Tag Archives: charity

Reconnecting Bristol

“I’m enjoying the raw nature of the work; there is no hiding given we are the front door for many people.” Tess, the ex Cardiff University Law Student tells me. “The learning curb has been quick, and until I got involved, I did not fully appreciate the patience and time it takes to help somebody to turn their life around.” Tess supports the Independent Futures (IF) Group, which acts as a bridge between those with lived experience or find themselves enduring homelessness, substance misuse, at risk of reoffending, or mental health concerns with those agencies funded to guide them out of the world they inhabit.

“I’ve just started to volunteer here. I want to make friends, build up my confidence and find work. I’m starting to make good progress now”  Ed tells me who moved to Bristol 3 years ago from the neighbouring city of Bath. “We need more places where people are not being pigeonholed, labelled or marshalled towards somebody else’s answer.” 

Control and power and who holds them seem to be a central value running through Bristol Reconnect. These are the types of concepts that are difficult to measure, and ones that often get left behind when charities and voluntary sector groups are forced to sniff out funding from an ever decreasing pool of tightly defined contracts.

On the ground floor cafe, a volunteer is cleaning and testing the coffee machine while another is tucked away in a corner focused on the task of assembling a donated storage box. Opening times at the cafe fluctuate given the reliance upon volunteers. On the 1st floor is a community room, which is available for hire. Located at the rear of the building is a pleasant garden space, recently upgraded as part of a TV challenge programme. In an ideal world, these assets would be contributing income towards the group’s upkeep, but like most small community groups seeking to survive beyond the realm of grants it will take time, but time is not a luxury for group’s like Bristol Reconnect.  I ask about resources and funding, but it’s met with a deep sigh and redundant shrug of the shoulders. There is, of course, a new settlement urgently needed in this country about the style, nature, and provision of welfare that we are prepared to pay for given the inherent failures of the current system.  But whatever the cause or the potential solutions this is where we find ourselves today, and some people can’t wait, “We either do something, or we do nothing, and doing nothing is unacceptable” Jonathan, the Chief Executive, cook, cleaner, dishwasher, counsellor and crisis manager at Bristol Reconnect tells me.

Bristol like most urban cities in the UK is coming to terms with the impact of austerity. The lag between central government budget announcements, policy delays and the impact on the ground regarding frontline services is catching up for many in the city. The mythology of so-called efficiency savings and other magical accountancy terms have not shielded services against the depth of cuts needed to balance the books. As local campaigns gather pace against the loss of frontline services like libraries those most vulnerable are more unlikely to able to raise their voices. The homeless, vulnerable adults and children with complex care needs and the elderly. This role often falls to groups like Bristol Reconnect, who are increasingly becoming stretched to the point of breaking. The question increasingly being posed is, “what type of local council do we require in Bristol beyond austerity?”

There is a sense of unity with those facing the loss of their jobs in local government and that central government funding cuts are spitefully engineered to punish, strip away dignity and they are ideologically driven to erode further welfare funded by general taxation.

“The way housing is provided makes it difficult for families to live together in neighbourhoods now. The support you would normally get from your grandad, uncle or another member of the family is no longer there, so people look towards institutions like the council. Even before the cuts my experience was mixed and even accessing the service was difficult.” I was told by one person who wanted to remain anonymous.

Local council’s, like Bristol City Council, have traditionally been the significant investor in local charity and community sector groups. “There is little you can often do to change how a large organisation works, so small self-help groups become increasingly important, which poses the question if the likes of the council are struggling to do things with their diminished resources how can we be expected do more without resources? It’s a very dangerous situation we are now entering. It needs a shift in mindset from everybody” say’s Aaron who along with Jonathan is one of the original instigators behind Bristol Reconnect. “We need to rebuild around communities rather than institutions. We will continue to try and explain this to larger organisations who have the clout to make a difference. We try to help them listen, but my experience is things don’t change because of the corporate-ness. It’s dehumanising as if we have adopted something out of the animal kingdom where the fittest survive and the reward is a contract to work with the most marginalised and vulnerable people in our community. The whole ethos is sick. The focus needs to be on reconnecting people.”

