Monday 21 March 2016

Pick up the phone!

I've learnt a valuable lesson today.
I've just got off the phone with a funding officer from a local authority who've always supported us. He wanted to know why we'd not claimed a £400 grant for an event we wanted to enter last year. The reason why I'd not claimed it was because we'd never had notification and just assumed we'd not been successful. Water under the bridge and move on and all that.
When I explained that he said "oh come on, I'm not having that, you need to go back through your records and get the forms to me by tomorrow". I've always tried to run the charity in a professional and transparent way and taken this deeply personally. He gave me a talking to about needing to pick up the phone and ask, "that would be the professional thing to do".

I felt duly admonished and know I should do things like this but in my defence last year was tough on me. As well as some deeply personal stuff (which I won't go in to) I was working flat out running the charity and working 3 days a week in London for Think Local Act Personal. A year of working what were effectively 7 day weeks with few breaks, and long days too, took its toll on me.
It was also a really crazy summer where we were at a variety of different events, and then I was on family holiday at the time of the grants being announced).

I wasn't as professional as I should have been obviously and I will try better. In the end, just before Christmas, the trustees encouraged me to take a complete break and so I took 5 weeks off (and offline) to recover and charge my batteries.

I know my colleagues at this local authority are under a lot of stress and so I just assumed we weren't successful and that was that. It's not unusual for other departments to not reply to me after all. And things can sometimes get lost in the post.
He then told me a saying his grandma used to tell him "you know what Thought thought ? Thought he was following a wedding and ended up in a muck wagon" In other words don't make assumptions.
Likewise, he made an assumption about me and didn't know the full story.

He did sound very stressed and I can only assume they've got the auditors in, and I know how stressful that can be but now my stress levels are up, especially given the suggestion that we've blown our chances of any future funding.
It's also made me very cautious about applying again to be honest because I don't like going through experiences like this.

So today's lesson is, no matter how busy you are, and no matter how many work and personal plates you're spinning, always phone that grant officer. Of course that's easier said than done and I'm happy to report that I'm now working for the charity full-time so at least I've got a better chance of succeeding. And my mental health is a lot better too.

Onwards and upwards, I've learned a valuable lesson today.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

I love chips, but not every day

I’ve not been on this blog in a long time, I started it as a way of sharing my experiences of founding and running a small charity. Its not something I ever set out to do but here I am doing it and I imagine there are quite a few people who’ve found themselves in similar situations.

Looking back over the past year it’s been an incredible time for us, we’ve grown the Gig Buddies project so it’s now working with over 60 pairs of buddies across Sussex, set up sister projects with partners in Sydney and Midlothian, and successfully bid for £202,000 from the Big Lottery. Plus we're also now aiming to share the project with other organisations

On top of that we’ve grown our team so we now employ 4 staff, and I’ve been able to develop our campaigning work with funding from the Esmee Fairbairn foundation. We’ve also run trips to taking participants with learning disabilities to Australia, Spain, Malta, and Poland as well as another great week at Glastonbury and other trips to Northern Ireland, Belgium and Scotland. We also moved office, spoke at conferences up and down the country and all manner of other things.
It’s been a truly immense year, and we’ve got a truly immense team working for us.

I’ve been trying to do this on 2 days a week, balancing this with my other job in London. I love both jobs too but working crazy long days and not taking proper weekends off meant something had to give. And what gave was me!
I’ve totally knackered myself out and so I’ve decided to take a month out. A complete break from everything in an attempt to break my terrible habits, recharge my batteries and rekindle my other interests.
That means I’m going to play music every day, read, do lots of walking, go swimming, I may even give up meat and above all spending much more time with my friends and family.
That means that I’m also going to go completely off line – no Twitter, no Facebook, no emails, nothing. I love the internet, and I love the things you can get up to through social media, it’s brilliant. But it can also take over your life and be bad for your health.
That’s why I was thinking it’s like chips. I love chips but I know that to eat them every day wouldn’t be good for me.

So for the whole of December I’m unplugging myself to see what happens.

When I come back I’ll have stopped my job in London with Think Local Act Personal (something I’m really going to miss) and just work for 5 days a week for Stay Up Late with the aim of getting my family life back in check.

I think I may also instigate a new quarterly meet-up group in Brighton called ‘Knackered voluntary sector CEO types of small organisations who love beer’ as an informal support network. (We may need a more snappy title for that – and also I’m not promising, no more projects or ideas from me until at least 2016!)

