What a difference a year makes…

It is almost a year since VONNE and Clinks joined forces to support the voluntary sector working in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) in the North East. I spent a great deal of time reflecting upon our achievements last week in order to write a progress report for our funder Northern Rock Foundation.

This partnership has enabled me to gather intelligence on the voluntary sector in the North East; utilising VONNE’s presence in the North East and Clinks’ policy function at a national level. Strong links have been made with statutory sector organisations and commissioners to ensure the voluntary sector play a vital role in service delivery. The project has enabled the sector to get to grips with a rapidly changing criminal justice policy landscape, and understand how this will effect voluntary organisations working in North East. Intelligence from the North East has been fed into Clinks’ national policy work and the leadership of the charity, which is adding a valuable perspective that was previously missing.

Snapshot survey:

  1. Access to income needs to be prioritised
  2. Increased investment in effective partnerships and collaboration
  3. Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) in the North East need clear strategy and structure for engaging the voluntary sector
  4. Ensure effective communication and information sharing with the voluntary sector


The report has been distributed to key contacts at a local, regional and national level. On the back of this report one PCC has allocated an engagement budget and is in the process of developing a voluntary sector strategic forum. Another PCC has committed to engaging with the sector through our Safer Future Communities Network.

Other highlights include:

  • The Making Every Adult Matter pilots in Sunderland and North Tyneside have come such a long way; both partnerships now have coordinators in post to provide long term support and flexible services to a number of clients with high levels of multiple and complex needs.
  • The VONNE website has been refreshed to provide a guide to the Criminal Justice System in the North East, with key contacts, policy updates and briefing notes. The web pages have received 2190 visitors over the course of the year, with the Safer Future Communities Network Directory being by far the most popular.
  • We are working with Barefoot Research and Evaluation to produce case studies of good practice from the North East and sharing these across the Country. Four have been produced so far.
  • Over 230 people have attended our 5 regional events which have covered a range of topics; from multiple needs; Transforming Rehabilitation; to ‘The Role of Women’s Specialist Services in Tackling Health Inequalities in the North East’


The first year has been successful, both in terms of promoting the project and supporting the voluntary sector to develop strong links with the statutory sector. It has been a challenging year with the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms providing a rapidly changing, and often unclear, landscape. The project is at a critical point in terms of developing relationships with the statutory sector. Over the next 12 months we envisage that the engagement of the voluntary sector will become more fully embedded statutory sector activity.

Shhh, Im thinking about the website

If things have been a bit quiet around here don’t be fooled into thinking we’re all off on holiday. I for one am in deep thought and production as we plan our new website, hoping to launch for our AGM and Conference on 20th November.
When we put our tender out for a new website earlier this year, I was told by one that our website was well past retirement age, and he’s right, its on life-support. Its been trundling along now for over 8 years, with the odd facelift and corrective surgery now and again. But the cracks are starting to show. Thanks to some funding from Awards 4 All and Investment for Growth we can finally start over with a brand new site.
For those fans of our site (yes it does have some!) we won’t be changing things too radically. It will still have crucial things like jobs, events, resources, policy, but will hopefully be a bit tidier, easier to use and most importantly accessible on a range of mobile devices.
For now Im grappling with what to trim, what to keep and where to put it all. Our chosen web company says its never dealt with such a content heavy, sprawling site as ours. They’ll be taking the strict but fair teacher approach to us as they bring our sprawl back into a site that has the user foremost in mind. So, bear with us while I put my head back down and get back to that specification document.

Co-ordinating services, but for whom?

Clinks is a key partner in the Making Every Adult Matter Coalition (MEAM), Myself and Isabel Livingstone (my equivalent in the South West) are part of the local networks team supporting the local areas. I provide support to two areas in the North East; Sunderland and North Tyneside. We have committed to writing a series of blogs on the issues areas are facing. Isabel’s first blog is available on the Clinks website.

MEAM supports 11 local areas in co-ordinating services for people with multiple and complex needs. Isabel and I have been helping these areas to agree which clients to work with. This is a critical stage of the MEAM Approach.

