A funny thing happened on the way to the Senate

I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I instantly dismissed it as mild indigestion, or yesterday’s gym class.  But it wasn’t.  It was different.  It’s the feeling I get just before Christmas or a great summer holiday.  It’s a sense of anticipation and excitement.  I hope I’m not shattering too many illusions about my work ethic, but it’s safe to say I don’t get excited about attending very many work meetings that start at 5pm.

But this was different.  Different in a number of ways.  Firstly, after three years in the job, this was one of last meetings I’d attend for VONNE as their Health & Social Care lead.  Secondly because I was giving a presentation to fellow members of the Northern Clinical Senate.  The Northern Senate is one of the few to have a place for the voluntary & community sector, a fact I’m really proud of.  If you’re reading this and wondering what on earth the ‘senate’ is you won’t be alone.  I’ve done a short briefing and written a short section for the VONNE website that provides more detail.

By way of a quick context setter: following the reorganisation of the NHS in April 2013 the Northern Clinical Senate and Strategic Clinical Networks were established as a source of independent, strategic advice and guidance to assist commissioners make the best decisions about healthcare for the populations they represent.  If local areas are unable to agree on the safest and most effective way to deliver or reconfigure a service, then the issue can be referred to the Senate for an independent review. The Senate Council is made up of 30 of the most influential clinicians in the North.  And me – and today I had 10 minutes to make the case for the community & voluntary sector.

My pitch started well. I’d left the killer heals in the hall at home when I remembered I had a gravel car park to navigate on route to the venue.  I was armed with stories of great engagement, partnership working, collaboration, volunteers who passionately advocate, carers, befrienders making life bearable for dementia sufferers, charities speeding up hospital discharge, voluntary groups providing hope for people suffering with chronic pain and fatigue.  “Don’t mess it up Smithson”.

I didn’t.  I gave my 10 minute presentation, shared personal reflections of the challenges ahead and peppered my talk with lots of great examples of work that groups who are members of VONNE’s Health & Social Care Forum have been kind enough to share with me these last three years.

Then there were questions.  Great, informed questions from Senate members about the challenge of securing meaningful, timely, robust and rounded engagement. The balance of individual patient experience and collective engagement.  The influence that pharmaceutical companies are starting to wield to gain access to commissioners.  The challenge of contracts and tenders, consortium and partnership working.

I hope I did you justice.  I highlighted innovation, but made the point that by taking a more informed approach and championing ‘relational commissioning’ where buyers and suppliers, commissioners and providers, regulators and service users work together to shape local service provision, we are much more likely to get great health outcomes.

So a big ‘Thank You’ to all of you who have supported me in my role with VONNE.  Tonight you helped make a tough gig very easy

You just can’t ice thin air

We are really conscious at VONNE that the third sector continues to make a massive contribution to life in the North East. We know that Charities do their best to be resilient and to maximise opportunities, so we don’t want to be alarmist or to cry wolf, but we do need to tell it like it is. We asked our members to explain to us how things are in terms of demand on services and income. We also explored how they viewed the future.

More than 7 in 10 reported an increase in demand for their services, yet more than half are considering making redundancies in the coming year. Of the 140 organisations that responded to the survey, 62% are using their reserves, but 41% only have reserves to last the next 3 months. Despite the increased demand for services, 44% expecting to close a service.

One charity leader said:
“We have seen a sharp increase in people experiencing severe financial hardship and requiring support from local Food Banks and advice on benefit sanctions. Our team regularly provide Food Bank referrals and have worked with a number of people to get their benefits reinstated. Benefit sanctions and the bedroom tax have resulted in some of our clients having no income at all and relying on the charity of friends and family.”

Another reported:
“Social Services are decommissioning so many Day Services that our phones are continually ringing and we are finding ourselves spending many man hours redirecting clients to other suitable services. These man hours are not being funded but, being a charitable organisation and caring about people with mental health problems, we will never turn anyone away.”