Thank you to everyone who’s supported me around this and I look forward to being back in cyberspace in the New Year.

I’m now going to enjoy a nice bag of chips before I embark on my month of living healthily. If you’re up on the downs and you see a slightly less knackered looking individual tucking in to a mung bean and lentil salad do come and say hello!

I might even try going to bed early too!



Friday 10 April 2015

Down with badly painted youth centres

What good is 3 days of volunteering per year?

David Cameron’s announcement today that the Conservatives would create ‘paid’ volunteering opportunities for 3 days every year for larger employers sounds like it has to be applauded, anything that gives more support to the voluntary sector has to be a good thing, right?
But surely to make a real impact this really needs to be done on the terms of the voluntary organisations they’re supporting, not a top down act of generosity from a head office of a large corporation. And why 3 days? Why not come up with a scheme to encourage regular, on-going volunteering? Isn't that what the vision of the Big Society is?

I’m reminded of a story I heard locally where a local youth centre received a phone call from a very large employer who had decided it would be good for their staff if they could have a day out of the office and paint the youth centre. Unfortunately they phoned right at the moment the youth centre manager was doing that job, and he got paint all over his phone. That wasn't their fault but it illustrates the inconvenience phone calls like this can cause. 
Of course as a charity you are thrilled to receive offers of help but when it's not an open offer of 'how can we best help you?' it just creates more work. Suddenly a neat project has to be dreamed up at the risk of looking ungrateful for the offer.
Being a large international financial organisation it’s not beyond reason that they employ a good deal of highly skilled DIYers but I would hazard a guess that they had a lot more to offer around IT, finance and business planning skills. All things that the youth centre were also crying out for support with.

So instead of looking as corporate responsibility as a way of rewarding staff and getting them out of the office on team building days it would be much better to engage with the local community and find out what it really needs. 

The other point about this announcement is that is ‘3 days’ going to change the world? If we really want to unleash the capacity of out communities to support each other then we have to find ways to enable people to become regular volunteers and make the best use of their skills and interests (like our Gig Buddies scheme).

I don't want to sound grumpy and ungrateful about Mr Cameron's announcement but there's ways of making sure that any extra support is truly effective and is directed by the needs of the local community, and not the ideas of a corporate social responsibility team.

So down with badly painted youth centres and lets enable the accountants and IT people do what they do best. (Of course if it was a big building firm wanting to paint your walls and do over your garden then that kind of help that would be another matter!).

19th April '15 - quick update, here's a nice article from Brandon Trust with a great example of how corporate volunteering can work really well and make best use of assets and resources.

Sunday 8 March 2015

A week of endings and new beginnings

The past couple of weeks have been about endings and new beginnings, Spring is just round the corner and so it seems good to talk about new shoots of life, especially seeing how Gig Buddies is growing down under, but it's also been a time of me leaving one of my jobs and the sudden loss of our office. Here's what's been going on...

I’ve not been very god at keeping this blog going so far, and that’s not because I’ve been lazy, just the opposite, and no time or energy to sit down and blog.

The last few weeks have been quite momentous for me though. We had a fantastic time taking Gig Buddies to Australia, the response to the scheme over there has been quite overwhelming, with interviews on national radio and organisations in Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane all wanting to get involved. I hope our partners ACL Disability Services in Sydney know what they’ve got themselves in to! They were truly wonderful hosts too and really spoilt us with some great memories, and fantastic food.

On the way back from Australia I made a momentous decision though, since last summer I’ve been effectively balancing 3 jobs; working as the Involvement Manager at Southdown Housing, the Co-production adviser at Think Local Act Personal and overseeing the running of Stay Up Late in my spare time (unpaid).
Just before leaving for Australia I heard we’d been successful in getting some funding to develop the work we started around the Stay Up Late campaign – more on that another time – but it means we have the resources to actually pay me for 2 days a week to work at the charity.
I’ve therefore decided to leave my job at Southdown – to some people this may come as a bit of a shock – I’ve worked there nearly 20 years doing various jobs and they’ve been a great organisation to work for and have supported me fantastically over the years with Heavy Load and Stay Up Late. They’re also an organisation with fantastic values, always aiming to put the people they support first. Something we’re obviously big on both in Stay Up Late but also in the way we work at Think Local Act Personal.

So on the plane was the place that I wrote my letter of resignation. I was having real trouble sleeping too so had around 25 hours to think of what to write.