The MEAM Approach involves working with a small number of clients who have the most complex needs and ineffective contact with existing services. There is usually a co-ordinator employed to work directly with the clients and broker more flexible support from local services. One of the first steps for local partners is to agree how they are going to consistently identify which clients to work with, which is not always straightforward. Here are some of the issues and questions we have been grappling with:

How many clients should you work with?

In Sunderland we initially envisaged a coordinator working with 15 clients over a one year period. However this is starting to look a little unrealistic. Within the first month of the coordinator taking up post, three clients were identified as needing long term support. The coordinator has also spent a considerable amount of time providing crisis intervention for one of the clients. Whilst a larger client base makes it easier to evaluate and demonstrate the cost effectiveness and impact of your work, it seems that in order to provide the one-to-one intensive support some clients need, a coordinator would need to work with either a smaller number of clients or a range of clients with varying degrees of need.

It is too early to provide a definitive answer to this, which is why the pilot exists. In Sunderland, we have discussed how services themselves should be providing more support to the clients, and not leaving it all in the hands of the coordinator.  However, at a time of increasing demand on services and limited resources, will this be possible? This is something commissioners will need to take into consideration and puts more emphasis on the need to evidence the social and economic impact of the MEAM approach. 

What assessment and referral process do you use?

Having an effective assessment process seems to be key to the success of the MEAM pilots. The process needs to be flexible enough to ensure those with the greatest needs are supported, but rigid enough that all agencies are clear about which clients should be referred in. The process should avoid agencies using MEAM as a quick solution to pass over a client that is difficult to engage / work with.

There are various assessment processes that can be used, including the New Directions Team assessment or ‘chaos index’ (recommended by MEAM), and the Homelessness Risk Impact Assessment developed in Devon. What is important is that all local agencies understand and agree to one set of criteria. It is important that it is not seen as a ‘homelessness’ assessment as opposed to a ‘criminal justice’ one, for example, but has buy-in from all partners.

There are some dangers of using risk-based assessments. As Julian Corner argued in his speech at our AGM, it is counter-productive to focus on and organise services around a standardised assessment of the risks a person poses at a given moment rather than that person as an individual with a history and background.

Another issue is that people’s needs and risk fluctuate, so a MEAM intervention needs to find a way to respond to this.  In Sunderland there was discussion about the MEAM group meeting on a weekly basis to discuss client referrals. This caused concern about capacity and the ability to maintain engagement from all agencies. At a national learning event the coordinator from Cambridgeshire made a very good point; if clients who were referred into MEAM no longer need support by the time the group meets to discuss referrals, then that client was never a MEAM candidate in the first place. This point really resonated with me as MEAM is about trying to work with clients to overcome deeply entrenched issues and is therefore looking for long term solutions and support; not quick fixes.

How do you link with other local cohorts and partnerships?

The purpose of MEAM is to improve existing systems for clients with multiple and complex needs; not create new ones. Therefore it is imperative to link the MEAM pilots into existing partnerships and local structures. One example is the NHS England Liaison and Diversion pilot schemes in which ten areas will appoint mental health workers to work in police custody suites to assess mental health needs. This is not a treatment service, but it is an identification, assessment and referral service. In order to ensure clients receive the best possible treatment the Liaison and Diversion pilot areas are developing partnerships to influence the work and identify gaps in services; very similar to MEAM partnerships. There is an opportunity the two to work together to provide system change for clients with multiple and complex needs. 

In Exeter, the MEAM partnership has discussed the relationship of MEAM to Troubled Families, which is also co-ordinating services, but for families with complex needs. After considering an overlapping cohort (where some clients fit both MEAM and Troubled Families criteria), the partners have decided that it is best for MEAM to refer appropriate clients (usually any living with their children) across to Troubled Families,  allowing MEAM to concentrate on those clients not getting adequate support elsewhere. Exeter MEAM is also learning from Bristol’s Integrated Offender Management team, which has a close partnership and referral process with Troubled Families.

We would love to hear your thoughts about how to agree cohorts of clients to work with in local partnership arrangements, or any questions or comments about the MEAM approach.


