It’s probably fair to say that it’s an uncertain time for the not-for-profit sector. The Coronavirus pandemic has affected organisations in different ways, depending on their activities, their size or how they’re funded. Some have had to suspend their activities; others have continued but scaled down; some have had their income streams completely dry up; others have faced an unprecendented increase in demand. Odds are also that added into that mix have been the challenges of doing things differently, loss of staff or volunteers due to sickness, shielding or furlough, and mental health implications.
Reassuringly, people have come forward in their droves to help in their community; this is very welcome and many of us are beginning to think about how this impetus is best harnessed as we enter new phases. The increase in volunteering could pose challenges in itself as organisations try to ensure that people volunteer safely.
I wanted to bring together some of the useful things we’ve been sharing to help not-for-profits over the past few months, share what’s coming up and pose some questions for us to explore over the next few months.
I’ll start with what’s coming up.
Next week is Small Charity Week and there are lots of events listed on the Small Charity Week website. We’re hosting three events next week.
On Thursday, we’ll run a brief training workshop on the Charity Governance Code to help trustees understand their role. It will be most useful for trustees of registered charities or people who are thinking of registering their organisation as a charity.
This builds on the excellent series of webinars NCVO has produced on a whole range of topics, from protecting people, financial planning and making decisions during the Coronavirus pandemic. The webinars are all recorded and published on Youtube, so don’t worry if you’ve missed any; you can access them here.
I recently caught the recent NCVO webinar on ‘Board leadership: Supporting your charity through the next phase of the Coronavirus pandemic’
It encourages you to think about where your board of trustees are currently. Have they been helping out with delivery recently? It’s important to understand where the board is so that it can move on from emergency / survival stage and into the next phase; easing the board from management into governance and setting the charity’s direction will be important. And if planning might seem a futile exercise at the moment, there are some tools and tips for planning during uncertain times.
For both individuals who want to help and groups that have been taking on more volunteers during the period. This contains
hints and tips for what individual volunteers can do to keep themselves and others safe
ideas for what people can do to help depending on their circumstances
help and resources for groups that involve volunteers covering safety, confidentiality, lone working guidance and more.
We are still offering one-to-one support to Dudley borough groups. We can offer this support either by email or by online meetings. We do have quite a bit of demand so we appreciate your patience on this; please don’t hesitate to make contact with us!
It’s been quite a while since any of our team here at Dudley CVS blogged about our work. The reasons might be obvious; our work has changed beyond recognition since February as we’ve flexed to respond to and help our sector and our communities respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But it might be fitting that our first post, now we’ve been able to pause for breath, comes in Volunteers’ Week, which we are celebrating virtually this year. I wanted to celebrate and thank an incredible group of volunteers that has been working tirelessly to support people who may have needed some extra help during lockdown.
In early March, our team started exploring how we might support the sector and help people who might start to come forward to lend a hand safely. We felt that many groups would want to help, that new mutual aid groups would spring up and that people would want to roll up their sleeves. We weren’t disappointed on that score!
We established six virtual Covid-19 support networks which covered the whole borough in six areas along the same geographical lines as our Integrated Plus project. These networks consisted of CVS staff and partners such as the local authority, police, NHS services and other voluntary organisations such as Black Country Foodbank. At the same time, we put a call out for individual volunteers and voluntary groups to sign up with us so that we could ensure that support was co-ordinated.
Dudley borough didn’t disappoint! We had 600 individual volunteers sign up and we’ve been bowled over that people have stepped up in their numbers to do whatever they can.
Through the six virtual networks, we’ve been supporting people who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, such as those with long-term conditions, as well as helping those who might be self-isolating or shielding. Networks have been receiving referrals from all sorts of places: GPs surgeries, local authority services, self-referrals to our helpline or the Black Country Radio helpline, Facebook, even from concerned friends and family members in different parts of the country.
While our Integrated Plus colleagues have helped to ensure that services are wrapped around the people that need them, us CVS leads in each area have been matching those volunteers to people that need some extra support with things like picking up medication, essential shopping or telephone befriending. The ideal has been to help foster relationships and promote neighbourly behaviours so that the support is less transactional and in the hope that this relationship continues, though we recognise that people’s circumstances can change.
