Community doesn't have to be squeezed by bureaucracy

Featured article - 01 August 2017
By Alex Smith, Founder / CEO North London Cares and South London Cares

Head-shot of the author, Alex Smith, Founder / CEO North London Cares and South London Cares

Every walk of life has its 'admin'. It's a necessary part of how we organise our individual and collective affairs – from receiving and paying the bills to filling in the census every ten years, to even getting your washing done. But in the social sector, admin has come to mean something else entirely – normally onerous monitoring bureaucracies imposed from afar by, say, commissioners who can sometimes be too abstract from the realities of people's lives to fully understand them.

Of course, making sure objectives are being achieved is fundamental – especially for the charity and public sectors much maligned in recent years. Ensuring you're on track with project management, reaching the right people and working in an efficient way helps to deliver those essential outcomes. Guaranteeing good value for money helps organisations working with people to raise the income to continue their vital work.

But in our hunger to do good and to represent the people we work with, many organisations struggle to find a balance between people and proof. Form filling can take precedent over really listening and responding to the complex needs of people in their communities. Sometimes we can feel reduced to market researchers rather than experts in delivering good community health.

So how can we all ensure we retain focused on the task at hand, while also meeting our responsibilities to good evidence and reporting?

It sounds ironically managerial, but the first key is to put our values first. For the charities that I run, North London Cares and South London Cares (which bring older and younger neighbours together to reduce the loneliness and improve the connections and power of both groups), that means truly putting the personalities, passions, will and voice of the real world community first.

Our staff team speak to our two key audiences – older and younger neighbours – dozens of time a day. They listen to what people want and work hard to deliver it.

When older people told us they wanted to connect to the rapidly changing world around them, we developed digital technology workshops and our 'back to work' business visits that allow younger people to invite their 80- and 90-something year old neighbours into their glass towers.

When younger people told us they wanted to hear more of their older neighbours' life stories, we devised a podcasting club and treasure hunts around our streets to unearth and share those fond memories.

And when people told us they wanted friendship one-to-one as well as in groups, we devised programmes that enabled neighbours to share time, laughter and new experiences in various ways.

We haven't done this by loading our board with our 'clients', by establishing committees of older people, by sporadic focus groups or through a tick-box approach to co-production. Rather, we have built relationships with neighbours in our communities who we now consider friends. We've listened to those neighbours, and responded in kind.

Our shorthand for this approach is: "no bingo". There's nothing wrong with bingo, of course, but just because people are older than they used to be doesn't mean that they will accept being typecast. On the contrary, people want to feel valued, vibrant and visible – and that means exploring new opportunities for new experiences.

And it's an approach we're also beginning to apply to our monitoring and evaluation which now focuses on people's identity, sense of belonging, the causes of loneliness, and how often people life. After all, our work is about helping people to make life worth living, as well as merely liveable.

Because if we're going to spend all that time on our weekly laundry, the least we should hope for is a place to go and people to appreciate us in our Sunday best.

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