Two-Tier Rural Communities!

Turville, Buckinghamshire, England

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting the 5 MP’s for the county: Dominic Grieve, Steve Baker, Cheryl Gillan, David Lidington and John Bercow – courtesy of Bucks Business First. The meeting was to discuss the rural economy in Bucks. We were joined by some great farming and rural businesses that I have had the pleasure to work with in the past.

It was, as you would imagine, really enlightening to hear from the key MP’s about their views. Rupert Waters, Head of Economic Research, gave a brilliant assessment of the national economy and where Buckinghamshire fits into the wider national and world picture. In short it seems “Top of class” nationally but “could do better … see me!” internationally. It is clear that Buckinghamshire is a net contributor to the economy, second only to London, and the most affluent county second to Surrey.

Buckinghamshire is a rural county so it stands to reason that this great wealth is being made in the rural hinterland. Not only can we boast beautiful scenery, a great place to live (confirmed by The Telegraph – second only to Rutland – make up your own mind about that! Rutland named as Britain’s best rural place to live )

But I wonder how evenly spread this success is. Buckinghamshire seems to be the best place to start a new business and, outside London, has the highest number of new business start-ups in the country. Most businesses – over 80%- have fewer than 10 employees and half of the ‘micro businesses’ are in the rural areas. Good access to markets, great support for small businesses, good communications, M40, M4, M25, excellent rail. All sound good.

I sound a cautious note here. Not to spoil the party or deny the great success of local business, but to shed some light into the corners that the glitter ball does not reach. In the darker corners of the rural county two areas of rural infrastructure are critical and largely absent. This is creating a two-tier business world. I voice the concerns of many rural businesses if I say that we could still do better by evening out the rural/urban playing field.

Rural Broadband: I am sure you must be bored with hearing about it, but it is still an issue for many. A business without good broadband will struggle. Most of those Buckinghamshire businesses suffering without access to fast broadband are in rural areas (the LEP, Chris Rawson and his team have done a great job getting broadband out to many towns and larger villages but there are still many without!). These businesses cannot effectively market, take payments, interact, upload promotional videos, video conference etc. One example just a few miles from Princess Risborough and High Wycombe is Orchard View Farm – a great new developing business yet has to wait for a cloudless sky to take a credit card payment!

Rural Transport: With our towns bulging at the seams, very little low-cost housing and our rural villages becoming retirement and dormitory villages we must ask why? Access to good employment options is usually a matter of transport as much as anything else. Without good rural transport employment will be challenging for both businesses seeking good quality employees, and the employees themselves. If young people are to come back after education to Buckinghamshire then these issues must be sorted out.

In a county as successful as Buckinghamshire it is easy to forget that some rural communities and businesses are still struggling. Identifying the problem is the easy part. Changing things will be harder. At Community Impact Bucks we are Buckinghamshire’s representative on the Rural Community Council, member of the Bucks Rural Affairs Group and Wycombe Rural Forum – so I must shoulder some of the responsibility to raise these issues but also to see if we can be part of the solution!

Too many charities…?

Charity money collection boxes

Instead of setting up new charities, funders should think about “investing” in donor-advised funds or Community Support organisations instead, said the retiring Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, Sam Younger . He advocated supporting organisations that underpin and support charities, rather than funding some of the small charities themselves. He further advised that some people should think very carefully before setting up their own charity.

This, the parting shot of the retiring chief executive last year, was to outline why he believed a 16.1 per cent increase in the registration of new charities in one year was too many.

I read this statement with great interest. At Community Impact Bucks we see and support many charities – and I think we are the type of organisation that Sam Younger was suggesting donors should support. There are 2,500 registered charities in Bucks, and more unregistered “groups” doing charity work, hundreds of Community Interest Companies – and they come in all shapes and sizes. Most have a turnover of less than £25,000 and many do similar things or support similar areas to each other. In some sectors they are falling over themselves. And the number is growing, with at least a dozen setting up in Buckinghamshire since January.

So is it a good thing to have so many charities? Should they be culled? Forced to merge to improve efficiencies? Paul Palmer (Professor Paul Palmer is the Director of the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at the Cass Business School, City University London) writing the Civil Society Blog comments on this point. He argued that each charity has its own administration, and other costs, and shouldn’t they get together and merge in order to keep administration costs down? Paul even questions trustee expenses. Fewer charities; fewer trustees!

He really does have a point, when considering the situation dispassionately… However, if the charity sector is driven by anything it is passion! Napoleon or Adam Smith (take your pick it is attributed to both!) said that we are a nation of shop keepers, and he/they may be right, but it’s not about keeping shop. We are not a nation driven by retail, that’s not why we are a nation of shop keepers …. it’s about owning our own shop, championing our own shop, innovating our own shop. We are nation of people who think we can do it for ourselves, and we think we can do it better.

