Engaging the Voluntary Sector
by Paul Hazelden


Contents

•   Introduction
•   Service Delivery - the Way Forward?
    Limitations
    Being Paid to Care
    Imposing Solutions
•   Another Way
    Trust Me
    Accountability and Blame
    The Safe Option?
•   How it can Work
    CCM as an Example
    Service Delivery After All?
    Honesty

Introduction

There is a significant emphasis these days on getting the Voluntary Sector more fully integrated into the mainstream. The government presents it as a way of recognising the contribution made by the Voluntary Sector, and the importance of the work they do. The Voluntary Sector often sees it as a way for the Government to get work done more cheaply.

Service Delivery - the Way Forward?

The Big Plan is for the Voluntary Sector to get less money in grants, and more through contracts for the services they provide. Is this a way for our projects to become, in the jargon, sustainable?

  Limitations

For some parts of the Voluntary Sector, it will probably work. Some parts have been doing it for years already. But there are some fairly obvious limitations. As a brief summary, they are as follows.

You will gather that I have serious doubts about how far service delivery is compatible with the Voluntary Sector's usual ethos.

Even where the Government's current priorities are in line with those of a Voluntary Sector organisation, there is a serious risk that doing the work as a delivered service is the first step in a massive mission creep, a major shift in your organisation's values.

  Being Paid to Care

From a functional perspective, it makes sense to get paid to do something you would have done anyway. You want to help people? Why not take the Government's money to help you do it more? But from a moral and a human perspective, it is not the same at all. You may sleep with someone and receive gifts from them because you love them. But if you sleep with someone in order to get the gifts, you are no more than a prostitute. And if you claim to love them but negotiate the gift up front, you have to recognise the possibility that your actions may be speaking louder than your words.

I am not saying that the Voluntary Sector should not become engaged in service delivery. I am saying that it is not always possible and even when it is possible, it is not always right. In addition, it may be possible but not helpful for a charity to go down this route - the money may affect your reputation, tie you up in red tape, and distract you from achieving your main purpose.

And you have to recognise that taking money so that you will deliver a service changes the nature of the service, however pure your motives.

  Imposing Solutions

The other major flaw in the current approach is that organisations are given contracts which specify what is to be achieved with the money. It's an obvious point. But people often fail to think through the implications of this approach.

At a human level, the introduction of targets reverses the original relationship. At present, if a homeless person walks though our door, my role is to help that person. If we have a set of targets to achieve, when a homeless person walks through the door, their role is to help me achieve my targets.

It's the old joke of the Boy Scout helping the old lady across the road - whether she wants to cross the road or not. The Boy Scout is only doing what is expected of him. As a joke, it works - we can laugh at the misguided enthusiasm of youth. But this is exactly what is happening in funded projects across the country every day - and we never stop to look at the price paid by the old lady who is the victim of this assistance.

What right does anyone have to decide what will constitute success for another human being?

Of course, we need specialist services with objectives and performance targets and all the rest. They have a specific job to do, and they should do it to the best of their ability.

But there is a massive difference between offering to help someone and offering to do a specific job for them. Genuine help requires a long term commitment to the person; a job simply needs to be done. The statutory sector is great at getting jobs done, but this needs to be balanced by others who are less concerned about the jobs and the targets and more concerned about the people these jobs are being done for. And this is where the Voluntary Sector tends to shine.

Getting jobs done is vitally important. Caring for people is vitally important. I simply ask that we don't confuse the two. If someone offers to paint my fence, that is fine. It is either a job I want done, or not. And if it is a job I want done, then the offer is helpful. But if they knock on my door and offer to help me, I will be frustrated to discover at the end of a lengthy conversation that all they can offer is to paint my fence because they have a contract to paint 50% of the fences in my neighbourhood.

Your job, your service may be exactly what I need. But please don't assume that because you are offering it, I need it. And this applies to drug treatment and employment advice just as much as it does to fence painting.

We need services which do jobs and achieve targets. But we also need services which put people first. You can't do both. And, in the current climate, you can only get funded to do jobs.

The first response to this issue tends to be along these lines: "Yes, there can be problems with imposing targets, but it is all a question of imposing the correct targets. Get the targets right and the system works." This misses the point. Any target will be right for some people, and wrong for others. And even if it is right, the timing may not be right.