Engaging with Parliament – there is no magic wand

Ross Cowan


Ross Cowan is our new Health and Wellbeing Policy Officer at VONNE. Here is his first blog passing on what he learnt at a workshop VONNE helped organise called ‘Engaging with Parliament on health and wellbeing issues.’

I spent a very enlightening Friday the other week at an event in Durham Town Hall.  Initially, I was enlightened because, although I started my working life in Durham many years ago, as a Community Service Volunteer with Durham Social Services, I had never ventured beyond the reception. The Hall is a stunning room with large glorious stained glass windows and what I now know is a hammer beam oak roof dating from 1849. The walls are festooned with portraits, plaques and memorials to people who have served Durham in the past, whether as Mayor, Freeman or soldier in the Durham Light Infantry.

Which linked well with my main reason for being there. Over 120 of us had turned up to take part in an event organised by Parliament’s Outreach Service on ‘Engaging with Parliament on health and wellbeing issues’.  I would say that most people, including me, had come needing to be convinced that there was a point in engaging with Parliament. As several people pointed out, we mainly see and hear MPs being rude to each other, mired in controversy and declaiming, not listening. And isn’t the Lords full of people in archaic clothing, being oddly polite to each other and often falling asleep? Well, some of that is self-evidently true. But I now realise there are also a lot of well-intentioned hard-working people who are there because they want to make a difference, and who are prepared to listen to, and possibly engage with, you if you approach them in the right way. I also now know that Parliament (and particularly the website www.parliament.uk) is full of useful resources and opportunities.

The day started with a quick overview of Parliament, the Commons and Lords, and their respective roles. I learnt about the work of the House of Commons Library, which provides impartial information and research services for Members of Parliament and their staff in support of their parliamentary duties. So impartial that the Library recently, if albeit briefly, publicly disagreed with the Prime Minister over hospital waiting times. More interesting and useful to me, the library has a huge online database of publicly available briefing papers on a wide range of topics. We were told that larger VCSE organisations can sometimes lodge their own briefings with the library and become a trusted source of information for researchers. The Lords has a similar Library, based in the Queen’s room, which you can tour virtually online.

We quickly moved on to the work of the Commons Health Select Committee. This is one of 19 Select Committees, each related to a Government Department. These are the Committees you hear about that examine witnesses, some people more brusquely than others. The Health Committee has members from all parties and its role is to examine and scrutinise the policy, administration and expenditure of the Department of Health and its associated bodies. The Committee chooses its own subjects to enquire into. It would normally issue a press release inviting people to submit written evidence. Anyone can send in written evidence which will be presented to the Committee. Evidence needs to be in a prescribed format which is detailed in a Guide on the Parliament website. Only people invited by the Committee can give oral evidence. There was a view in the room that the Committee should be more proactive in seeking relevant evidence. The best advice is to sign up for email alerts (as I now have) and send your evidence in whenever you have something relevant to say. Someone queried whether evidence sent on behalf of a number of organisations would carry more weight than that from a single, possibly small or local, organisation. We were told that it wouldn’t and it was the quality and relevance of the ‘evidence’ that counted most. The main thing was that the Committee wouldn’t accept mass mailings or reports that clearly hadn’t been written for their enquiry.

Parliament also has a huge number of All-Party Parliamentary Groups, looking at an exhaustive range of health topics, from Ageing through learning disability to Women’s sport and fitness. There is an online register which tells you which MPs and members of the Lords are on each committee and consequently would be worth contacting about your group’s particular interest. Again, news to me, but some larger charities provide secretarial support for the Groups and may provide another way in.

We were joined by Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for Durham and later by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. They were talking about how best to get members of Parliament and the Lords to work for you and gave very similar messages.

Top Tips to get members of Parliament and the Lords to work for you

  1. Identify a member(s) who has an interest in your topic or has a local connection. For example, you can easily search Lords online by their Policy Interest.  Search for Health Services and medicine and Lord Victor Adebowale, CEO of Turning Point, heads a list of over 60 Lords.
  2. If you send an email or correspondence be clear what your issue is, put it at the top. Say who is affected and how they are affected. Provide facts and ammunition.
  3. Try and be clear what you want the member to do, identify solutions as well as problems.