What I think Arron is getting at here is not necessarily what institutions seek to do, which is often laudable, but how they go about doing it. It seems to boil down to behaviours and recognising that working within a statutory institution will inevitably develop a specific set of behaviours, as working in the charity and community sector will naturally do. Any rejection of the Government’s policy of austerity cannot simply be about restoring what has gone before. The focus of rebuilding, if or when it comes, must increasingly be about the outcome, behaviours, connection, empathy, equity, etc. rather than simply rebuilding a specific institution. “Simply focussing on relations from a monetary perspective takes things away. Head and heart, depending which one you want to put first. I appreciate people need to get paid, but it’s about having the mindset alongside your responsibility. If you are obtaining a salary, then it provides you with the opportunity to think about others. Voluntary sector groups especially can get destroyed by chasing funding, which ends up determining what they do. There is a balance.” Aaron adds.

So, if there is an acceptance that core funding is difficult to access at the moment.  What type of support do groups like Bristol Reconnect need to survive? After a thoughtful pause from those present the following ideas emerge:

  • Help with redesigning the space we use to make it more efficient.
  • Access to a small budget to help with the start-up phase.
  • Business development throughout the initial shaky period.
  • Volunteers willing to serve from trustee through to service delivery.

None of these issues, of course, are exclusive to Bristol City Council to help resolve, but “How about your local Council?” I ask. “Brokerage” comes the answer.“What do you mean by brokage? I ask. “Somebody who can navigate from within the council who understands how the public, private and charitable sectors work. They are able to facilitate exchanges, obtain and share things. For example, we needed some gear for the kitchen recently. We could spend time fundraising and then purchase stuff, but in a city like Bristol these things will be sitting idle in a charity, business or council storeroom somewhere.”

In times of strife and challenge, when strategy development becomes a comfortable blanket to hide under, it’s often the simple things that can sometimes become the most difficult to resolve. Why? If you want to find out more about Bristol Reconnect, or you may have something to offer? You can take the first step by clicking here: Stand Up and Be Counted.

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Time to Plan: Helping small volunteer-led groups with their future

Over the past few months, I have been helping three small volunteer-led community groups in Bristol working on issues as diverse as enhancing public spaces, homelessness and inner city youth services. All three groups have little or no funding, which is not the immediate problem. They are all asking me to assist them with the development of a plan that will help guide their work into the future within the resources they currently hold, which I am happy to do. The back drop is they are all being increasingly asked to do more as local government does less. I am setting the rights and wrongs of this aside for the moment.

Here is the snag. Most if not all the examples of plans are seriously over the top and seem to have been designed by megalomaniacs, or consultants who have tried to be far far too smart (and expensive). I guess what I am talking about here is something that is practical, proportionate and designed around the needs of the groups. I have started to develop some ideas with the groups but was wondering if anybody out there knew of some good practice examples? I would like to produce something that is self-administrative, open source and free for any small ‘grass roots’ volunteer group with little or no funding wanting to develop a practical plan.

Take it for Granted

This particular blog is specifically aimed at small community groups/charities who have limited expertise to prepare a grant application to a charitable trust, or public body to help fund your work. The simple eight steps are presented as a guide to help in in the preparation stage when drafting your grant application. As with most things in life what you finally produce is only as good as the foundations you build it upon. None of the steps below are rocket science, but in my 20+ years of experience either preparing grant applications to charitable trusts or assessing applications for public bodies it’s remarkable how many potentially good projects fail because of simplicity.

Step 1: Establish a small task and finish group

Once a funding opportunity has been identified set up a small task and finish group that will oversee all work associated with the drafting and submission of the application. Ideally, this should be no less than 2 and no more that four people. Where possible the task group should include the following:

  • The person tasked with preparing the draft
  • A trustee or management committee member (the treasurer)
  • A service user

The purpose of the task and finish group will be to work on behalf of the trustees/management committee to prepare and submit the grant application. The level of delegation between the trustees/management committee and task and finish group is a matter for each group to determine. Although not ideal, given the size and capacity of the group a single person could be delegated to do all the work. In these cases, I would suggest the person appointed should seek input from a trusted colleague.