And then since getting back there’s also been quite a few other developments just in this past week:
  • We’ve had requests to take Gig Buddies to Northern Ireland
  • Campaigning organisations asking to work with us around the UK with some really interesting ideas coming out
  • We’ve been invited to run something at a major UK festival (more on that soon too) – but this has got us really excited
  • Held another great trustees meeting with a real sense of momentum and positivity in the meeting around our work
  • We found out we’d got a small successful funding application approved, always nice, and from a large employer in the city, which is even better. 
But then we heard some disastrous news, we’d lost our office space! For the past year we’ve been enjoying free space in a disused office block with amazing views of Preston Park from our sixth floor spot which we were sharing with a couple of other community groups. Now the block is being turned in to housing and so we need to get out. It was a good thing while it lasted and has really helped us develop our work, having more office volunteers in, but come at just the worst time for us as we’re just about to take on 2 admin interns with learning disabilities and a new part-time admin worker. Whilst Starbucks is always an option for cheap ‘office space’ it’s not ideal and we’d rather be spending our money in more ethical ways.

This led to a frantic week of trying to find a new home and a place for all our stuff which we’ve accumulated over the years. By the end of the week we’d actually managed to find somewhere, thanks to our friends at CareCo-ops and also managed to find some temporary free storage too thanks to HoveMethodist Church. On top of that we can add ‘office move’ to the work experiences of our 2 new interns. (Big thanks too to Centric for hosting the free space for the past year – they’ve been a massive boost for us).

I was actually a little exhausted in thinking about the past few weeks and so had what I class as the ultimate treat on Saturday, a walk in the Sussex countryside with my family on a day when it feels like proper early spring. Wonderful.

Now I’m looking forward to planning our trip to Poland, talks at the Funky Llama and RiPFA conferences and writing a bid for Reaching Communities, as well as planning that trip to that music festival (as I say more on that soon!).

It's not been the easiest of weeks but things are now looking up.

Time to break out some good music to get me busy (really enjoying that new Sleater Kinny album by the way) and think about the lessons of the last week and look forward to the week ahead and a new future for me and the charity.

Tuesday 30 December 2014

How we’re planning to let Kiss My Disco grow, by letting it go

Kiss My Disco looking back and looking forward

Kiss My Disco started off as an idea between us and Nick at Freshtrack DJs workshops. We’re both big fans of the fantastic work that’s been done over the years to make club nights inclusive and accessible for people with learning disabilities (and both been actively involved in the scene) but wanted to see what could be done to encourage people without learning disabilities to join in the fun, drawing inspiration from the amazing work done by Heart N Soul at their Beautiful Octopus nights at the South Bank.

The other thing driving us was we had no money so wanted to work out how we could run our own nights on a shoestring budget and hopefully share what we learned. We often get asked why there aren’t more events in other parts of the country and we wanted to find a way come up with a simple model so people could run similar nights elsewhere.

We’ve now just run our 27(ish) Kiss My Disco night, with Freshtrack DJs and due to the amount of work we’ve got going on with our Gig Buddies project we’ve made the decision to hand over the reins completely to Freshtrack. This will enable Freshtrack to continue to develop the club nights while we concentrate on developing and sharing the Gig Buddies model. I say ‘27 (ish)’ because we’re not quite sure how many there have been. Early on we did a few extras in day centre settings but soon decided that this wasn’t what Kiss My Disco was about – for us it is all about finding ways for people to mix with other people in their community.

It’s also taken a little while for us to build our audience. Kiss My Disco was born out of a not quite successful night we put on with two other partners which was far too complicated and ended up not making any surplus. The lessons we learned from this were:
  • Only work with partners who truly share the same vision
  •  Don’t provide food
  •  Don’t run your own bar
In effect there’s very few elements that are needed to run the nights:
  • A good mailing list and a good PR plan
  •  An accessible venue
  •  A bar
  •  Good DJs
I’m going to write a separate post on the Stay Up Late site about our top tips for a good club night but this post is really to look back over a really successful project and wish Nick well as we’re sure he’s going to take it from strength to strength and we’re still going to support them as best as we can.
The truth is though that even now we’ve got the publicity working efficiently each night probably takes up a day and a half of my time and I now need to be spending that time on other things.

So this isn’t the end of Kiss My Disco – in fact I think it could be the making of Kiss My Disco as we’re not going to be holding it back from being on more nights and in more places.
The lesson for us as a charity is that we have to think about what we can and can't get involved in, no matter how fun or exciting, so that everything we do has the most impact and works towards our purpose as a charity.