I don’t know if she was joking or not but Tanni (as we were now all calling her) did say that there are still members who will only deal with handwritten correspondence. Best avoid them. Virtually all give emails and many have their own websites.

VONNE ran a workshop in the afternoon on ‘Working with Health and Wellbeing Boards’. There were others on ‘Working with your Clinical Commissioning Group’ and on Sport. Over 40 people attended and what was immediately apparent was the feeling that they were excluded from what was now happening in the health world.

Roberta Blackman-Woods had said she no longer knew who to contact in what she called NHS local.  Most people felt the same, with even those who sit on Boards or are members of Healthwatch being unsure how things work and what ability they have to influence things. It was clear that few Boards have representation from voluntary and community groups. People expressed surprise when someone said they were a member of their local Health Scrutiny Committee, they had assumed they had been wound up in all the re-organisations.  We have a big job to do, both in describing and explaining the system but also, and mainly, ensuring we engage and involve the community in the future development of health and care services, especially as (or if) more money flows to from acute to primary care.

I came away from the day with three key phrases ringing in my ears. There is no magic wand, we are where we are, and we all need to just keep plugging away!

ChangeUp – ten years on – Dr Rob Macmillan

The following letter was circulated by Dr Rob Macmillan of the Third Sector Research Centre. Have a read – It examines whether Change up’s vision for sector support 2014 was achieved, and poses questions around why if it wasn’t why it wasn’t. My view is that it was incredibly bureaucratic and focused disproportionately on what infrastructure organisations wanted to provide rather than what front line organisations needed to receive – I would be interested in your views:
Dear colleagues
What were you up to ten years ago?
On 24th June 2004, it was cold, windy and wet over much of the country, Britney Spears was at Number 1 in the charts, and, plus ca change, later that evening the England football team would exit another international football competition.

Fiona Mactaggart, meanwhile, then in the Home Office as the Minister for the Voluntary and Community Sector, was out and about visiting voluntary organisations in Gloucester. She was there to launch ChangeUp, the government’s ten year framework for capacity building and infrastructure.

ChangeUp was developed, along with the social investment programme Futurebuilders, out of the Treasury’s 2002 cross cutting review of the role of the voluntary sector in public service delivery. It was based on the idea that many frontline voluntary and community organisations could not achieve their potential because of difficulties in accessing support and expertise. The high-level aim of ChangeUp was that:

“by 2014 the needs of frontline voluntary and community organisations will be met by support which is available nationwide, structured for maximum efficiency, offering excellent provision which is accessible to all while reflecting and promoting diversity, and is sustainably funded” (ChangeUp, p.7).

ChangeUp was supposed to be a ‘catalytic’ programme, aiming to change the nature of services and support, rather than just keep existing services going. The term ‘ChangeUp’ itself derives from baseball. With delicious irony, a changeup is a type of mischievous pitch:

“In addition to the unexpectedly slow velocity, the changeup can also possess a significant amount of movement, which can bewilder the batter even further. The very best changeups utilize both deception and movement”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Changeup

What followed from 2004 was the heady world of local and regional infrastructure consortia, infrastructure investment plans, national hubs focusing on specific areas, such as finance and performance, and then national support services. Around £230m had been spent on the strategy by 2011, when Capacitybuilders, the agency eventually charged with its delivery, was closed down.

Oh, those were the days. So, take a look around you. Ten years on, do we have the kind of infrastructure across the country that ChangeUp was aiming for? If your answer veers towards ‘no’ (as I suspect it might), why not? Here’s a list of provisional theories – what’s yours?

• Were the aims and expectations ever realistic?
• Was there enough money, or too much, or was it used properly?
• Was it too bureaucratic and managerial in its approach and arrangements?
• Was there sufficient and sustained political will to support the programme?
• Was it derailed by recession and austerity?
• Was it using a fundamentally flawed ‘supply side’ model, rather than channelling resources directly to frontline organisations?
• Something else?
The legacy of programmes like ChangeUp is a really interesting question. In your neck of the woods, in what ways is the current pattern of infrastructure support a reflection of ChangeUp investment and activity? What endures now? What stories do we now tell about what it was like, and what difference it made?