We’ve been so grateful for any help our borough’s volunteers have been able to offer, whether it’s been a one-off medication delivery or more sustained support. I know that the willingness of so many to help has given us confidence that people are getting support and we hear constantly from the people referred to us that volunteers have been lifesavers!
In Stourbridge, Lye and Wollescote, the areas I’ve been covering, I’ve been particularly lucky to have the magnificent support of Cat, Emma, Lee and the whole team involved in the Stourbridge Covid-19 Community Support Group, a brand new mutual aid group that got in touch with us as soon as we put the call out for volunteers and groups to work with us.
The group has more than 200 volunteers and is remarkably well-organised, quickly adopting systems and processes to make sure their volunteers and the individuals they support are kept safe. They’ve given me incredible confidence that the people I’m referring will get swift and appropriate help.
As well as responding to the hundreds of referrals I’ve made to them, allocating volunteers to make shopping trips, collect medications or offer companionship over the phone, the Stourbridge Community Support Group has been taking referrals themselves, through their Facebook page or their phone line. They also offer food parcels to people who have found their income unexpectedly cut off. Their support is pretty much around the clock and as lockdown starts to ease, they are still offering help.
I’ve spoken to more than 200 people that have been referred to us for support, some of whom I’ve spoken to more than once or twice and I’ve been really blown away by the connection I’m feeling to people I’ve only ‘met’. I’m sure this is magnified for the Stourbridge Community Support Group, since when I’ve made a referral, I’ve learned that the group keeps in touch with that person to offer ongoing support, which is astounding commitment. Another thing I’ve been struck by is the number of people who have been shielding or self-isolating saying that they would ordinarily be volunteering if their circumstances were different.
In our last network meeting, which has representatives from the Stourbridge Community Support Group, Dudley CVS, Integrated Plus, the local authority, NHS mental health services and other partners, Emma from the Stourbridge Community Support Group asked for some feedback from us so that they could better understand whether there was a continuing need for what they were offering. The responses overwhelmingly showed how services and partners perceived the volunteers’ fantastic contribution as of equal if not greater value! I shared my own gratefulness for the group by sharing an example of how responsive they have been in urgent situations which are not so straightforward. A couple of weeks ago we had a lady referred to us who should have received a government food parcel, which hadn’t arrived, leaving the lady with very little food. I contacted the local authority to try to get to the bottom of what had happened and to set up a food parcel. Given that we were near the end of the day and local authority staff are juggling all sorts of priorities in very challenging circumstances, I also got in touch with the group, since I knew they are constantly checking their referrals email. Within ten minutes, the ever-ready Lee responded to let me know that they would get a food parcel to the lady within the hour. (Our local authority colleagues also responded very quickly and they’re doing a wonderful job within our partnership in really challenging circumstances – it really is a great team effort!)
At the moment referrals have tailed off. This might be a reflection that people have become more accustomed to the situation and got support in place. It could be because there is now a centralised helpline and food distribution hub in place, led by the local authority. But I think it’s in no small part to the incredible volunteers across the whole borough who’ve now built relationships with the hundreds if not thousands of people that were referred to us throughout March and April and are continuing to support them now. We’re so grateful for their willingness to help people in their communities and hope we can harness this positivity as we tentatively find new ways of working.
My usual job is to support people to set up, run and organise their voluntary group, charity or social enterprise. It’s quite a change that I’ve come to rely on a voluntary group over the last few months. I hope that I can return the favour and help the Stourbridge Community Support Group and its volunteers to think about how they can build on the goodwill of the army of volunteers, the connections they’ve made, the people they’ve supported and develop community resilience that outlives the emergency situation. At the very least, I hope to be able to thank them face-to-face someday.
A couple of weeks ago, I headed to Birmingham for the Good Finance Live event on social investment to meet experts, social investors, not-for-profits that had accessed social investment and, hopefully, to bring some useful information and ideas back to Dudley borough.