And for those of you wondering why we came up with ‘Kiss My Disco’, which some people have commented is a bit rude, well it was inspired by Simon, the lead singer of Heavy Load and it’s probably a lot ruder than you think! It also sums up what the nights are and aren’t about in 3 words.

Over to you Nick…!

Sunday 23 November 2014

Spinning Plates - A look back over two really hectic weeks

When I started this blog it was to hopefully help people see how we do things on our limited resources and also explain why we can't do everything we're asked to! These past two weeks have been a good example of some of the pressures we've put ourselves under as a charity.

There has been a huge amount of interest in the work of the charity thanks to the fantastic piece that appeared in The Guardian's Do Something supplement a couple of weeks ago.
We have been inundated with people wanting to either set up their own version of Gig Buddies in their town or wanting to volunteer. It really has been fantastic to hear the level of interest there is and we're working hard on the plan to get sharing the scheme.

As mentioned in my last post the first step is get the pilot working well in Australia, and then Scotland, so we can be sure of being able to share the model without losing the integrity of what makes it special.

We've also had a busy time with me being asked to lead a workshop discussion at Richmond Borough Council's Learning Disability Forum and also speak at Lemos and Crane's conference in London around providing community based activities for people with learning disabilities. I love doing these things as it's really important for us to engage people in our ideas and share our work but it's also becoming increasingly difficult to fit these in with my work commitments, but will aim to continue doing what we can.

This evening I'll be sorting out the publicity to promote the next Kiss My Disco night, which will be the last one we actively promote as we're handing this over to Freshtrack DJ workshops to try and free up some time. I'm also just finalising some easy to read health promotion guides which will be up on our website shortly, and checking the team have everything they need before they head off to Madrid on Wednesday for the next leg of the ART-is project.
And if there's time there's a funding application I need to get submitted shortly.
The one plate I've deliberately stopped spinning this week is my inbox. On Friday I decided to take an internet holiday and turned everything off and we went away for the evening.
I'd had a couple of emails earlier in the week that had frustrated me a little.

One email was from a founder of a small charity who was asking why we weren't able to link their charity to our website (because we don't have a page set up to do that). I thought I'd helpfully suggested that the best way to create links was to have an active social media presence to make it easy for people. They said they didn't want to do this as they didn't want more emails coming in (maybe actually they're quite wise) but it frustrates me when charity's don't get the importance of an active social presence.

The other email that frustrated me was one from someone complaining that we only run events in the South East and the North East is under-represented. The reason we only stage events in the South East? Because that's where we live! I replied nicely but made the point that we need to take responsibility for making stuff happen if we think there's a need.

Neither of these people replied to my emails either - and I thought my tone had been nice and helpful, maybe not!

So you might be thinking I'm getting some irrational stress levels from my inbox and you're probably right. I always aim to respond to messages but these past two weeks have been incredibly hectic so I'll continue to apply my policy of replying when I can but this week I decided it was time to take an internet holiday. So I switched everything off, went away for the night and had a thoroughly relaxing time.

Next up I've got a Skype meeting with one of our trustees tomorrow evening to plan the business planning workshop at our next trustees meeting, and I'll be trying to answer a few of those emails too.

Friday 14 November 2014

Why Australia?...

This is a question I've been asked a few times recently.
  • Why are you trying to set up Gig Buddies in Australia?
  • Why do you need to go to Australia to do that?
  • And who's paying?

Why are you trying to set up Gig Buddies in Australia?

The answer to this is really simple, they invited us and wanted to learn from our work in Sussex.
Gig Buddies is our volunteer befriending scheme that we've been running in Sussex now for 18 months and it's going really well. We've got over 50 volunteers, regularly have to close our waiting lists and most importantly we're hearing so many positive stories from participants and volunteers (85% of who are new to volunteering in Sussex) - the project is meeting everyone's needs and preventing loneliness at the same time.
We know, however, that we wouldn't be able to run the scheme further afield as we wouldn't be able to support those relationships and we wouldn't understand the local music scene. It would make much better sense for us to develop a model that we can share. (See this blog post for more details).
However, we're really attached to Gig Buddies and if we share it we want to do it in way that maintains its integrity and quality. Those things that keeps Gig Buddies special.
We realise it will of course be different in every location but there are some things that it's built on, such as being about choice, friendship, community presence and having a laugh.

Since starting the project we've had quite a bit of interest in what we're doing and then last week there was an article in The Guardian which has sent interest through the roof with people wanting schemes all over the UK, and beyond. We want to share it but we want to share it well.