With Public Sector bodies facing continuing pressures to cut expenditure, coupled with the uncertainty in relation to the future of Northern Rock Foundation, national funders have been looking at what they can do to support Charities in the North East. A meeting with leading UK wide funders in London this week coincided with the launch of VONNE’s latest Surviving or Thriving report. Garfield Weston Foundation are supporting North East organisations through Pilot Light and the Clore Duffield Social Leadership programme. Esmée Fairbairn and Henry Smith actively work with the Community Foundation to seek applications from the North East.

I was particularly drawn to an analysis of the situation by Paul Street the CEO of Lloyds Bank Foundation, http://www.lloydsbankfoundation.org.uk/
Lloyds Bank Foundation continue to have a physical presence in the North East, and launched a new approach to grant making this week , including a commitment to longer term funding. Paul described the funding model as we have known it as being broken. In the past he said the funding cake was based on public sector contracts and grants making up the base with trusts and foundations, philanthropists and public donations providing the icing on the cake. With the decreasing investment from the public sector, Trusts and Foundations are in danger of being asked to ice thin air. He points to the experience of places like the North East, where there is increasingly an inverse relationship between need and support. We see an ever growing number of poor people, with a decreasing public sector to offer services and reduced grant funding to the VCS to support them. This is being compounded by a policy response which promotes Social Investment and Payment by Results causing siloed output based responses.

The time has come for funders both local and national to sit down with Government, and with the sector to consider how we can collectively fix this and come up with long term solutions, before it is too late.

How charities should react to viral campaigns like #nomakeupselfie

I’ve been watching the #nomakeupselfie viral campaign with great interest, fascinated and yet left with uncomfortable questions like is it really that selfless an act to go without makeup? However I was intrigued as to how charities reacted to it as it unfolded.

No-one quite knows how #nomakeupselfie started, but it certainly wasn’t by the very grateful cancer charities who have, to date, benefited £8million from donations. Cancer Research have written a blog on Charity Comms on how their out of hours social media team really proved its worth when they picked up on the trend late on Tuesday evening.

Whilst charities swung into action on social media, they were a lot slower to update their websites and I think this is where they are missing a trick.  When I checked at the end of the week, Cancer Research had no mention of #nomakeupselfie on its homepage.  So for anyone who was considering doing a selfie and donating, they might well have picked another charity or changed their mind.  Supporters want to be reassured tthat they are not donating to a fake number, that the charity is aware of it and going to do somethign with the money.  OK their social media feed was reassuring, but their website fell behind.  Today they have a link under ‘Science News to questions answered about the campaign, but its still a bit buried.   I understand many people with cancer feel unhappy about the campaign, but I still feel it needs a more upfront clear message on the homepage.

Other charities such as Breakthrough Breast Cancer have fully embraced the trend, take a look at their homepage and see how well they’ve done this.  Others such as Breastcancer Care make no mention of it.

My top 5 tips to charities who unwittingly caught up in a social media viral campaign (and who knows how many of these will take off again!) are:

1. Be prepared to use social media outside of hours – have a designated person at least who is set up to receive alerts when your name or cause is mentioned.

2. Update your website to provide reassurance to potential donors that you are aware of campaigns, even if you didnt start them, and how to donate.

3. Be prepared to respond quickly to exisitng supporters who might not feel happy about the campaign, perhaps its not right for your organisation, and if so put up some FAQs explaining your stance.

4. If you are accidentally receiving donations on behalf of another charity (like WWF was, many ended up adopting polar bears!) be open, honest and work with the right charities to re-direct the funds appropriately. You don’t want to start a backlash against you.

5. You can’t really prepare for something like this over and above what I’ve suggested, but if you have a flexible responsive team in place then thats a great place to start.

Page 3 vs Breast Cancer – oh dear

My heart sank when I saw today that The Sun has linked up with a breast cancer charity to raise awareness of breast cancer.  However if the aim is to raise awareness of the small charity ‘Coppafeel!’ then I guess its done that at least.

Its a poorly thought out campaign on a number of levels. Surely the target audience of Page 3 is men rather than women?  If the charity is hoping that men will do the checking for lumps after being inspired by this campaign then they are missing the point somewhat (Im sure you could play innuendo bingo with this blog post so I’ll keep it brief!).