When people start a charity they usually do so because they feel frustrated that something is wrong in society and they have a way of putting it right, or that they simply must do something to make a bad situation better for others. They really believe that they are the only people who can! Arrogant… Impulsive… Courageous… Yes, all these attributes are true, but are these adventurers also collaborative? Not sure. Many people who run charities put their lives into making things work for their beneficiaries – the sick, poor, children, disaffected – as well as spreading passion in sport, music and the arts. The urge that drives individuals to set up their own “shop”, or charity, is the same passion that drives them to elicit support from volunteers, to persuade business to support their cause and to stand in the rain and collect coins. Would that passion still exist if they were forced to join the more successful organisation that had similar aims? Would they be as driven if they were not the owner, if they did not feel that sense of responsibility? I think not.

Like small businesses, charities can fail, go out of business or, simply, the driving forces get tired and lose the necessary drive to keep going. But while they are operating, often on a shoe string, they are, very often, doing great work. As for value for money the measures are complex but £’s given to most charities can create £100’s of impact through volunteer time that would not otherwise exist.

In short some charities can be a bit inefficient, amateur and make mistakes – but so can business and, believe it or not, so can Government. So I would say…. yes let’s encourage mergers, increased efficiency, business and marketing expertise and help these organisations where help can be given – in training, support with managing accounts, trading and governance – let’s help (at Community Impact Bucks that is what we do!). And where efficiencies can be made with charity leaders working together to solve problems then yes, let’s help them to do so – but let’s not kill the passion that drives these courageous champions by forcing them to donate their funds and efforts to another organisation that was there first or seems to be doing things better. If there are too many charities now then, given the level of funding cuts on the horizon, people will choose to support the most efficient and the others, however well meaning, will simply run out of funds or energy and close down. But until then Vive le shop keeper! Vive le small business owner! …. and Vive le small charity leader!

Why should business help support charity?

puzzle

If I ran a business today I would find it hard enough to pay staff, tax, rent, rates and keep everyone employed let alone think about supporting a charity. Business is already paying tax that goes to support the sick, vulnerable and destitute without forking out to support charities on top of that burden.

So why do some business owners continue to find time and funds to work with local charities? Community Impact Bucks runs programmes to develop charities into sustainable ongoing businesses with the help of expert volunteers – business leaders who give up their time to work with charities to develop their own strategy for fund raising.

Community Impact Bucks were so impressed by the skills that volunteers had to offer that they established a specialist list of experts who are willing to give up their time to help charities. These include: legal experts, finance experts, business leaders, marketing experts, plumbers and electricians. Often volunteers are highly paid and leaders in their field. Their impact when working with charities is impressive – recently, following the support of a business expert volunteer, the Chilterns MS Centre achieved a 700% increase in earned income!

Community groups don’t just look to business for a hand out either. The fact is that businesses and charities share the same society. A businessman or woman is as likely to rely on the services of a cancer care organisation that is a charity as anyone else, and I presume that they don’t lose that sense of value the moment they turn up in the boardroom.

There are many reasons why charities would appreciate the support of business apart from funds: the skills of the directors, the support of the staff on volunteering days and the fresh engagement and views from another sector. But these are not one-way relationships. Charities may be able to teach business owners some vital skills. Charity leaders are often experts at being flexible as the needs of their customers/beneficiaries change; budget control is a survival skill; charities are inventive – often growing a national organisation from a frustration and a dream to see things better – and are often staffed by the dedicated teams of highly qualified experts.

Helen Cavill, our Volunteer Hub Coordinator, noted that young employees are looking to work for organisations that link to charities. In recent studies the Social Responsibility element of a firm is identified as being an important decision-making element for young professionals deciding to join.

More than one million LinkedIn members add Volunteer & Causes section to their profile

Volunteer Opportunities Help Employers Attract Talent, Report Says

Furthermore, if you are in business you may want to get the most out of your team – and volunteering can help here too! A review of health and volunteering, which included 40 studies and was published in BMC Public Health, revealed that volunteers benefit from reduced rates of depression and an increased sense of life satisfaction and well-being — doing good, it seems, made them feel good. “Our systematic review shows that volunteering is associated with improvements in health,” lead author Dr. Suzanne Richards of the University of Exeter Medical School in England said in a statement. Other studies suggest improved longevity of up to 3 years for those volunteering…

Party Promise on Volunteering… what if!

hands

A Conservative government would offer up to 15 million workers three days’ paid leave a year for volunteering…

Under the party’s plans, a new law would be passed requiring public sector employers and companies with more than 250 employees to give staff up to three days a year to do voluntary work. David Cameron said the plan would help to “build a stronger society”.

If… if… this happened in Bucks what does this mean? Rupert Waters, Head of Economic Research at Bucks Business First, sucked his pencil for no more than a second to tell me that Buckinghamshire has about 70 businesses that would fall into this category.  That doesn’t sound many to me, but when I thought about the impact of that it started to seem interesting.  If… if… 70 businesses in Bucks released each employee for 3 days volunteering that could mean 52,500 days of volunteering – that would be a £ value of about £2,500,000!