Also we're not just trying to set it up in Australia, we're also trying to set it up in Scotland as two pilots to enable us to develop the way we share and hopefully enable more people to get on board later in 2015. The plan is that working with two partners will enable us to iron out any problems before things get too complicated.

From talking to other people who've been involved in social franchising it's clear that it's really important to be really, really clear about what it is you're sharing, and to be inflexible on your core principles.

So this is going to be a piece of action research that fits with our 'thinking through doing' philosophy of 'keeping it punk'.

Why do you need to go to Australia to do that?

The key thing though is that it's about relationships and taking time to get to know people and not just what their interests and personal tastes are but also things like their sexuality, what their neighbourhood is like, how confident they are at using public transport and all sorts of other support issues to take in to account.
Some people have suggested that we create a web-based way of doing the matching but we really don't think that would work with all the nuances and intricacies we have to take in to account.

When we set up Gig Buddies (and Madeline needs a huge amount of credit for this) we wanted to make sure that the project not only reflected the values that the charity was built on but would also help us to develop the charity in a way that truly met the needs of the people we are trying to support. To this end we set up our advisory group (The Storm and Thunder Team) and it's been amazing to see the members grow in confidence and support our work at the recent Annual General Meeting, come to trustees meetings, speak at conferences and co-deliver our volunteer training courses.

Then there's the system we've set up around conducting referral meetings, providing supervisions, creating volunteer positions for participants in the office, and creating monitoring and evaluation systems whilst still keeping our eyes fixed on the key thing of this being about people, individual people with individual interests enjoying themselves and developing friendships.

So a couple of people have suggested to me that we could do all of this by Skype. Firstly I don't know how many of you like getting up at 1am in the morning to conduct a 6 hour Skype call but this trip is going to be a mutual learning experience for all of us. It'll be very much a two way process, teaching our partners in Australia on the job and us reflecting on the learning from the experience and using this to inform our work as we develop the 'Gig Buddies in a Box' project.

We want to make sure this pilot goes well and don't think a 6 hour Skype call is going to give us the best opportunity of making that happen.

There's another really good reason too - one of our participants has also been invited.
He's a man we've worked with for years now in different ways and has an incredible ability to engage audiences when he's talking about his work and he's a vocal campaigner for equal rights for people with learning disabilities. Not only will his presence give us the credibility of having someone who is a Gig Buddy who can
talk about how it works for them, it also gives us a one-off opportunity to give someone a real life changing experience. Why would we not want to                                                                                     try and make that happen?
After all we're always banging on as a charity about trying to create opportunities for people with learning disabilities to have new experiences.

Australia also works in a different social welfare system to ours and so will enable us to work out how we can perhaps influence wider issues and attitudes around social care in line with our campaigning work for more flexible support systems. We're therefore hoping that the trip will enable us to develop some of the wider campaigning work we do as a charity.

And who's paying?

Well our very kind partners in Australia are paying for two of the flights but we're determined to take our participant too and so need to raise £1000 to make that happen.
So I just want to make this clear, we're not a charity which has much money lying around but we really want to make this happen. Thanks to a very kind donor we're already halfway there to raising enough for the flight, and when we're out there we'll be living in free accommodation and living on a tight budget. We're also going to do our fair share of fundraising between now and then to raise the funds.

Am  I sounding defensive?

I reckon I probably am but having had a few difficult conversations about this trip recently with people who've suggested we Skype, or even build an interactive web platform, made me want to explain our thinking. (And is building an interactive web-platform as easy as it sounds?! I'm certain I wouldn't know where to start and I imagine it would cost quite a bit more than £1000, and take more than 3 months to build).

So those people people (and there have only been a few) who have questioned our motives probably just don't understand what we're doing or maybe they just haven't thought about the complexities of running a good quality volunteer befriending scheme like Gig Buddies, or maybe they're concerned that as a charity we're frittering away money. As with anything like this there are risks but I think it's a fairly small investment in something that could have the potential to change a lot of people's lives. Sharing the model is also a key aim in our business plan and this feels like an ideal way to get things going.

The thing is that although as a charity we're big believers in social media and making things digital you cannot replace the people to people contact.

It was also suggested that maybe we're just going because it's glamorous but I've a feeling it's going to be quite a lot of work. That said as I was thinking about this blog this morning waiting for my train I was starting to crave a bit of sunshine.

Waiting for the London train, 7am November, Hove
So that's it I've made our case why we're going and now we're making plans to make it happen.