Note: make sure everybody is aware of their role and responsibilities.

Step 2: Do your homework

The person tasked with preparing the application should collect as much information as possible on the agency providing the opportunity to make application and circulate it to all members of the task and finish group. This information to contain as a minimum:

  • Details of the funding agency (including web address)
  • Criteria for application and deadlines
  • The application form and any supporting documentation
  • Requirements of a successful application
  • Monitoring and accountability requirements for the funding
  • Most funding bodies provide information on successful and not successful applications

The first task for the group is to use this information to complete a brief work plan, which starts from the final date the application needs to be submitted and then works backward. Include in this key dates for each draft to be prepared.

Note: Does the agency fund your type of group? If not, don’t make the application.  

Step 3: Clarity about your ask

Sounds daft, but be clear about what you are seeking to do and that it aligns with the criteria. Again, it sounds crazy, but one of the main reasons an application fails is because it does not meet the criteria for funding. If you are in any doubt, speak to the funding agency directly given they don’t want to waste their and your time. Keep a note of the discussion and report findings back to the task and finish group. You will need to establish a figure to the amount of money you intend to ask for. Be realistic and base your ask on what you need. Trying to inflate your ask will only undermine your case and credibility when you are eventually found out…and you will be.

Step 4: Research and gather support

This will need to be handled sensitively, but through your network try to see if any other local groups have had any experience with this particular funding agency. Check the website of the funding agency to see if grants have been made available for similar activities within your city, town or neighbourhood. You might want to use this opportunity to explore the potential of partnering up with a like-minded group with similar ethos or purpose.

Talk to local stakeholders like faith leaders, local councillors, local police, health profession, etc. Ask if they will provide a supporting reference for your application.

Is your proposed project based on what you think the community requires or is it based on what the community needs? A strong application will normally be based on an identified need, which is support by evidence, such as crime levels, educational attainment, poverty, etc. This information can be found on your local council’s website within a dense report called the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment. This document is not easy reading and is full of jargon, so look for summaries. If you are having, difficulties obtain this information try and phone your local council. They hold the information and have a duty to provide the information upon request. Most local government officers will be happy to help, but be clear what information you are seeking before you contact them.

Most local government officers will be happy to help, but be clear what information you are seeking before you contact them. For example, “I am seeking information on the level of poverty in the x neighbourhood, along with any other information you might think is helpful in making an application for funding. Could you provide this information or guide me to where I could find it.”

Step 5: Drafting 

Using the information gathered from steps 2,3,4 you will be in a position to start the drafting of the grant application form. Don’t worry at this stage about any gaps you are unable to complete just complete what you can.

Step 6: Challenge 

Complete the initial draft application and share it with the members of the task and finish group. Ask for their input and suggestions. You might also want to ask for help with filling in any gaps or you may ask a member of the group to track down some information that will help address any gaps in the application and improve further drafts.

Step 7: Supporting documentation

Most funding agencies will require supporting documentation with the final application. You may want to ask a member of the task group to compile these supporting documentation, which may include (not exhaustive):

  • Constitution
  • Audited accounts
  • Equalities policy
  • Minutes of the management committee

Step 8: Final draft

The drafting stage will be a matter for you to conduct, but this normally takes between 3 to 5 drafting attempts before a good final draft of the application is ready.

Step 9: Reflect and Prepare final application 

The task and finish group are supplied with a copy of the draft application and supporting documentation. It is the responsibility of the group to finalise the application. The person who has written the final draft presents what is required of the funding agency to the group who cross reference, audit and sign off the grant application.

Step 10: Submit

Good practice is to submit the grant application at least 5 workings days before the closing date for applications.

And finally

This is a brief guide and of course, will not guarantee success with any application, but it will help build capacity within your group so when further grant applications become available you will be ready. The key issue to remember is that far more applications are turned down than approved. This may not be a reflection on the quality of your application. If you are successful most, but not all funding agencies are prepared to provide you will feedback. This information is invaluable for future applications. I will pick up the issue of preparing the governance in a future blog.