Clearly it is a more challenging and unsettled environment now for both the voluntary sector and particularly for its support infrastructure. This raises some very difficult questions, in active consideration at the moment:

• What are our current approaches to, and investment in, infrastructure?
• With these, are we heading towards or away from the basic aim of ChangeUp?
• What do we want from the sector’s support infrastructure?
• What needs to be done now and in the next few years?

Please do share your experiences and reflections about ChangeUp (on the list or directly to me at r.macmillan@bham.ac.uk)


Dr Rob Macmillan
Research Fellow
Third Sector Research Centre
University of Birmingham

The time will be ripe to influence – Lets not waste it

Labour has launched a consultation with the third sector to review and strengthen the relationship between Labour and charities, and to hear and understand what their priorities are for after 2015. They call it “Renewing our bond with the Third Sector”
The consultation asks the third sector’s views on seven key issues: volunteering; people in the voluntary sector; supporting charities to grow; charities and procurement; the Big Lottery Fund; charity campaigns; and the Charity Commission.
The consultation will involve a number of events and meetings with charities and will be led by the Shadow Minister for Civil Society, Lisa Nandy MP, and Michael Dugher MP, the Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office.
You can make a submission to this consultation by email to yourbritain@labour.org.uk
You can read the full text at:


You can meet with the Shadow Minister Lisa Nandy at VONNE’s free conference on 20th November in Newcastle.
I contacted Nick Clegg’s office today to ask about who will lead thLib Dems policy thinking around the Third Sector. Clearly as they are in a coalition Government they don’t have a Shadow Minister portfolio – watch this space for the answer. I have offered the opportunity for a meeting with the sector in the NE.