I should say that social investment won’t be for every organisation because of its repayable nature. For instance, it wouldn’t suit an organisation that provides free services because that organisation would find it difficult to raise enough money to pay off the investment. But for an organisation that has something to trade, be it facilities for hire, goods, merchandise or services to sell, social investment could be a feasible source of finance to help it develop. As I’m seeing more requests for support around social enterprise development and community asset transfer, repayable finance might be an appropriate option for these types of organisation (a social enterprise is set up to trade to achieve its social or environmental purposes and an organisation with facilities might be able to generate an income from hiring them out).
So what did I get from the day?
Generally speaking, social investment is repayable finance where the investor wants to receive a social return as well as a financial one. But within that, there are many different types of social investment. The conference centre at BVSC was packed with different social investors that support charities and social enterprises. Between them, they provide a whole range of social investment options, such as:
social impact bonds
social investment tax relief (SITR)
A mind-boggling array of options that may sound very daunting. You can find out more about them here on the Good Finance website.
On top of that, while some investors offer general support to any type of not-for-profit, there are some that are interested in certain areas of work or themes, like:
PICNIC – which is interested in delivering social and environmental impact in parks and green spaces
Sporting Capital – which supports organisations that help communities through sport and physical activity
Homeless Link – which supports organisations that aim to reduce homelessness
As well as meeting social investors, it was incredibly helpful to meet and hear from organisations that had been successful in raising one or more kinds of social investment. Particularly inspiring were contributions from:
Wellington Orbit, a cultural hub owned by the community who raised finance through a community share offer and incorporated social investment tax relief SITR into its funding mix in order to open a community cinema and cafe bar
Creative Optimistic Visions CIC, run by the passionate Stacey who shared her journey from setting up her CIC from scratch, being supported through UnLtd finance and mentoring to taking on blended finance, allowing the CIC to employ staff and expand its work
These examples really demonstrated that social finance is not only for large organisations and already well-resourced organisations.
If you’re interested in finding out more about social finance, I’d always recommend learning from other organisations that have gone through it. Many will be happy to share their experiences and learning with you. As well as the two listed above, a couple of months ago I posted about Stretford Public Hall, which ran a successful community share offer.
I’d also recommend starting with the Good Finance website, which is packed with tools and resources to help you decide whether social finance is a good option for your organisation and what social finance options might be most appropriate. It’s a great source of information.
Finally, I’m doing some work behind the scenes to increase knowledge and understanding of social finance in the Dudley borough. This might include sharing more information about social finance, increasing our skills and bringing in experts who can give support and encouragement. If you’re interested in learning more, or getting involved in any initiatives around social finance in Dudley, please let us know and we can keep you informed.
Did you know that over the last 11 years, Martin and I have supported nonprofits to access more than £11million in grant funding? You probably didn’t because we only recently realised this ourselves!
Given that Martin and I have recently completed our eleventh year at Dudley CVS, and because we’re both utter geeks when it comes to keeping records of the people and groups we’ve worked with over that time, we thought it would be interesting to pull together all of our data about successful funding applications we’ve worked on. We’re both pretty staggered by (and proud of) the results.
Martin and I joined Dudley CVS within a month of each other back in 2008. Over those years we’ve worked together and helped each other to offer the best support possible to all types and sizes of not-for-profit.
My role is about helping people that want to establish or develop their not-for-profit by providing them with information, guidance and support on a range of topics they’re likely to run into, including:
What type of not-for-profit? Such as the concept of social enterprise, the definition of charity, appropriate legal structures
Planning, including long term vision, mission, purpose-setting, project planning, reviewing the organisation, financial planning
Roles and responsibilities of the people that lead not-for-profits, including governance training for directors and trustees
Connecting with others, which is becoming increasingly important
Governing documents and registration
Compliance – including regulatory obligations, insurance, reporting and policies and procedures
Asset development and asset transfer
Fundraising and income-generation
When I support groups with funding, it tends to be as part of wider support to help a group become established and ‘funding ready’, such as Dudley Feelgood Choir, Wall Heath Tennis Club and Bayer Street Allotments, though I do also help groups to identify appropriate funders for their work or projects and they do the rest. The idea is to give support in a way that helps groups to become more skilled and confident in putting applications together.