The second response then follows: "Yes, but the target is only the end goal. We can be flexible about how people are helped to reach that goal." However, flexibility in this context only means that you create schemes with stepping-stone targets. The new targets suffer from exactly the same problem as the original targets: they are only helpful to some people some of the time. The goal may be to get people back to work, and the stepping stone target may be to improve their health by playing football. A homeless person walks through the door and my eyes light up: I know what you need - you need to play some football. This may sound more fun than 'you need a job' but it is just as manipulative, and it still means we are using people to achieve our targets and ensure the long term financial viability of our project. They are helping us, not the other way round.

The other painfully obvious point to make about imposing targets up front is this: it just does not work.

Firstly, people do not like being told what to do. Seeking to impose targets on people is almost always counterproductive.

Secondly, it is irrelevant. They either want to do it, or they don't. Either way, your target makes no difference.

Thirdly, it is an expression of a dangerous assuption: we, the state, know what is best for you. We have targets for your life. We can tell you how you should live your life.

And, lastly, it is ineffective. Lives change through relationships, through inspiration, through hope, through dreams, through people trusting you, and through having the freedom to explore. You simply can't put any of that into a performance target.

Another Way

  Trust Me

Do we then have to conclude that there is no way for the Government and the Voluntary Sector to work together without compromise?

To be honest, I don't see a way forward if the Government insists on working on the basis of contracted services.

But that is not the only option. Just as people can enjoy a relationship that is not based on payment, the Government and Voluntary Sector can also enjoy a relationship that is based on something a bit more reliable than contracts and service level agreements. It can be based on trust.

So, what do we need for this alternate approach, to make it work? Not much.

  Accountability and Blame

I'm not anti-Government. Many politicians and civil servants are wonderful people who sincerely want to make the world a better place. But they do not operate in a vacuum: they are driven by political forces; their options are shaped by the political realities of power and public opinion and media deadlines.

The Government must be accountable to the electorate for the way in which they spend public money. But too often the steps that are taken on the grounds of accountability are actually determined by a desire to avoid any possibility of blame.

There used to be a saying in the computer industry: nobody ever got sacked for buying IBM. Okay, things have changed, but the principle still holds. If you make the safe choice and things go pear-shaped, you will be fine: you acted prudently, and nobody could have foreseen the problems. If you avoid the safe option and things go belly-up, it all comes back to you: you were clearly negligent for taking such a risk.

  The Safe Option?

Contracting-out services always seems to be the safe option. You say what you want done, and they say they can do it. If it gets done, you bask in the success; if it fails, you blame the contractors. They promised; they gave evidence to justify your belief that they were capable of it; but in the end, they just couldn't deliver. How could you have known?

But every child knows: the promise of an ice-cream is not the same as an ice-cream. And a contract is only a promise, no matter how many words are used, and no matter how many pieces of paper are stapled together. A contract to help people does not ensure that anybody will get helped. It simply ensures that, if they are not helped, you won't get the blame. Contracts don't help the needy - they protect the powerful.

To look at it another way: if you want a good meal, which is better? Would you prefer to sign a contract with someone who wants to be paid, and who specifies the ingredients and quantities up front to make sure the meal can be delivered within the agreed budget? Or would you prefer to give the money to someone who loves cooking, and tell them to see what they can do?

In each case, you can account for the money you spent. In each case, you can justify what you spent and why. If you go for the contract, you will probably get what you specified, but you may discover that it wasn't what you wanted after all. If you go for the gift to the person who loves cooking, you may be surprised. It may not be what you expected, but you are far more likely to be delighted. The contract is not, after all, the safe option - not if you really care about food.

A person aiming to fulfil a contract will aim to meet their contractual obligations, and no more. A person working for love will will aim to do the very best with everything at their disposal.

How it can Work

  CCM as an Example

How might this work out?

As one part of our work, in the year to February 2008, Crisis Centre Ministries has enabled some 35 people to access drug treatment services. This is helping the Government achieve their targets. We could be offered money to deliver this same service next year. But we could not accept it.

Next year, we might help twice that number into treatment. Or we might help half the number. It depends on the people who come to us, what their needs are, and what help they are ready and able to accept. Our work is not to achieve arbitrary targets - our work is to help people. Pushing someone into rehab in order to achieve a target doesn't help society, it doesn't help the individual, and it does nothing for our reputation.