Another charity (Breakthrough Breast Cancer) is successfully running a campaign that I’ve seen myself on the back of loo doors in motorway service stations saying do you know the 5 signs of breast cancer?  It goes on to say its not just a lump you should look out for and that most of us don’t know the other signs.

The Sun’s Page Three receives a lot of criticism from campaigners who want to rid the paper of the images of semi-naked young women. A petition by campaing group No More Page Three has been signed by MPs including shadow minister for civil society Lisa Nandy. This charity link-up will disappoint many women rather than inspire or educate.




What we shouldn’t do is write another Social Enterprise Growth Strategy for the Region.

I spoke at a conference organised by the ILG today about Growing the Social Economy of the North East.
The presentation that I gave is below – I am interested in your views and any comments that you have.
“I don’t mean to be glib about this , but there has been enough hot air talked about Growing Social Enterprise in the NE over the last 10 years to power the enterprise zones, and I don’t want to add to that. So with that in mind I am going to talk about the emerging opportunities that stem from the Strategic Economic Plans and European funding plans of both LEPS. Then I am going to suggest some priorities that would really make a difference and then I am going to describe my observations from being on the inside as a Director/ Trustee of a rapidly growing enterprising Charity with a group SE structure.
So firstly then the opportunities that are opening up through the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPS).
The biggest opportunity that I can see is that both LEPs have allocated 20% of their European Social Fund allocation specifically to Social Inclusion, and both have opted in to the offer of Big Lottery match funding. It is open to third sector organisations to bid into the other main strands of European funding. The social inclusion strand isn’t exclusively available to Social Enterprises and we shouldn’t be myopic about this thinking that the Social inclusion strand is the only game in town, but clearly there’s a lot of money available in Social inclusion and it is likely to have our names on it.
The 2 LEPs are going about this slightly differently though in the north and south of the region. So I will take each of them in turn.
In the North East LEP adding the different European strands together – the allocation stands at over £480m of which almost £45m has been specifically allocated to Social Inclusion. There are 3 core elements to the approach to Social Inclusion. The Big Lottery opt in, Community Led Local Development and a Social Inclusion open call. I will quickly take you through each as there are opportunities for Social Enterprise growth in each.
There will be a £3million per year opt in to Big Lottery – which Big will then double to create £6m per year initially for the first 3 years. So that is a resource of £18 million over 3 years. There are 5 main themes of activity that the Big Lottery opt in is likely to fund :
Financial Inclusion
Health Inequality
Multiple barriers to employment
Community mobilisation
Digital inclusion
These are very broad themes and are subject to further discussions, and Big have indicated that they are looking for scale, they will fund a small number of million pound plus portfolio bids under those themes. This represents a golden opportunity for the sector – we have a clear allocation and a ready made match and whilst bids can be led from outside of the VCSE, it is anticipated that these will be sector led initiatives and that the vast majority of the funding must go to VCSE organisations under Big’s rules.
The second strand is a commitment to Community Led Local Development. (CLLD)
Community Led Local Development (CLLD) – Local Authority representatives have worked together across the NELEP area to develop a proposal for Community-Led Local Development. CLLD supports community development and capacity building in the most deprived and isolated communities and where capacity to access mainstream European funding opportunities is poor. This approach, builds on the current rural LEADER programme. Essentially there will be a competitive application process for up to 8 CLLD areas in Northumberland Tyne and Wear with a budget between them of up to £15m and up to 2 CLLD areas in Durham with a maximum budget of £7m. A CLLD area will be an area of between 10000 and 150000 residents, a Local Action Group will be set up in each CLLD area, that will develop local priorities for action from which funded activity should follow. There should be an opportunity to capacity build and develop local social enterprise at a grassroots neighbourhood level.

Because the competition for where they will be hasn’t happened yet – we don’t know precisely where they will be, but it is highly likely that there will be at least 1 in every Local Authority area covering the most deprived wards.

The Third Strand is an open call for Social Inclusion projects that can demonstrate that they have access to match funding. This creates opportunities outside of CLLD areas, and for cross LA boundary working. The scope of this strand needs to be developed, but the recommendation was that this should be a pot of around £9m. Again the scope and nature of this open call is yet to be framed.