So if… if… the policy became a reality, if all companies signed up to it, and if all employees wanted to get involved, this could have a mammoth impact in Bucks. But let’s assume that only 10% of people took up on the proposal then that is still 5,250 extra days of volunteering in Bucks. Think what effect that could have on lives of so many. Our gardening project, run by Community Impact Bucks, would be able to help every elderly person in Bucks keep their gardens in order all year; volunteer drivers would drive the sick to hospital every day; the homeless would find help and support every day; drop in centres would be open every day…

The list of community projects achieved would lift the lives of thousands of people and the volunteer team support at Community Impact Bucks would be rushed off their feet! I think the team would think that is a price worth paying …….

So whoever gets in, if they took up David Cameron’s pledge, all I can say is that we will be very happy to work with those 2,000 new volunteers and I am sure that the charities and volunteer groups we represent will welcome them with open arms!

NB There are other political parties available and all will stand by their proposals. If… if…!

Is volunteering free…?

After reading a report about volunteering in Harrogate…

Harrogate Advertiser article – Volunteering isn’t free

…it is interesting to think that some people believe that volunteering is a free option. We are, I think, lucky that the County and District Councils that we deal with recognise the real cost of volunteering, but many charities and community groups often overlook this cost in their planning. Volunteers need and warrant as much training as full time staff. This comes at a cost. Volunteers need management support and this comes at a cost. Volunteers need resources, computers, working material, desk space – this comes at a cost. Volunteers should be paid out of pocket expenses and this too comes at a cost. All in all volunteering is not a cheap option, however the dedication, skill and enthusiasm – as well as not having to cover the main costs of employment – means volunteers give hundreds of times greater value than their cost.

It is worth however reminding organisations to properly budget for volunteers and to make sure they are supported with all the tools to do the job.

Good value yes ….. but never free!

Damn Amateurs!

I was chatting to a few people the other day about volunteers and what they do. One of the assembled stated that he did not want to be a volunteer and thought that “damn amateurs” had no place in some sectors. I was restrained in my reproach but, when thinking about it, it is an interesting point. What do damn amateurs do? What is an amateur? There is an inference that an amateur is untrained, unskilled and something of a “dabbler”. As a volunteer in some walks of life, and working with volunteers in my day job, I am surrounded by experts in their field and most of them are rather proud of the amateur status. There is something adventurous about it. Often organisations that use both volunteers and paid staff find the workforce driven by passion not financial gain and this makes for a dedicated, integrated and sometimes challenging workplace.

I have in the past worked with amateurs at all levels who deliver a service based on their existing skills and knowledge at such a level that the organisation that they volunteer for could never afford their “professional” rate. Yet they work doggedly and with as much drive and enthusiasm as any bonus-driven professional.

Last summer my mother was taken ill and I had to call for an ambulance. Within moments a medic arrived and, having 20 years experience in A&E in this country and others, was able to support, check, and reassure my mother. He was able and experienced at life saving. Having left the health service to pursue a new career he felt his skills were still of value. I can vouch that they were. He was a “damn amateur” but one of many that save lives day in day out when the professionals are not able to.

So I feel privileged to deal with “damn amateurs” because the way the future is looking we all may need to rely on them a little more.

Innovation

innovationWhy is the charity sector so vital for Bucks? The term charity covers a multitude of sins. Maybe “sins” is not quite the right term as many charities have a hugely beneficial and altruistic drive. There is a tendency to assume that charities do important work that is not done by the state. They are steady, amateur and well meaning. Isn’t it all about village hall bring and buy sales, cream tea fund raising and rattling tins outside supermarkets?

I listened to the radio the other day and heard a report from Medical Detection Dogs based in Great Horwood in Bucks. They are working on a revolutionary use of dogs to sniff and detect cancer cells as part of a screening process. Medical Detection Dogs have a long record of success using dogs to detect cancer. This is truly revolutionary, and it got me thinking about charities and how they lead, how they revolutionise, innovate, challenge and arguably change the world. Why? How is it that with all the millions of pounds in state and business sectors the world is often changed by unfunded, passionate amateurs? I don’t just mean Oxfam, Amnesty, or Medecins Sans Frontieres, although the headline list of these life changing organisations may be sufficient to make the point. I am referring to the world in which people see a problem and, frustrated often by lack of anyone else solving it, get up and do it for themselves for no financial benefit.

Innovation comes in different forms. We have charities inventing games to help people manage debt, hi tech solutions to help the elderly live safely in their homes, and great innovation is going on in the social service sector. Innovation in this sector is no less impressive. People, amateurs, who see solutions where the state has not, from opening simple cafes with support services provided by volunteers, using farming as a form of rehabilitation to innovative transport schemes and low carbon solutions.

In Bucks there are around 2,500 charities. My colleagues at Community Impact Bucks have had the privilege to have helped many of them start and thrive, and continue to provide support –  but when we consider the innovation in the charity sector it is astounding.  What drives innovation? Usually a passion to see things better for others, despite no funding or very little, ignoring all those that say it is impossible – and a great imagination.

If you want really impressive innovation look not just to business but to the great ideas in the charity sector where (with some effective support) amateur passion and little or no money can solve problems often too big for business and state.

PROMOTING EXCELLENCE IN VOLUNTARY AND COMMUNITY SERVICES