Sport Relief: Luther Special & a Quick Text Won’t Do it!

We’re watching Sport Relief, an unrelenting mash up of fun, sporting heroics, comedy and conviction. The banter, unlikely competitions, silly stunts, heroic feats (Eddie Izzard) and comedy sketches are fun and at times it’s all very inspiring. The short, beautifully crafted films capture eye-watering poverty with grim commentary that pulls no punches. The whole venture feels like a great endeavour.

On the night, if the extreme silliness and comedy jars with the hard-hitting stories, then on the whole Sport Relief seem to pull it off.

For me it’s the big sponsors that are the problem. The absence of any comment on corporate and government policy, affecting the lives of those featured.

Alongside all the hard work, team building and back patting about sponsorship we don’t get to hear corporates siting changes in their investment policies. Or the impact of mainstreaming their Fairtrade range. Or paying workers a living Wage.

So the Premier League raise over a £1 million. When Deloitte reports that in 2013-14 the combined revenues of Premier League clubs soared by 29% to £3.26bn – and pre-tax profits of £187m. A million seems a bit piffling.

I’d like to hear Sport Relief highlight this absurd inequality. I’d love to hear the Premier League report all its clubs are paying a Living Wage.

John Bishop recalls a rubbish dump in Kenya – and returning we cheer Margaret who is away from the tip and going to school. And her Grandma has started a business. We don’t hear that the rubbish dump is still there, and remains a magnet to the poorest and most vulnerable. The system remains.

It’s ironic to hear pronouncements about UK government matching donations to Sport Relief via Gift Aid, when so many of the projects that will benefit are facing crippling cuts or closure because of government policies introduced targeting cuts to small voluntary organisations. Or that users of the services are victims to cuts targeting the most vulnerable. Or victims of welfare reform. We don’t hear about this. It’s a huge absence.

“We need to show you what you, what we, need to change” says Danny Dyer. The problem is no amount of donations will bring the change he’s calling for. We need system change – and that comes through progressive policies, the ballot box and an ethical, regulated market. It won’t happen after a mini-Luther, and a quick text on a Friday night.

I’m up for Sport Relief, Comic Relief. Here’s to more comedy and creativity and acts of individual generosity – and extraordinary projects that inspire!

And alongside this real stories about unregulated markets – about landlords raising rents and making life intolerable for the poorest. Or the impact of a social ‘safety net’ quietly dismantled and a spike in the numbers of homeless. The human cost of closures, cuts, of policies pursuing profits and privatisation.

And alongside stories of individuals who have had their lives transformed, lets include a Danny Boyle style celebration of systems we need – decent public health, public housing and public education – systems that benefit the poorest and most vulnerable, that we need to keep and preserve.

Church and their Buildings

Church buildings are a challenge. Sure, buildings can be useful, but viability and costly maintenance clog up work and the agenda of church meetings. And when you’ve only a tiny congregation – the pressure builds up.

How, when the vicars vocation is about people and community, is so much time given to buildings? What is ‘church’ – a pseudo heritage organisation?

A church building is a great opportunity:

  • A presence in a neighbourhood, on the skyline and landscape.
  • A continuity, reassuring in a changing world.
  • A resource to host all kinds of activity.

On the other hand, they are a nuisance:

  • Space is often unused for most of the week.
  • Expensive to maintain.
  • Refurbishment or modernising plans can dominate forever.
  • People resources get diverted to focus on bricks and mortar.

With small congregations and affordable alternatives, why a building anyway?

As soon as a minister starts at a church they get a bunch of keys. Incumbent to the building, keeping it open is a key measure of success. For most vicars the building becomes the constant headache – the ongoing distraction.

You can see the building ‘managing’ the minister and their congregation.

What is the alternative?

In Cornwall I met a vicar set free from managing the plant. A new Trust has been set up with support from the diocese to manage a huge listed rural church building.

  • The Trust is independent of the Parochial Church Council (PCC).
  • The local vicar is not on the board of the Trust.
  • The Trust is enabling those outside the church interested in the building to oversee and develop the space.

