Last night, as I was woken up by a drunk housemate coming back from her Christmas party in the wee small hours, I was struck by the oddity of the pre-Christmas indulgence culture.
There are two parts to this issue I found myself considering at 3am this morning. The first is our acceptance of excessive alcohol consumption: something that my colleagues in the West Kent Recovery Team explore. The second is the plausibility of one individual to make a difference to society without sacrificing their enjoyment of the season.
It’s tricky to know how to navigate the plethora of opportunities to do good effectively. So in an attempt to summarise my (somewhat sleep-deprived) thoughts, I’ve categorised opportunities into: Give generously; don’t change your lifestyle, change your supplier; and everything changes.
I recently travelled up to Alloa in Clackmannanshire to support a Fellow-led project named Resonate. Now, Clackmannanshire (and particularly Alloa) is not an area that receives much attention in Scotland, let alone further afield – until relatively recently my knowledge of it had consisted of the football team, personal attendance at the beer festival and their world leading work in phonics – so it great to see such an inspiring project thriving in that area, making a tangible difference to the people in their community. Although it ostensibly started off as a community arts project, Resonate acts as so much more now – it is a vibrant, inclusive heart of its community, passionately supported by service users, creative, activists and other brilliant people. I was in Alloa, on this occasion, to provide for support for Resonate as they have been put forward for a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service and Johnny Stewart, the Lord Lieutenant of Clackmannanshire, was visiting the project to assess its suitability. So a group of us gathered with mugs of coffee and pastries in hand, ready to meet with the Lord Lieutenant and answer his questions about Resonate.
Are you interested in helping young people realise their potential?
This summer we are launching an ambitious new project that seeks to improve the career prospects of RSA Academies students – and we need your help. Read more
We all have those days. The ones when we wonder why we do our jobs. Why we manage a team, take our place on a factory plant line, or decided to be a stay at home parent. Those days that are frustrating, unfulfilling and unproductive. Many of us do our jobs because we need a steady pay cheque. Some of us do our jobs because most days it’s not too bad. The lucky amongst us do our jobs because we generally enjoy it.
When I have those bad days, I tend to think about the people I work with. This tends to extend way beyond the team here at the RSA who will always pick me up when my day has been challenging, to the recovery community that I work so closely in West Kent. I have often heard people in this sector say something along the lines of ‘one person committed to their recovery can make up for ten that are not yet ready to change’.
I work with an amazing team of volunteers. The other day, one of them sent me a passage of text that he had posted on a social media website (through which he has many professional contacts including his employer). What struck me most about this was not only the amazing change he has been through, but how proud he is of the journey he has made. Using volunteers and peer mentors who are in recovery in the West Kent Recovery Service is a visible and inspiring demonstration that recovery can happen, but many people still remain anxious and concerned about the stigma placed on addiction and recovery in the wider community. For me, this was an inspiring account of change. Someone who has not only faced their problems and sought out the support they needed, but is not afraid to talk about it, to anyone.
Here is what he wrote:
“Addiction is not something you decide to do. It’s an illness and unfortunately there is NO cure. Some of us are lucky and learn to live and control the condition BUT ask any addict – it is a battle that is very difficult to fight. Many addicts relapse and when they do the addiction takes even stronger hold. It is so easy for non-addicts to judge and say it’s easy to stop. But to all you non-addicts, imagine trying to live your life, constantly swimming against the tide. Every now and then the tide is too strong and carries you back downstream. Some of us lucky ones manage to start swimming upstream again. Unfortunately far too many don’t get another chance. It doesn’t matter what the substance or thing; addiction is addiction.
In a previous part of my life I used no substances whatsoever but was going to the gym three times a day and taking a run at stupid o’clock at night. I now begin to understand; same addiction different substance. For years I kept my addictions secret thinking I was somehow at fault or had no self-control; not knowing that I was wired differently from those non-addicts around me. For me, one of anything was never enough.
I now am learning to live with a co-existence of addiction and other mental health issues. At the moment I am in remission but each day, every breath, every step is a battle to keep my head above water. Every day I can think of a good reason to use. And every day I then find a better reason NOT to.
