By Rob Fountain
Recently, a lot of people have been calling me brave – and that really scares me.
They say it in response to hearing about the shift in direction that the charity I run is making. It scares me because the decisions we have taken have been informed solely by reconnecting with our charitable purpose. It isn’t brave to make such changes; it is scary if many charities don’t think they should do the same.
Over the last few years at Age UK Gloucestershire we have closed our day centre, divested our home help service to a care provider and closed the operations of our trading subsidiary.
We have not been forced to do these things, but have chosen to do so willingly. Those activities tied us up in activity that drained focus and resources whilst not making a meaningful impact on achieving our vision.
In their place, we have found new space to innovate, to influence how statutory bodies respond to demographic change and to support our local communities to be more inclusive for older citizens. In the pursuit for a better social care future, that is the vital role charity can play.
Our shift stemmed from asking the core existential question for us as a charity: why are we here?
In times of public sector austerity, and with the charity sector under scrutiny, that is a much better question than the one I hear some of my counterparts asking: how do we keep going?
Our answer to the ‘why’ question led us to the vision statement ‘to make Gloucestershire the best county in which to grow older’. Sounds obvious for a local charity whose objects are “to promote and assist the general good and relief of anyone over the age of 50 (with a particular focus on the elderly) in and around Gloucestershire.”
From that vision statement, though, we were forced to see our activity through a new lens – was what we were busy doing truly improving the experience of ageing? Even more importantly we were free to think ambitiously about what the best county would actually look like.
Yes, there were people who were looking for day care – but that’s what they had been used to asking for and there were numerous other providers in the county already.
Yes, there were people who wanted support with shopping, cleaning, domestic tasks – but why were we as a charity providing this as a chargeable service when the wider market was offering the same service at the same price?
In our new strategy, our board of Trustees – a group of volunteers who I do credit with bravery – agreed a move away from providing long-term services. Instead, we are now prioritising innovation, community development and influencing.
When I first moved into the charity sector from statutory social work in 2003, I did so full of optimism. Outside of the restrictions of County Hall, unencumbered by political pressures and with the freedom to think differently, charity represented values-driven and creative attempts to change the world. As such, the charity sector should be where eyes turn to now as we try to rethink social care.
To be clear, I am not saying here that the statutory sector should retrench and leave it to charities to pick up the pieces. That is how many charities feel they are being used by a public sector in crisis. Charities should resist this and defend their position to advocate for better from statutory bodies. Rather, I am saying that charities should be where we look for the inspiration, for insight, for the ideas.
Current approaches are clearly not working and changing demographics, politics and financial context demands new ways of approaching social care. We need imagination, creativity, invention more than ever. Ideas are about bold thinking, about a vision for how things should be, about striving for more than mediocre. Charities should be leading this charge in respect of social care.
In place of running a day centre (chargeable), we’re now working with local citizens who want to establish a range of community activities accessible to older people.
A woman called Beki emailed me last year expressing concern about the reports she’d read of lonely older people. As a mum with young children, she could relate. Many of her peers often felt lonely too. Maybe coming together could improve things for both groups. We worked with Beki on her idea – giving her access to our networks, linking her to people who might offer venues or financial support, giving advice on the practicalities of running a group. Nine months later, InterPlay, an intergenerational playgroup, launched in Stroud. 40 people turned up. Parents with their children, local older residents, some people who live in a nearby care home too. InterPlay is not an Age UK Gloucestershire project, it is owned and run by Beki and those who attend the group. We’ve now secured a small grant to enable us to find more Beki’s and support them to set up activities in their neighbourhood.
Bringing ideas does not mean having only original thoughts – it can be about knowing what others have tried and championing bringing these new approaches to your sector or geography. Having trust, independence and knowledge, charities can be uniquely well-placed to play this sort of brokerage role.
We have, for example, redirected the energy we were expending on running chargeable home help to instead pilot Homeshare in Gloucestershire. The same objective – to support people to remain independent at home – but fulfilled by brokering relationships built on a reciprocal exchange. Whilst directly supporting less individuals than we were through home help, we’re contributing to different thinking about how needs can be met within a community.
We are also working with another local charity partner, the Barnwood Trust, on ways we can showcase innovations and bring them to our locality. We will shortly pilot an approach that gives the providers of new social care approaches a platform to pitch their initiative not only to commissioners, but also those who use social care. Overseeing this facilitated process, our objective is to increase awareness of new approaches, to initiate an informed conversation about new ways of providing support that local people would like, and securing commitments from the right people about taking action.
Rather than responding to commissioning as a provider, we’re putting our energy into supporting commissioners to see the options, to listen to what local people think and to influence them to put resources into the what local residents are interested in.
As a result of the changes we have made, our organization has halved in size (by turnover). Our impact, however, has spread.
Not selling things to people has been an important part of increasing our credibility as a catalyst for change. Charities should be leading the narrative that sees those who need social care not as ‘patients’, nor as customers or clients, but as indidivuals, citizens, people with agency to be defended, unlocked or rediscovered.
The social gerontologist Jeanette Leardi in her work challenging the negative narrative and policies around ageing identifies three key tools for change: our ideas, our words and our actions. Holding negative views about ageing has been shown repeatedly to lead to worse outcomes for people. Commentator Mervyn Eastman for one has highlighted how some charities contribute to this through ‘compassionate ageism’.
I believe that in the pursuit of a better approach to social care charities should be raiding this toolkit and using their ideas, their words and their actions relentlessly to achieve a better future.
We should also be alert to the potential negative impact we can have when we prioritise our charitable efforts on service provision. As Robert Lupton has identified, doing ‘to’ rather than ‘doing with’ can when combined with patronizing pity and unintended superiority make charity toxic.
I don’t believe it takes bravery to respond in this way. It needs us to remember why our charities were set up – to hold on to the vision for better lives and to be the champions of this in how we talk about the issues. Finally, we need to be wary of seeing recipients of social care as customers to transact with and resist activity that sustains our organisations, but in so doing fails to challenge the circumstances that are impacting on the lives of those we are meant to benefit.
CEO, Age UK Gloucestershire