The European funding plan falls within the overall Strategic Economic Plan for the North East LEP , a draft of which was submitted to Government at the end of last year and has just closed for consultation.
There are other areas of that Strategic Economic plan that could boost socially inclusive economic growth.

This includes a call for the devolution of welfare resources and programs, which we strongly support. This would enable much better alignment with the rest of the provision that there is for back to work support locally. Social Enterprises are well placed to develop and deliver local solutions that are aligned to employer demand and the specific needs of individuals that need support. Too many specialist employability providers that engage locally with people that aren’t in work have struggled to find a place in the supply chain of the prime work program providers, and hopefully this would address that.

The strategic economic plan calls for a Grand Open Innovation Challenge. This sounds interesting but we need more information about what that is and whether this will bring opportunities for SE growth.

One of the goals that is set out in the strategic economic plan is to eliminate gender, race, age and cultural gaps in employment and enterprise. This is bold and distinctive and the proposed investment of £160m to achieve this is of course welcomed.

The challenge with the strategic economic plan however is that it establishes that Gross Value Added (GVA) will predominantly determine the basis for investment and resource allocation decisions in the NELEP. This places VCSE organisations at a potential disadvantage as we are not in the main primarily motivated to make a profit, but do provide jobs and services. It is therefore crucial that significant weighting in investment decisions is given to things like increasing Participation in the labour market, and other social value measures.

If we move into the South of the region, the first thing to say is that Tees Valley Unlimited must be congratulated for really proactively and effectively engaging with the sector from the outset in its approach to social inclusion.
In terms of the European funding plan what is envisaged is that almost £14million will be allocated to Social Inclusion with half of that being match funded by Big Lottery. The focus of the spending will be on employability support to those furthest from the labour market. But resources will also be made available for financial inclusion and capacity building.
So clearly a root to growing the social economy is through European funding and the LEPs and we need to be thinking about gearing up for this, the new investment is unlikely to be seen until this Autumn at the earliest though, on the websites of both of the LEPs you can see the strategy documents but don’t expect to find anything like an application form for a while yet.
Other opportunities to grow the sector could potentially come through the Transformation of Rehabilitation. We have Social enterprise involvement as potential tier 1 providers from the Northern Inclusion consortium and as part of ARC in Tees Valley. This is really significant it shows that competitor organisations can come together to form consortia where there is a real prize in working together. We will see how that pans out over the next few months and what if any opportunities there will be to subcontract for specialists social enterprises that work with offenders.
Other interesting and innovative opportunities will be created by the £11.5 million North East Social Investment Fund that was led by Northern Rock foundation that will come on stream later in the year, and I should mention the first health related Social Impact Bond that VONNE has helped to develop in Newcastle which will massively scale up social prescribing to people with long term conditions through social investment, and we are currently commissioning organisations that will host around 50 link workers.
Moving on then
If I were to Prioritise 3 things that would really grow the Social Economy in the North East I would say that firstly we need to stimulate demand by opening up the market and creating opportunities for social enterprises to trade. We can do this by making the best use of the Social Values Act and particularly being bold in weighting contracts on social impact when they are awarded.
It is important that Local Authorities and others don’t over engineer things though, rather that they sense check opportunities so that there aren’t any unnecessary barriers that make it too risky or even impossible for Social enterprises or SMEs to compete.
Particularly in the development of the plans for how European funding will be allocated to Social Inclusion I have felt a sense that the Local Authorities have been too dominant in the NELEP. Without VONNE’s intervention for example there wouldn’t have been an open call for Social Inclusion projects. I don’t want to be rude or adversarial about this, I value the public sector and I am anything but a rampant free marketer – but sometimes – the public sector in the North East needs to just back off and create the space for those with business and enterprises to get on with it.
The second thing that I would prioritise is excellent business support to the Sector for start up growth and sustainability . Whilst this does need to be tailored to the size and nature of the organisation let us not forget that most of the business support needs of Charities and SE are the same as for private sector businesses. Nothing annoys me more than when I get the sense that I am being treated as if I am an imbecile because I work for a charity, there are highly capable entrepreneurial business leaders that operate in the VCSE. So whilst I acknowledge that SE do have some specialist support needs such as specific advice around governance , public benefit, accounting and regulatory issues. We should not opt ourselves out of main stream support.
The third thing that I would prioritise is clear access to funding and investment information and advice.
Beyond that I think that we need accurate up to date information about the size and shape of the sector. How will we know if it is has grown if we aren’t clear about what it looks like now?
That was my three point plan, but I thought that it was worth asking some experts in this field what they would prioritise, and I got some really interesting responses.
Neil Mckinroy who heads up the Centre for Local Economic Strategies based in the North West made the point that
‘The social economy is a fully fledged part of the economy as a whole, as such it needs strategic recognition and full involvement in LEPs and chambers of commerce and economic policy making more generally. Practically, it should be afforded support in the form of social zones. He points to Copenhagen where business enterprise zones have been developed for social economic ends in disadvantaged areas aimed at promoting employment, community development and social enterprises .
Paul Fagan of the Wise Group gave a Scottish example of Public Social Partnerships (PSPs). Funders, providers and stakeholders (and users), collaborate on co-design and delivery for 12-18 months and then the learning is applied to a model for procurement. This way, the third sector moves up stream to inform the design of service, rather than inheriting an idea that has been created narrowly from just a public sector commissioners perspective.
Paul points to the fact the third sector is uniquely placed to lever additional investment into the region, but acknowledged that to do so, we as organisations in the sector need to be able to evidence and quantify our impact. Attracting investment he suggests will be relatively easy. The trick is finding imaginative and bold public sector commissioners, that are prepared to engage in co designing services and jointly attracting investment.
Still on this theme