So to you all. Get this straight. I am an addict! I am currently in a period of remission BUT know I’ll be an addict for the rest of my life. I will fight the fight not to use and take each day as it comes. I’ve accepted my fate and have no secrets from anybody”.
So that’s what will inspire me, for today at least. I hope that everyone finds the same sort of inspiration in their work. I wish you an inspiring rest of your week.
Today we’re launching the ChangeMakers handbook, a guide for anyone who wants to change their community for the better. (Since you’re reading this blog, I’m hoping that’s you.)
Along the way, I’ve noticed that the best of these initiatives, although very different in many ways, tend to get a few basic things right.
If I had to pick three:
- Their meetings don’t make you want to pull your fingernails out
- They use social media to tell people what they’re doing and why it matters
- They don’t let unnecessary bureaucracy and admin get in the way of a good idea
The handbook covers these topics, and a few others besides. It’s a real team effort, drawing both on the RSA Fellowship team’s experience working with Fellows across the world, and research by my colleague Ben Dellot as part of the RSA’s ChangeMakers project. Particular thanks are due to Lorena Hodgson, Alice Kershaw and John Turner, all of whom were involved in that project and contributed their advice.
If you’ve ever felt that something needs to change, but struggled to know where to start, there should be something here to help you. And if you find you have questions that go unanswered, we’ve also included plenty of links to other resources and tools that will help you along the way.
We hope you find it useful, and share the link with others. Most of all, we hope you’ll keep using this blog to share your own experiences – good and bad – to help this document grow and develop in the future.
So how are we progressing with our new year resolutions? Fallen off the diet bandwagon yet? Exercise commitments already forgotton? Has the email inbox exploded from unread spam? Every year I await the media shower of new year commitments and ambitions. Magazines full of diet suggestions, clearing out your closet and managing your time more effectively. As my colleague Emma Lindley has already blogged its clear that we relish a blank page at the beginning of the year and in this digital world its harder than ever to do so (although there is always the reset button).
Don’t get me wrong starting afresh can be a good thing, it’s heartening and positive but I am conscious that too often we feel we have failed and then demoralised from our inability to change the little things and keep to our personal goals. But let’s not be too disheartened and give ourselves a break. 2012 was a challenging but celebratory period and 2013 looks as though we are in for the same, but being a positive person I firmly believe we will get through to the other side.
Volunteer as a business mentor?
The RSA’s involvement in enterprise has long been established. Here is an opportunity for Fellows with business experience to be trained as mentors through the Get Mentoring, which offers free training and supports a community of enterprise mentors across the UK.
Research has shown that 70% of small businesses that receive mentoring survive for five years or more, which is double the rate compared with non-mentored entrepreneurs. Experienced mentors not only boost capability and capacity in small, medium and micro businesses, but also radically increase survival rates. As well as the benefits for the businesses, Mentors report major benefits including an insight into the hot topics effecting businesses today, development of skills which can be applied to other interactions and the chance to build some meaningful contacts with individuals in the next generation of businesses. Training is free and can be undertaken at workshops or online. Register on the Get Mentoring website
Become a School Governor with SGOSS
The RSA is working to alongside the School Governors’ One-Stop Shop (SGOSS) to try and fill some of the many school governor vacancies that currently exist across the UK. SGOSS is a small charity that recruits and helps place governor volunteers working in partnership with employers, local authorities and schools. It has already helped place over 15,000 volunteers and its services are free to all.
Why do it?
- Children need all the help they can get to equip them for life after school. SGOSS are looking for great school governors who can help improve educational standards across the UK.
- Good governing bodies make a material contribution to the performance of their schools. (Ofsted)
- The need for governor volunteers with transferable skills has never been greater. There are 33,000 vacant governor places in schools in England.
You will need to be 18 or over; however you don’t need to have children or have any detailed educational knowledge. Schools want governors with varied experience from all walks of life. The role involved 6-8 hours per month in term time only. I myself have recently agreed to be a governor for a school in Furness Vale, Disley.
As for my own resolution for 2013? Four years ago I made a resolution not to have any more new year pledges and have stuck to it ever since!
Deputy Head of Regional Programme
It’s been ages since I posted a blog here on our Fellowship pages but this doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy. Whilst we all bask in the olympic glow I am currently thinking about three key areas of improving the Fellowship offer, specifically from a regional (and in some cases national) offer namely; Regional Development Plans, Innovation and Volunteering.