The Voluntary Sector’s response to Welfare Reform

I gave a presentation this week at Northumbria University as part of the Fuse / ILG series of workshops. This was on Welfare reform and health inequality. I was asked to explore the VCSE’s role in welfare reform. You can see below the thoughts that I shared with the audience. I would as always be interested in your views.
I would propose that the VCSE sector has responded in 3 ways. – Campaigning, Responding and Preventing.
Campaigning – It is important to say that the VCSE Sector doesn’t always speak with one voice on this and at times actively contradicts each other.
Remember that between Iain Duncan Smith stepping down as leader of the Conservative Party and becoming Secretary of State for Work and Pensions he founded the Centre for Social Justice, a think tank that has played a leading role in shaping the welfare reform agenda. Iain Duncan Smith spent time in many of the UK’s most disadvantaged communities, with people whose lives were blighted by social breakdown and the poverty it created. As he later wrote, he encountered ‘levels of social breakdown which appalled me. In the fourth largest economy in the world, too many people lived in dysfunctional homes, trapped on benefits. Too many children were leaving school with no qualifications or skills to enable them to work and prosper. Too many communities were blighted by alcohol and drug addiction, debt and criminality, many of them with stunningly low levels of life expectancy.’
What the website goes on to say is “Our consistent hope has been that each person, family and community is given every possible opportunity to reach their full potential. To achieve this the CSJ has deliberately fused policy-making expertise with poverty-fighting experience. From its earliest days, the unique voice of the voluntary sector – whose organisations are best placed to prevent social breakdown and turn people’s lives around – has been prominent. Alongside CSJ leaders and many of our staff who have a background in the voluntary sector, the CSJ has built a unique and deeply practical Poverty-fighter’s Alliance. This network of more than 320 innovative charities acts as our bridge between Parliament and our most deprived communities. It is through this network that the CSJ understands the scale and damage of social breakdown in the UK. It is also the basis on which we are enabled to promote solutions that are proven to work in neighborhoods and lives across the country. By combining hands-on experience, public involvement, academic rigor and effective political engagement, the CSJ has sparked radical public policy including Universal Credit; early years intervention programmes; political commitments to prevent family breakdown; pioneering education reforms; efforts to improve the rehabilitation of offenders and drug addicts; action on street gangs; and support for people with unmanageable debts.
There are of course others in the sector that would argue that the decline in living standards and increase in poverty has been exacerbated by the implementation of policies proposed by the CSJ.
Many of us in the sector have sought to gather evidence on the impact that changes to social security have had on the people that rely on our services. We want to find out the facts so that we can speak out responsibly and with authority. Many charities seek to give a voice to those that are impacted by the changes.
Newcastle CVSs Big Squeeze report is based on a survey carried out last Autumn, seeks to give an authentic voice to what is happening for many of the 28,790 people in Newcastle who it is estimated will be the hardest hit by the welfare reforms. The study confirms the evidence from the city council, welfare advice services and housing associations in the city that currently it is the changes to housing benefit, council tax and disability benefits that is having the biggest impact.
For 82% of the groups surveyed, welfare reform had negatively affected at least some of the people that they work with. Respondents said:
“It appears that the most disadvantaged are the people who have been hit hardest by the economic downturn and Government policy”
“Everyone is feeling stretched and under pressure but the bottom line is that often there is no help or intervention that can be meaningfully offered – when people are hungry or have serious worries about money, advice, counselling and reassurance have only limited effect.”
The study examines food poverty, the impact on the young and disabled, the affect of sanctions and how this plays out in terms of people’s wellbeing. A recurrent theme in many of the comments in the Big Squeeze survey is the impact that welfare reforms have on the mental health of people claiming benefits.
“Welfare reforms creates tremendous stress and anxiety. bedroom tax moving house , worry about finances, disability assessments worry about returning to work Exacerbates depression in those suffering from mental health issue”
The Mental Health Charity Mind launched a campaign on benefits, which aims to challenge the negative stereotypes used by politicians and parts of the media that has stigmatised people receiving benefits and distorted public attitudes. (Slide – look up campaign) (Slide negativity)
This appears to have had little effect. When Nick Hurd – the Minister for Civil Society visited the North East, Susan Bickerton the Chief Executive of Norcare (Now Thirteen Care and Support) explained that they work tirelessly to build up people’s confidence and self esteem but that headlines such as these make people feel worthless. He candidly responded that those headlines and stories are popular, the rhetoric reflects the sentiments of many of the voting public.
The second role that the sector plays in respect of Welfare reform is that of responder. The most obvious examples would be debt and benefits advice services, credit unions and food banks.
In 2012/13, the Citizens Advice service nationally dealt with over 2.3 million benefit and tax credit problems. 48,000 clients achieved an ongoing benefit award (£5,700 average value10) 10,000 clients achieved a benefit back payment (£1,900 average value11) In Darlington alone the CAB helped to maximise income through the take up of benefits by £3,928,863
Since it started in late 2011 County Durham Foodbank has grown rapidly both in the areas served and the number of people fed. 3,209 people were fed in the first 12 months. 11,684 people were fed in 2013 and the numbers keep rising. They distribute over 8 tonnes of food each month all of which comes from individual donations by the people of County Durham. The Foodbank in County Durham has mobilised a wonderful group of over 250 volunteers and thousands donors.
You can receive food from the foodbank if you have been given a voucher by a referring organisation which includes Job centre plus and the Probation Service.

Another way in which the sector has responded to Welfare reform has been through what it known as The Empty homes programme.

Community Campus pioneered this work in the North East when In 2010 they formed the Empty Homes Partnership with Coast and Country Housing, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council and East Cleveland Youth Housing Trust.

The aim of the partnership is to address the issue of long term empty homes alongside providing training, employment and volunteering opportunities for mainly young people in the area. The scheme has attracted a temporary social housing grant via the Homes and Communities Agency to develop a number of homes and we are now working with Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool Councils. They have so far renovated around 50 bedspaces (many 0ne bedders0 and are working on 4/5 per year.

In a similar vein Changing Lives are renovating 50 properties across Tyne and Wear, Durham and Northumberland by 2015. This innovative scheme tackles long-term empty properties bringing them back in to use to provide affordable and inviting homes for people moving forward in their lives, and their families.
The programme also provides ongoing employment, training, volunteering
With future tenants in mind, Homelife properties are selected for their good links near to public transport and amenities. Rents are charged at 80% of market rate ensuring they are affordable for tenants and within local housing allowance limits.
With over 18,500 empty homes across the North East alone, this initiative is a fantastic project and one that is worth replicating.
The final area that I would point to in which the sector engages in Welfare reform issues is through prevention. What I mean by that is offering people support that enables them to enter sustainable employment. This includes skills and employability support, volunteering as a root to employment. The wider benefits of social prescribing can make the difference between managing health conditions so that you can hold down a job.
Though we shouldn’t forget that many of those impacted by welfare reform are indeed those that are in work.