Service delivery is always based on targets, and targets are always arbitrary. Circumstances change: a challenging target may turn out to be a piece of cake, and what was intended to be an easy target may turn out to be impossible. We cannot commit to achieving externally imposed targets without abandoning the fundamental ethos of the organisation.

But we do have a track record. We have been operating for 23 years, 21 of them from the same building. You can look at what we have achieved over the years. Was it worth doing? Absolutely. Was it cost-effective? You bet it was - most of the work is done by volunteers, absolutely free. And the quality of their work is incredible. Not because they are aiming for targets, but because they care, and they want to make a difference to the people they meet.

What we have done so far was worth doing. We intend to keep going. If you give us some money, we will be able to do more of it. How much more, we can't say. But we are motivated to use it as wisely as possible, because we want to make a difference. And next year, or in six months time, you can look at what we have done, and ask if it was worth doing. You can ask if it was cost-effective. And, if it was, you might want to give us some money the next year.

When I say I want a relationship based on trust, I don't mean blind faith. I am not saying: just give us your money, cross your fingers, walk away and hope that we will do something worthwhile with it. What I am saying is that you can examine our track record, our finances, our procedures, our culture, our values. You can examine what we have done, and how we have done it. If you like what you see, why not trust us to keep doing it, with all the resources at our disposal?

We can't put a price on helping people - not if that price involves negotiating up front how much we require to be paid in order to provide that help. But we can count how much it actually did cost - in financial terms, at least - to do what we could do for the people we did help.

The truth of that matter is that we can work with many of our clients because we are not given money to achieve targets. They know we are on their side, wanting the best for them. They trust us. And because they trust us, we can help. Going down the route of service delivery would destroy that culture and eventually the trust would ebb away.

But if we were to receive funding from the Government, or anyone else, on the basis that we are trusted to do a good job - that would not undermine our ethos, values or culture in any way. It would only say that the big players have learned to trust us and to value what we do - just as homeless and vulnerable people have been doing for years.

  Service Delivery After All?

They say there is more than one way to skin a cat. Never tried it myself, but there are some things you just have to take on trust.

I've just been talking about the error of trying to go down a 'Service Delivery' route for much of the Voluntary Sector. But perhaps there is more than one way to approach this problem. Maybe Service Delivery is exactly what we should be doing. Perhaps we need to reclaim the term.

After all, when the Government talks about Service Delivery, what it really means is contract delivery. Contracts with specified outcomes, targets and service level agreements.

So let us be clear about this: what we do through CCM, and through much of the Voluntary Sector cannot be done as a contract. You can either put the individual first or you can work towards a set of pre-specified objectives. You cannot do both. Of course, sometimes they coincide. But, when they do coincide, you don't need the detailed list of objectives: all you need to do is to care for the individual.

To put it another way: when the caring and the contract agree, you don't need a contract to tell you what to do. And when they disagree, you are forced to choose: you can either do what is right for the individual, or what is right according to the contract. You can't do both, and you loose either way.

It is completely fair to describe what we do as providing - delivering! - a service. We are serving our clients. We are finding out what they want, what they would appreciate, what they want to see happen, and seeking to help them move forward in those ways.

Of course, we do this from within the framework of our own values, so we don't do everything our clients want or ask for: if they want money for their next fix, we don't give it to them. (We don't give money, full stop - but that's getting into too much detail.) But we refuse to give the money because we believe that giving it would not be in their best interests: we are still serving them, still seeking to help, still working in their best interests. It is an attempt to provide a genuine service, not a giving-up-and-following-the-rules lip service.

So we can say loud and clear: we believe in service delivery. It's what we are all about. What we don't believe in is reducing service, love, care and human interaction down to a contract that says what we must do and how we must do it.

If you believe that contracts are appropriate in our line of work, I've got a great idea for you. Next time you start a love affair, why not write a contract to cover it? What could possibly be better? That way, you and your new partner will each know what you can expect from the other. A well-written contract will enable you to avoid many misunderstandings and the disappointment of unrealistic expectations. If you have a service level agreement, you will know how often roses or chocolates are expected, so you won't let each other down.

Alternatively, you might decide that human relationships cannot be adequately described through a contract. Clear expectations matter, but flexibility and judgement are also important. Perhaps the important thing about a relationship is that it grows and develops with time, in unexpected ways.