I sat in on a meeting of the Trust and PCC as they agreed responsibility for every aspect of the building – who looks after and oversees what? Like a couple deciding who had custody, this was in a brilliant exercise in pragmatism. The PCC prioritising use of space within the building and responsibility only for those items required for a worshiping congregation. The devil is in the detail, and the detail is a lease signed in January 2016 by the PCC

It’s not a straight forward exercise for the vicar.

Happy to loose responsibility for the upkeep of the building while (outside regular use on a Sunday and occasional meetings and events) loosing control of the space can feel like too much. In Cornwall they’ve struck a good deal. The congregation retain full use for meeting Sundays and for weddings, baptisms etc, and PCC oversee their meeting area in the chancellery. The rest of the building and time during the week is overseen by the Trust.

It’s early days for the vicar, the PCC and the Trust but this new approach could make a huge difference. The congregation and vicar can get on working on interpreting ‘church’ as a group of people. The Trust focus on working with stakeholders (including the congregation) to develop the space.

The project raises important questions about a population’s relationship with their local church building.

  • What are the priorities for small congregations with limited resources?
  • What does a phrase like ‘our church’ mean to members of a worshiping congregation and the vast majority of the local population who aren’t?
  • Who is responsible for maintaining and developing a church building when its beyond the reach of the congregation and incumbent? What are the implications and possibilities for seeding responsibility to a wider circle of people beyond the congregations?

What’s clear is that while the church faces a tsunami of redundant church buildings, many buildings still present a huge opportunity. Bold solutions – like the one in Cornwall – offer learning and maybe some answers.

Minotaurs, Rope and Resistance

Last night to the final National Coalition on Independent Action gathering and some sobering insight into the current state of the voluntary sector.

In case you didn’t know it, your favourite charities are mainly in trouble – particularly your small, local, on the doorstep variety.

According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations around half of all voluntary organisations have an income of less than £10k. A further third flourish on less than £100k annually. While these small, nimble little charities make up most of the ‘voluntary sector’ they only total 5% of its income.

Between 2010 and 2013, these organisations lost nearly 25 per cent and 20 per cent of their statutory income respectively. Whether small or large, most voluntary organisations will depend on local authority funding – cut by 37% – with more cuts to come.

“The idea of doing another 50 page tender just does me in…”

Lots of stories last night on the forensic attack being made to the voluntary sector.

From the temptations of impossible funding arrangements charities must navigate, the contracts and the compromises along the way – the rational that has to be carefully explained. To the impact of signing the contract – creaming off ‘core costs’, leaving little to actually ‘deliver’ the service.

Or the erosion of independence, the loss of empathy with disadvantaged voices.

Or the self-editing and silencing of ‘truth spoken to power’.

Or the loss of advocacy and defending people’s rights.

Lots of stories.

“What do we want charities to do? Are they established to salve our consciousness – or to solve problems?”

These are challenging times for community groups. Many signing contracts, reducing them to ‘service organisations’ delivering services. Despite this their work may go way beyond service delivery. These are organisations that deliver social capital, build resilience in broken neighbourhoods, speak out about those most disadvantaged, nurture participation amongst those written off, provide forum for dissenting voices, facilitating development and all kinds of unfashionable things.

We now clearly need an alternative delivery system, a way to fund this essential work that nurtures a distinctive, independent voluntary sector.

“We’ve a horrible five years coming for the voluntary sector. It’s crucial we set aside differences – we need to work together…”

If the voluntary sector has been squeezed into an impossible corner – accept funding conditions or shut – then the silence from organisations established to support them has been deafening. Only now are NCVO, ACEVO, NAVCA and others beginning to put their head above the parapet, and speak up about change – even as government prepares to cuts there funding. Maybe it’s too late.

As the voluntary sector has been under attack NCIA has been a foghorn blaring away since 2008, a candid call for an independent voluntary sector.

The call now is to get stuck in.

Just like Jason and the Minatour – we need to delve into this maze and confront the monster. To go in and challenge the beast – whilst like Jason, remaining attached to the rope. The rope anchors us to our values, connects us to our mission, to what we’re for, what we’re set up to do; to what matters, and what will lead us home.