Graeme Orram the CEO of five lamps would like to see Asset transfer stepped up a gear.
He suggests that it is still too often too difficult to get investment at the point of growth.
He observes that as a sector We are still asked to respond to poorly packaged public sector procurement and commissioning opportunities which don’t demonstrate a tangible understanding of the social value act or the value of measuring social impact.
And he points out that new models of public service are typically better and more impactful if they are co-produced.
Roy Stanley, who was the chair of business and enterprise North East and chairs the Tanfield Group boldly suggested declaring the North East an innovation zone. He would prioritise greater tax incentives for investment in SE’s. He would like to see us getting rid of the deadwood from the sector. Creating scaled up businesses through amalgamations and mergers.
He advocates identifying where the market is failing and engaging with people and organisations with money to invest from outside of the region.
Phillip Angier, former banker and CEO of Trade Craft suggested that a good number of organisations in the sector needed to have a far better grasp of marketing.
Peter Deans rather helpfully pointed to the things that in his view we shouldn’t do, and I agree with him on this . The first thing we shouldn’t do is write another Social Enterprise Growth Strategy for the Region. It uses up a lot of energy and resources and hasn’t proved to be enormously helpful in the past. He suggests that we should be prepared to be discerning and to back winners rather than being terribly obsessive about being seen to be inclusive of all organisations.
So some food for thought there from a range experiences.
The final thing that I want to do is to give you my personal perspective as a trustee director of Changing Lives which was The Cyrenians.
In the late 1960s Tyneside Cyrenians started as a heads on beds style hostel for homeless people and grew to become a charity with a turnover of around £3million per year by the turn of the century. It could have hopefully, with a fair wind, tried to maintain that level of income and service delivery. It could have stayed Tyneside based, stuck to providing homeless support – So why then since 2008, against a backdrop of cuts, has it grown into an enterprise with a turnover that will reach around £12million this year? It is now a group structure with an enterprising charity at its centre and trading companies as part of the group. It still provides homes, it still provides addiction and recovery services, but it also now provides employment support, family mediation and counselling, and specialist women’s services across England and Wales. The Social Enterprises include shops, construction maintenance services and food redistribution.
What I would observe as the 5 key ingredients of this growth are:
Firstly a bright hardworking chief executive of exceptional ability – who would succeed in any sector. An accountant who understands the money, who is driven by a desire to grow. But who crucially is very quickly able to calculate risk, and is also fundamentally driven by a desire change vulnerable disadvantaged people’s lives for the better. I looked at the last strategic plan in draft as a trustee and it said that we would double in size and become national, so I asked the Chief Exec “why do we want to do this”, and I don’t think that he could comprehend the question – he said – “you explain to me why we shouldn’t”. There is a real mindset there that is about growth. I have also noticed that he generates a lot of ideas, but where some of us cogitate and let them drift he acts on them very quickly, some of the ideas are duff, but others stick and he gets a real momentum behind them.
The second ingredient is – A motivated staff team led by a director of operations who is absolutely dedicated to the quality of the client experience.
Thirdly – A governing body which offers oversight and challenge and are prepared to be bold and to take calculated risks. There have been times when the Social Enterprises that are part of the group haven’t been profitable and we have had to think carefully about whether we call it a day. When the opportunity came to take over the national women’s services from an organisation called Platform 51 which was the women’s YMCA, there was careful analysis of what we would need to do in order to strengthen the internal core management team and systems to support the growth financially and geographically – so that we had a structure that wasn’t about to fall over but wasn’t so lavish that we became uncompetitive.
Fourthly – Developing a physical asset base particularly through the Homes and Communities Empty Homes scheme, and a strong balance sheet.
Fifthly – Relationships, building them working them, networking, being visible.
There are other examples of good organisations in the sector that are working hard , delivering brilliant services, showing innovation , sizing up the opportunities that present themselves, making things happen – we need to get better as a sector at promoting them. People can have the perception of the NE that we are a backwater where innovation was an industrial thing of the past. There are some pockets of really brilliant things going on, we need to be better at nurturing it.
Thank you for listening – I hope that it gives you some ideas .