Perhaps we need to be reminded that people are people, and not problems to be solved. Contracts are great. I mean that. They are really important when I want my rubbish to be collected each week, or my car to be serviced to agreed standards. However, when it comes to serving - when we are seeking to help other human beings - contracts might be helpful to clarify a few technical details, but they cannot ever adequately describe what we need to do or how we need to do it.

  Honesty

Perhaps it would be easier to be transparent and accountable and all those other good things, if only the application forms did not require us to lie. Well, maybe not all - but most.

It's not only the application forms - it's also the progress reports and all the 'what did you do with our money?' forms. They also beg us to lie.

Most application forms want to know what the money will enable us to do, and what difference this will make to our clients. The honest answers are "nothing" and "I don't know" - but you can't say that.

The assumption behind most application forms is that we need this money so that we can provide this better service or increase these opening hours, or whatever. The implicit threat is that if you don't give us this money, the service will not improve, the hours will not increase, and the clients will suffer as a consequence.

But that is just not true. We are asking for the money because we have already decided to provide the additional service. If you don't give it to us, we will ask someone else. We will keep asking because we have decided our clients need it and it is the right thing to do. If you don't provide the money, you may delay the start. How long for? That depends on how quickly we can raise the funds. There is no way I can tell what the delay might be.

And if the money doesn't come in, we may decide to go ahead anyway, and pray that the money comes in before we need it.

I hear people throwing up their hands in horror. That's not financially responsible, they say. No, it isn't. But we are not running this charity in order to be financially responsible. We are running it because people - people like you and me - are searching through dustbins for something to eat. In England. Today. We are doing it because people like you and me are dying in squats with needles in their groins. We are doing it because these people need to know that somebody cares for them. And we are not going to just sit on our backsides while someone in a comfortable office decides whether they want to give us some money.

Working with these people is risky. Yes, we do what we can to minimise the risks. Within reason. But nobody can completely remove the risks of trying to help chaotic and desperate people. We may run the risk of getting into debt. But, quite frankly, it is not the most serious of the risks we take in doing this work.

So, if we are honest: our choice is to do this work. Your choice is about whether you want to help, to be a part of it, or not. But we plan to stay open, and we plan to help people whether you support us or not.

And, if you do give some money, there is no way we can tell what your money achieved. Which of the peas on that plate did your money buy? Did it buy half an inch of sausage on each plate? Or did it buy all the peas and all the sausages on some plates but not others? Or did it instead buy the replacement toaster and several hours' worth of electricity? Does it matter whether the money came from you or from someone else to buy this person's meal, or the time required to get that person into rehab? What matters is that the money was available - and the people were there - to do the feeding and to provide the assistance.

Again, if I am to be honest, all I can say is that with all the funding we received, this is what was achieved. All these people were welcomed, fed, listened to... We helped these people find somewhere to live, or a job, or some furniture. And so on. And, if you gave us some money, or if you volunteered with us, you contributed to making this happen.

Of course, there is the occasional bit of restricted funds: we get money to buy a replacement fridge or a new computer for the training program, so we use the money for that purpose. But most of the money we receive goes towards the running costs of the charity: salaries, electricity, insurance. They are all essential, because we don't have money to spend on non-essential items.

So every penny we receive makes a difference, and every penny contributes to everything we achieve. The money goes towards rebuilding broken lives. What better investment could you possibly make?

We can count the meals we serve. But we can't measure the love shown, the dignity with with people are treated, or the respect and understanding that is demonstrated - sometimes under almost impossible conditions. You can't measure the value of the testimony of a volunteer who is an ex-client, who knows what it is like to sleep rough and to lie and cheat and steal to get the money to fund a habit - but who is now housed and sober and stable and enjoying life, and who can say with total conviction, "If I can do it, so can you."

I understand that people want to know what difference their money made. But you have to understand that it does not work that way. Much of what we do seems to be wasted. But by 'wasting' our time on some people, we get to meet others who want to be helped. And, sometimes, the seemingly wasted time bears fruit months or years later. If you sow seeds of kindness, you never know which ones will one day take root.

And, if you believe with us that showing love is never a waste of time, then you can understand that the bits of the work we can measure are only worth doing because of the bits we can't measure. Feeding hungry people is easy. But it is only worth doing, in the long run, if you do it with respect. And, if you want it to be life-transforming, you have to be motivated, not by the desire to fulfil a contractual obligation, but by love for the people whose lives you are touching.

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