Completing a report for a grassroots charity the other month (represented at the event last night) I was asked in the final edit meeting to remove any reference to ‘advocacy’. “It’s too political. It will upset funders.” I wasn’t surprised.

The truth is – this is all very difficult. The people I know involved in this work – from national charities, regional organisations, to small local groups – are confronting these situations daily and having to make all kinds of impossible choices. Some of them conflicting with core principles and what matters. And so the distinctiveness of our sector is diluted.

We can talk tough. What ever we might say, we’re all scared.

We all self-edit. We all want to protect our agenda. In doing so we risk cutting the rope and losing touch with what matters.

One alternative is finding others – finding solidarity. Resisting the changes with others, because we’re reminded our work, our cause is too important. NCIA or any of it’s associates is a good place to start.

Shut up or move in?

Back in 2009 I wrote a piece about Owen who ran a community project focused on litter picking, clearing flats, refurbishing homes and recycling furniture.

The project was held together by recovering addicts, who volunteered at the project. While it felt chaotic the outcomes were impressive – huge areas of land blighted by rubbish cleared up, by an organisation committed to involving those most excluded from society. It was brave, bold and ambitious, and preposterous!

Spend any time with Owen and the stories soon start to fly. Dog eared photo albums are dug out featuring filthy infested flats inhabited by haunted figures, each subsequently transformed in part by contact with an astonishing collective of kind, generous volunteers. On the estates workers in fluroscent jackets became common place, while the well-healed, well-to-do queue up for Saturday morning photo-calls; you can understand people wanting a slice of the action, and a guaranteed picture in the paper.

Owen and the project went on to be nominated for various gongs with visits to Highgrove and the Palace. Yet despite the interest, accolades and appearances, the modest funding to keep everything afloat was non-existent. Local supporters were bankrolling the project from private loans, while unemployed volunteers didn’t claim their benefits as they were volunteering with the project and no longer seeking a job. People found their vocation. It was with Owen.

Despite delivering outstanding work, the organisation lurched from one funding crisis to the next. It wasn’t sustainable. The project closed back in 2011 leaving Owen to go on and set up new initiatives.

Despite warm words about the significance of local projects to bring change,  despite the billions spent on research that affirms their critical role in building ‘resilient neighbourhoods’, despite the hours of training and ‘capacity building’ poured into the sector by local ‘council for voluntary service’ and similar organisations, these neighbourhood projects are now threatened by closure. Despite gushing rhetoric from successive governments, each have preceded over an erosion of their status with local authorities, opportunity for funding sliced and cuts to their own budgets. The impact is felt most on small projects and their capacity to work with those most excluded. Since 2011 many have followed Owen and shut down.

Nip back and revisit Owens project and you’ll probably be overwhelmed by the value placed on people written off, both in the brilliant service provided, and the way the team operate. You’d be shocked at the willingness of staff to empathise with the heart break many volunteers experienced, and their flexibility to react to extremes – accommodating difficult behaviour, affirming vulnerable humans. At times we’d be exhausted by the chaos pervading the organisation, frequently reacting to messy situations and circumstances. Getting work done – but at what cost to volunteers and staff?

Yet the problem for Owen isn’t the violent behaviour of a volunteer or destructive person using the service. Its the distance between their activity and the budget holder, the commissioner or policy maker.

Tucked away in a fourth floor office they are busy juggling agendas, making decisions about where dwindling resources maybe allocated, based on the quality of written information provided and targets met. The noisy, chaotic organisation that cannot fill in a form correctly or use the right spelling just fuels a perception of risk. ‘Risk is not good.’ The smaller, chaotic community group that delivers results brilliantly, but struggles to communicate, market, brand and present itself or explain its work, feels doomed. Never mind these organisations are loved locally, work with people and transform lives by the shed load.

Correct the geography – locate decision makers in offices adjacent to our Owen. Prioritise time to sniff out the work – the vulnerability of the volunteers and those calling in, needing help, see the anarchy, feel the chaos. And watch alchemists like Owen and his team doing their work with the most marginalised. Maybe then by being in the neighbourhood, and with a little imagination, projects like Owen’s will remain open, there work understood and supported. Maybe.