / learning from each other on the bigger picture what’s happening with government welfare reforms and how we can mobilise locally, really get our act together to plan for the future to tackle hardship.
The initial signs for our learning year are good. The practical results are encouraging. Richard Cloudesley was a complex character (rum old bugger) purportedly racked with guilt over committing a murder himself and wanting to pave his way into heaven but he chose to help those who needed it most and in different ways. Like Cloudesley we recognise that welfare isn’t about woe, it’s about “alleviate the suffering or assisting the recovery of such persons in such cases that are not readily available to them from other sources,” (in the words of the charities scheme.) Of course we’re scratching the surface, we can’t meet all need (and we need the government to get real) but I think the new approach helps to tell a different story about welfare – one where we support individuals to change their own lives, it can happen, and fits well with Cloudesleys’ intentions.
(p.s. these views are mine as leader of the Welfare Review, not the full Board of Trustees)