The RSA has recently gone through a major period of governance review; the outcome of this is the creation of new regional/national teams across the UK bringing together a core team of Regional Chair, relevant Council member and Programme Manager. These working teams will have mixed approaches and styles but all will be focused on one objective over the next few months – the preparation of Development Pans for their relevant area. These plans will be outline proposals project development, local activity, objectives - all led by Fellows. It will be interesting to see how some areas overlap and others differ in their approaches and respond to local priorities. I hope to encourage all Regional/National Chairs to post guest blogs here and provide an overview of their vision.
Innovation is a theme close to the RSA mission. I think it will be a topic appearing more frequently on these blogs. Recently we have been running Catalyst roadshows and the need for case studies of practical and innovative projects that have received Fellows support and resources remains the number one request. Today, I provided a Fellow in the North West some examples of community-based projects as case-studies for a new community wellbeing project in Cheshire. I found myself recommending Social Spaces and the work undertaken by Tessy Britton FRSA and Laura Billings FRSA to collate local community projects and share positive stories and ideas for others to adopt, replicate and refine.
Which of course leads me to volunteering. This is an area that I am keen the Regional Programme Team (which I lead) take an active role in developing further with Fellows. Fellows are volunteers and we need to ensure that we use this valuable resource wisely, effectively and most importantly to mutual benefit. Whether its mentoring a young entrepreneur or simply advising on Fundraising for a potential project the connection Fellows share through knowledge, expertise and skills is the most valuable resource I know. So dear reader (hello Dad!) could you please signpost me to the examples you know about volunteering management and mobilisation. I want to hear how volunteer engagement works and learn why some organisations are so successful.
I have a personal objective to ensure the RSA improves its understanding and development of all volunteers. So over to you – please let me have your suggestions.
Deputy Head of Regional Programme
Volunteering is often seen through an all too simple lens. If you were to ask someone to describe an example of ‘volunteering’, they might say helping to serve food at a homeless shelter, checking up on an elderly neighbour, or tending to a community garden. They are less likely to say doing the bookkeeping for a local charity, writing a business plan for a social enterprise or undertaking some desk-research for an NGO. Yet it is arguably these kinds of activities that third sector organisations will need greatest help with over the coming years, not least because they are being enticed into taking on more sophisticated functions such as tendering for public service contracts.
The changing face of third sector operations will in turn require a transformation in the calibre of the volunteers we recruit. In short, we will need to get better at identifying and mobilising skilled individuals who are up to the challenge of undertaking more demanding tasks. This is in part what we have attempted to do with the RSA’s ‘ChangeMakers’ project. Using an innovative new method, we were able to identify some 240 ChangeMakers in Peterborough who are driving positive change – among them businessmen, housing officers, students, artists and social entrepreneurs – and are now in the process of bringing these individuals together as part of a new collaborative network which works to improve the city.
Although mobilising this group will prove something of a challenge, we are not starting from scratch – by definition, ChangeMakers are already highly active in their communities and have experience of applying their skills for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, the same cannot necessarily be said of most skilled individuals. Despite the fact that twice as many people with a degree volunteer compared to those without any qualifications, there are still many out there who we have been unable to galvanise into action and whose wealth of talents remain untapped.
One reasonable explanation for this is that these highly educated, experienced individuals have less time at their disposal. They are more likely to be in senior positions at work, meaning that even if they want to help out at a local charity or social enterprise they simply don’t have the time or energy to do so. Another reason is that they don’t recognise themselves as particularly skilled or talented. Or if they do, they fail to see how their abilities could be applied in such a way to support a third sector organisation. Judging from our experience with the ChangeMakers project, this is entirely plausible: many of the people we identified were genuinely surprised that they had been nominated as someone driving positive change.
Bring these and other explanations together and we can begin to paint a more detailed picture of the difficulties in recruiting and managing ‘elite’ volunteers. The big piece that is still missing, however, is an acknowledgement of the mental demands that accompany participation. We can ponder endlessly about whether people have the time, the skills or the knowledge to volunteer. But this debate will prove fruitless unless we understand that ‘participation is personal’, something which is ultimately tied up in the nature of our identities and how we see ourselves in relation to others.