Little and Large – The Diseconomies of scale by Judy Robinson

My opposite number in Yorkshire and Humber wrote a blog that caught my eye – I hope that you find it interesting.

Running on empty seems to characterise what’s happening to many charities. Yet while small, local community groups are the most vulnerable to closure, they can often provide both the most effective and cost-effective solutions for society.
I was recently invited by NCVO to speak in Westminster at the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on civil society and volunteering. I focused on the prospects for smaller, locally based voluntary and community organisations – and it got me thinking about exactly what is it they do that matters and why it works.

When the “little things” make a big difference

A couple of examples about what charities do to create better health and prevent people going into hospital caught the group’s interest.

One is the award-winning project in Rotherham run by Voluntary Action Rotherham that brokers support, such as befriending and community transport, from local voluntary groups for people leaving hospital. The project has multiple benefits:

■it helps hospital leavers to stay well
■it saves lots of money because acute services are not needed
■and it supports charities to do what they do best without endless contracting bureaucracy

The other example is a MIND project in Cumbria called Connecting Mums. An NSPCC report last year identified a “shocking lack of provision of mental health services in some parts of the country for pregnant women and new mums”. Connecting Mums supports new mums suffering from ante-natal depression. It has now worked with 120 mums at a cost of about £40,000. This is the same cost as just ONE mental health hospital admission! But despite the obvious long term cost savings, the project has struggled to raise funding that will make it sustainable.

What makes a project successful locally?

The things that make these two projects successful are:

■they are connected to their locality
■they are trusted
■they involve volunteers
■they draw on insightful intelligence about the local area
■they know their patch because they are part of it.

So, why is it that we constantly hear from the scale up, roll out, economies of scale merchants about doing exactly the opposite?

I worry that too many of the big charities are seduced by all this. I’d like to see more connection by the some of the bigger charities to their local voluntary sector, where they could play a more active and, dare I say it, a more generous role.

Much loved Northern Rock Foundation will be a massive loss

It’s a sad day for charities and community groups in the North East and Cumbria.  7 years ago the Northern Rock Foundation had a grants pot of around £25 million per year, so if you weren’t funded by NRF you knew someone who was.  Whilst there is no cause for panic as we understand that all money planned to be given in grants up to March 2015 is still allocated, the loss of the Foundation will be heavily felt by the charity sector.

I’d like to pay tribute to the massive contribution NRF has made to the support and wellbeing of disadvantaged and vulnerable communities across the North East.  It has been a much loved institution, not just for its generosity but in its role as a really intelligent funder.  The Foundation has never shied away from supporting less attractive causes. They have funded organisations that work with offenders with the aim of reducing reoffending; work that supports the victims of domestic violence; homeless people; asylum seekers and so on. They made large grants that cover salaries and core costs over a prolonged period of time, and if they believe that there is still work to be done and you’re making a good job of it, they would carry on funding you beyond that.

The Northern Rock collapse was probably the first visible sign of the global economic meltdown. The consequences of that have been massive public sector spending cuts. It is this that is having a dramatic affect on Charities and voluntary organisations in the North East, because in this region Charities are more reliant on public sector funding than anywhere else in the country. There has also been a significant move away from deprivation based funding and funding for regeneration projects. Perversely, charities that have a long history of supporting unemployed people back to work struggle to find any funding for what they do. VONNE members reported earlier this year that at a time when 71% are seeing an increased demand for their services 53% have had a decrease in their funding and nearly two thirds are using their reserves. Organisations are losing staff and cutting back on services – some have been forced to close.

It is important that we all pull together now. National funders must  look at need and deprivation first, they must fund beyond their comfort zones, and they should learn from NRF and Lloyds Foundation by looking to fund core costs, salaries and multi-year grants. National Government must stop talking about loans and reboot their approach to Big Society.

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