Putting people first, not problems

By Patrick Murray 26 July 2016

Last week NPC launched the first report from our State of the Sector programme. We’ve started this work to inject some new thinking into the sector: to support charities and funders to deliver the maximum possible impact in a rapidly changing world. In Boldness in times of change: Rethinking the charity sector we make the case that charities need to rethink what resources are already available, and strengthen relationships with beneficiaries and their communities.

Some organisations are already seeking to invert the traditional model of charity by looking beyond the problems people are facing and focusing on their strengths and assets.  And policy makers are increasingly seeking models that intervene early and build resilience for the future—rather than responding to a crisis—so asset-based approaches are all the rage in some circles.

But it’s not as simple as just adopting the language and delivering a slightly tweaked version of services, as I found out while serving as a trustee at the homelessness charity, Mayday Trust. In my time there, the organisation was pioneering a new approach for its service users. So I thought I’d share a few lessons from this work:

  1. The starting point is people’s strengths and abilities. Normally in the homelessness sector the first contact someone has with a service is a risk assessment where they have to go through all the things that have gone wrong in their life. At Mayday, we wanted an approach that looked past labels and saw the person first, not the problem.  Now, staff talk to people about their hopes, abilities, and talents. Then, working with their asset mentor, they broker opportunities outside of the homelessness sector and in the community to build on these strengths and abilities.
  2. New relationships are at the core of these approaches. They are particularly key to changing the power dynamic. This is crucial: the professional/service-user dynamic gets in the way of asset-based working. Unless you give people the power back over their own lives, and help them build positive relationships in the community, you’ll really struggle to get the most from this way of working. Remember you’re trying to help someone build a life that they want to lead, not fix a problem for them.
  3. The approach requires culture change throughout the organisation, from the boardroom to the frontline. There’s a lot of talk and adoption of asset-based language, but a lot less real practice. At Mayday this approach meant huge changes—there was a big staff turnover, new polices, procedures and training and the introduction of a reflective learning process to move the model forwards. Recruitment changed too to reflect the different skills needed—a lot of staff came from outside the sector, and those that did sometimes had experienced homelessness and other issues themselves.
  4. Look for funders and commissioners that share your approach and want to learn with you. This might mean some difficult decisions about providing services in areas where commissioners just don’t get it. But it’s really hard to deliver strength-based working within deficit based contracts. New models of finance, such as social investment, may help in terms of giving greater freedom to try out different approaches.
  5. It’s a bumpy ride—if you’re doing it right the approach will be very different, and you’ll have less direct control. At the board level a healthy appetite for risk is required. Then again, this should be a given, because business as usual is not an option for many organisations any more.
  6. You’re doing something new, so building an evidence base is even more crucial. Mayday adapted the US-based Search Institute’s tool for measuring developmental assets in the youth sector. This enabled them to understand the impact of what they were doing, and where it worked or didn’t.
  7. Find your allies. At Mayday we actually changed the mission of the organisation to focus on influencing wider systemic change in the homelessness sector. We saw that collaboration, rather than soldiering on alone, would greatly increase the impact of our strength-based model. So we found partners in innovation that wanted to come on the journey with us, and we also shared our learning more widely.

As we always say at NPC: ‘Beneficiaries first’. And this approach, done right, really can help put the individual front and centre.

Download Boldness in times of change, or find out more about our State of the Sector programme.