Separation makes the heart grow, erm, colder

Writing in his latest blog for the Kings Fund, Chief Executive Chris Ham casts a critical eye over the government’s decision to appoint Sir Stuart Rose, former Chief Executive at Marks and Spencer, to advise on leadership in the NHS.  It’s a great blog and well worth a read.  One of the key themes Chris explores is Marks and Spencer’s relationship with suppliers.  He describes how ‘relational contracting’: frequent contact between buyers and suppliers, involving buyers spending time in factories and farms, has helped to avoid disputes and improve quality.

From my experience, and listening to views of community & voluntary groups in the North East seeking to provide a range of health & social care services, support or advocacy, there is little evidence of relational contracting in practice.

Too often commissioning, or at least the procurement element, is a faceless paper exercise that relies far too much on an organisation’s ability to write a set number of words in a fixed timescale, and not enough on heart, morals, ethics, trust and a desire for co-production and co-delivery.  Care, compassion, innovation, and authenticity have all been cited as areas that the health & social care system should strive to develop; yet the way in which these elements of a tender or bid document are assessed are woefully under developed.

There are examples of where buyers and suppliers, commissioners and providers are working together to shape local service provision; the development of local Healthwatch, and support for local infrastructure tell their own stories.  The very best and the very worst commissioning practices are plain to see.

Elsewhere, community & voluntary sector activists lobbying for representation on their local Health & Wellbeing Boards (about half of England’s Health & Wellbeing Boards don’t have any direct representation from the voluntary & community sector), are still being turned away because of ‘conflicts of interest’ as the sector is viewed as a provider of service.

Enforcing a strict commissioner/provider split is too simplistic and uninformed a response to what’s become a highly emotive topic.  If you have examples of great ‘relational’ commissioning, procurement or co-production, do let me know and I’ll ensure the good practice is shared through through our through our Health & Social Care Forum. Anything that can be done to ensure the commissioner/provider separation works more effectively for commissioner, provider, and importantly service user, should be championed.

How North East charities use the internet

I came across some research recently that showed how North East charities use the internet that I wanted to share.  The results are nothing suprising, in that generally charities face barriers in lack of skills, time and their target audience not being online. However I wanted to highlight 2 things of note.  54% want help from “someone local who understands our needs” and 53% want “someone experienced in our sector”, going to show that there is still a demand for local, sector-specific support.