Take an example. A high-flying graduate who works for a major consultancy firm has the necessary time and skills to help undertake an audit of a charity in their neighbourhood. On the face of it, there should be no barrier stopping this person from offering their services. But this would be to ignore the hidden mental demands that are associated with the task. For instance, as somebody who may be in a position of authority at work, they may feel some discomfort at being directed by a less senior person in a smaller organisation. It may also be that the culture of the third sector environment doesn’t go in tandem with the one they’re accustomed to in the private sphere. Likewise, they may have to work with individuals who they wouldn’t normally choose to associate with in their work or private lives (see our Beyond the Big Society report for a fuller explanation of this ‘hidden curriculum’).
What this means is that any aspiration to grow the numbers of skilled people offering their services as volunteers will have to be accompanied by a much more considered approach to identifying, recruiting and coordinating those individuals. It will need to be one that thinks not only about matching specific skills with need but also about linking people and organisations based on their like-mindedness and cultural similarities. The immediate costs may appear too large at first and the exercise overly complex, but in the long run the dividends will justify the time and expense. Indeed, it’s not a case of if we choose to reform the way we recruit and manage volunteers but rather when and how.
One of the main reasons that older people give for not going online is that “people like them” don’t using the Internet. No amount of free computers or cut priced broadband will change that. That’s why Race Online 2012, the organisation that is pushing to get more of us online, constantly uses examples of older people using the Internet as a key way of encouraging other older people to go online. If people feel that it is normal for people like them to do something, then it is very easy for them to do it.
I recently interviewed a middle aged woman, let’s call her Lynn. She explained to me that she does not have enough time to be involved in her local community. She said that she would love to volunteer but she has so many other responsibilities that she just can’t find the time. She seemed to regret not being able to volunteer and, more importantly, she seemed to be somewhat ashamed. I think she felt like she should volunteer and that I might disapprove of her for not volunteering.
The more Lynn spoke the more amazed I became at the range of things she did, in her community. As well as working full time she also looks after her dad on Saturdays, her mum on Sundays and various grandchildren 3 nights a week. She also helps neighbours write letters to officials and has a regular drink with her neighbour whose husband died recently.
Lynn doesn’t volunteer in the way we normally understand the word. However, she does an incredible amount to improve the lives of those around her. In fact, the strain this had on her was obvious to see. She told me that she feels like she never has any time for herself and she takes medication for depression.
People think of a volunteer as someone who gives their time, for free, to an organisation, for largely selfless reasons
Why does Lynn feel like she should give more to her local community? Why does she feel ashamed by how little she is doing, when she is doing so much? Perhaps the answer can be found in our stereotype of the volunteer.
People think of a volunteer as someone who gives their time, for free, to an organisation, for largely selfless reasons.
For Lynn, volunteers are not “people like me”. They are people who can afford to give their time to others for free, expecting to get nothing back apart from perhaps a sense of satisfaction.
Under the banner of the Big Society, the government has made a number of recommendations and exhortations to increase the amount of volunteering in Britain. According to Ipsos MORI the number of hours that people say they volunteer has remained constant for decades now, despite various governments’ best efforts. I am sure I am not alone in being sceptical about the potential of current government initiatives to increase this number.
There is a risk though that exhortations from the government for us to volunteer more will make people like Lynn feel slightly more ashamed.
The government could take a different approach; recognising and celebrating the contribution that people like Lynn make, so that others find it easier to contribute to their community in the way that Lynn does.
Do the ends justify the means?
There has been much discussion recently on how to get more people to volunteer but how important a goal is this? How much would we be willing to sacrifice to see this goal achieved? My guess is that the answer for most people would be “not much”.
Matthew Taylor has written on his misgivings on what he calls “involunteering” i.e. forcing people to volunteer.
I am certainly not saying that we should hope for either, however, these observations do raise lots of questions about how much of a goal increased volunteering really is.
Indeed, perhaps one of the (many) PR problems with Cameron’s idea of The Big Society is that it appears to be both a means (reforming public services, training community organisers etc…) and an end (people feeling more responsible for their area and more empowered). Without making this split clear it’s hard for us to debate which means we are or are not willing to tolerate for which ends.