A question of scale

By Dan Corry 26 October 2012

I made a trip to visit a number of charities in Liverpool recently in the excellent company of  Daniela Barone Soares, CEO of Impetus Trust.

The meetings were mainly with beneficiaries rather than just senior staff, and some of the visits were very emotional and at times pretty harrowing.

Most of the charities we saw had a particularly local focus—they had grown up in response to particular problems, are run by people who know the area and work in a way that suits local people. Many thoughts emerged from the meetings, but one was the extent to which any successes that we were seeing were capable of duplication, and if so, in what ways. I think the answer is that it varied.

Take FRC, a charity that does a number of things, one of which is helping furnish properties for the homeless. Three local agencies that work with the homeless (including Big Issue) argued to us that housing people in flats with no furniture never worked, as an empty property would never lead to the crucial stability needed to help keep people off the streets for more than a day or two. They liked the fact that FRC acted at once to provide furniture with none of the bureaucracy associated with trying to do it all with the council. FRC receives some private funding, but the key is council contracts to collect bulky waste and furniture (under the brand Bulky Bob’s), which gives the charity some income as well as providing furniture to refurbish. If FRC want to expand, the key would be to get more contracts—but this would be harder to do if it involved moving away from the council they have close relationships with already, and into new territory.

Local Solutions raised different expansion issues. This charity does many things, but our visit focused on their work in hostels with young men looking for stability and working to gain qualifications so that they could get jobs, and their efforts to find families for teenagers who had left home  or been kicked out, to live with. Local Solutions need funding, probably from the council. They are helping many young people revive life stories that are in danger of going seriously off the rails, but like a lot of charities dealing with individuals suffering from a number of complex, interrelated problems, can find it hard to track their impact. Like Tomorrows People, who work with ex-offenders to help them find jobs, Local Solutions were finding things tough in the difficult job market inLiverpool.

If sources of sustained income were the issue for these charities’ prospects of expanding, our meeting with the Frontline Trust, a strongly faith-based operation that runs a number of projects, illustrated the Achilles heel of many successful local social interventions if we want to scale them up.

Their Streetwise project works with prostitutes in the area—who often also have drug problems. Their service is essentially a van, almost entirely staffed by volunteers, that goes on Friday and Saturday  nights into the area where the women work and offers coffee, food and a chat. Some of the women they meet then become closer to the charity and can be helped in different ways. Key to its success is the knowledge volunteers have of the area, and the familiarity and friendships they build up with those they seek to help; there are major problems in scaling up such an approach. Equally, Frontline Trust’s Mighty Men project, working to stop young men whose dads and brothers are already in prison from going the same way, is run by an inspiring character who has lived in Toxteth for many years, and who is absolutely not clone-able.

Overall then, it is hard to say whether this latter type of charity could be seriously scaled up or in fact rely on heroic individuals or detailed local knowledge going back years, both of which are not readily replicable. This raises further questions about scaling up anyway—is it best to try and grow successful local charities to expand into other areas, or to identify what it is about them that works, and develop organisations similar to them in different areas?

If we want to really tackle the social problems we face in our country, then we will need to make sure that successful interventions can be scaled up.  My trip to Liverpool suggests that this remains an area full of risk and uncertainty.