So what do they need help with?  64% want help with marketing and promotions, 58% in increasing donations and 54% in information storage. You can read the full report or get a flavour of it from this infographic below, click on the image to enlarge it.

How North East charities use the internet

You’ve got a friend in me

Today I attended a conference in Durham focusing on transforming dementia care #NHFDementia14 .  Look at me with the social media hashtag symbol thingy.  Actually don’t.   I had to use a search engine to find the # symbol on my keyboard (Alt+3 for any Mac users out there). Still, putting my technology challenges firmly to one side, what a great day.

The organisers, the National Housing Federation, worked with a range of partners including North East Dementia Alliance and VONNE to showcase the contributions housing organisations and the wider community & voluntary sector make in improving the quality of care for people with dementia.  The range of research, services and activities on show was phenomenal and really highlights how far research and understanding of dementia has come in recent years.

I heard about Gentoo’s Healthwise project that supports front line housing staff to identify early trends, triggers and behaviours associated with dementia, aiming to increase the rate of early diagnosis of dementia.  All their frontline staff have received dementia awareness training – a real commitment to change.  Elsewhere, Housing 21 have employed a dementia nurse supporting people with dementia at the end of life.  Difficult to listen to, harder to contemplate, given the knowledge that 1 in 3 people over 65s will develop dementia.

But it was Equal Arts’ HenPower project that stole the show. HenPower encourages older people to get involved in hen keeping as a way of reducing isolation and increasing health and well being.  We had the chance to meet the team behind the project, hug hens, and most importantly chat with the ‘Hensioners’ and hear their stories.

Sometimes when you attend events it’s difficult to know where to start if you want to make a difference.  This time, I knew exactly what to do.  The organisers had arranged for Cathy Clifford to deliver a dementia friends awareness session after the conference closed at 3pm.  So alongside 19 other delegates I spent an hour learning more about dementia and the small things I can do that can make a difference to people living with dementia.  There is a national campaign to create a network of a million Dementia Friends across England by 2015.  So go on – give up an hour and become a dementia friend.  Or alternatively you could always adopt a hen!

Has the time come for space to be found for someone from the VCSE on the LEP Board?

Since the summer I have been heavily engaged with the LEPs in helping to develop the Strategic Economic Plan and the European Funding Investment Strategy. As VONNE covers two LEP areas it is fascinating to compare and contrast approaches.

In Tees Valley there is strong engagement with the sector through the LDAs – Doff Pollard and Keith Bayley deserve special mention for this. In the North East LEP Social Inclusion issues are led by the 7 Local Authority Leaders (LA7). At times what is in the best interests of LA7 is arguably not necessarily in the best interests of the VCSE. Sometimes the advice that they give to the LEP board means that millions of pounds worth of investment goes one way and not another.

Why should the VCSE have to dance through hoops to get our voice heard?  I was always pragmatic about representation. My view was that if you work well together when its needed then don’t get hooked up on formal positions and structures. I have reversed that opinion. We should be lobbying for a seat at the LEP table, particularly as LA7 starts to implode, and as the LEP becomes responsible for more areas of decision making and spend.

There has never been a greater need for leadership in the North East and it is important that the VCSE steps up and plays a part in that.

Facebook page set up for Tyneside social media surgeries

A Facebook page has been set up to support and promote social media surgeries across Tyneside.  https://www.facebook.com/groups/TynesideSocialMediaSurgery/ The group page is open to anyone from the voluntary sector who wants help with social media and to keep up to date with when surgeries are being held, so do please join it.

What are social media surgeries?

Social media surgeries are drop-in sessions ran by volunteers (including me!) offering their skills and advice on any social media queries you might have.  The next social media surgery is on 30th January at Pink Lane Coffee, Newcastle 4-6pm, please book below online to let us know you are coming.

Queries on the night in the past have included:

- how do I find my online voice and not sound so boring!

- how do I get more followers on Twitter

- help me set up a Facebook page

- should I use Facebook or Twiter to engage with our volunteers and supporters?

- how can we make social media part of our overall communications strategy?

These and many others have been answered by me and my fellow helpful volunteer surgeons, so come along for some free advice.