Martin’s role focuses on income-generation and because of this, he primarily supports organisations with larger bids. Martin says,
“Like the support groups give to their beneficiaries to help them to increase their skills, confidence and ability to do things for themselves, the way I work with groups can start quite intensively with a lot of handholding until they are in a position to work on an application themselves with me on hand to review it before it’s submitted. Lots of the people I worked with years ago are now flying with their bidwriting!
I supported Dudley Voices for Choice who received £415,720 at the end of 2018. What stood out for me was how the group involved their beneficiaries throughout the process as well as the enthusiasm of the partners in the project led excellently by Sarah.
Overall 80% of the organisations I have supported during the last 11 years have received funding.
Over the last eleven years, between us, we’ve supported:
With 614 successful applications
To 113 grants programmes
Totalling £11,764,436.65 (65p!)”
Of course, this only covers the work that Martin and I have done to support organisations as that’s the data we have to hand. The real total over that eleven years is likely to be much higher if we could incorporate the support that our previous colleagues gave too. On top of that, for obvious reasons, we can only include the successes that our groups have told us about, which doesn’t always happen. Nonetheless, there’s some interesting things to say about the figures we’ve got.
The largest single grant was for £800,000 from the Football Foundation to a local community football club (one of Martin’s)
The smallest grants were two £30 grants from TESCO and the Blakemore Foundation to help the Seniors Luncheon Club get started in 2009 (they’re still going now!)
Here’s a breakdown by grant size:
86% of grants were valued at £10,000 or less. The majority of grants (35%) were for under £1,000, while 33% of grants ranged from £1,000-£5,000. This means well over half the grants (68%) were awards of up to £5,000. 18% of grants were between £5,000 and £10,000 in value. I think this suggests that most of these awards are contributions towards project costs, rather than core funding.
Which funding programmes have been the most accessed by the groups we’ve supported over the last decade? This graphic shows us:
67 of the 113 (59%) of funding programmes made one grant only (that we know of), the remaining 41% gave multiple grants amongst the groups we supported. When we support groups, we help them to identify the most appropriate funders for their needs, matching projects to funders’ interests areas and criteria. This is why there is a spread of 113 grants programmes.
Within that, the ten most prolific grants programmes were:
Dudley Council’s Community Forums (including previous Area Committee funding)
Awards for All (National Lottery Community Fund, formerly Big Lottery Fund)
Dudley Borough Small Grants Fund
Rant About the Grant
Improving Physical Activity Fund
Reaching Communities (National Lottery Community Fund, formerly Big Lottery Fund)
What’s staggering in this list is that 6 of the ten programmes no longer operate and have not been in operation for some years now (programmes that have come to an end are: Dudley Borough Small Grants Fund, Grassroots Grants, Rant About the Grant, Improving Physical Activity Fund, Dudley Council’s Small Grants, BeActive Coaching Bursary). This chimes with our knowledge and our increasing encouragement of groups to look to new sources of income as grant funding opportunities continue to reduce, because the four remaining funders may not be able to increase their level of award.
What else can we say about these grants programmes? We can see how much they have granted the Dudley borough groups we’ve supported:
An enormous 55% of funding awarded to the groups we’ve supported has come from Reaching Communities, that’s £6,507,553.00 of the £11,764,436.65 total! This is perhaps due to a combination of the size of grants available through this programme, its popularity as a programme and the relatively high success rate it enjoys. Other popular programmes like Awards for All and the Community Forums give smaller grants (up to £10,000 and £5,000 respectively).
“As regards Reaching Communities I have a success rate of almost 60% in both number of successful applications and grant values. 50% of the groups I’ve supported with Reaching Communities have received repeat funding from that programme. These include Phase Trust (3), Dudley Counselling Centre/Dudley Community Church (3), Beacon Centre for the Blind (2), Age UK (2) and Headway Black Country (2).
As for high-value grants, some of my highlights are:
£538,524 over 3 applications to an organisation that supports older people
£513,525 over 3 applications to a disability charity
£1,238,328 from 10 applications from a faith-based organisation that supports vulnerable and disadvantaged people
£679,411 across 4 applications from an advocacy charity
£646,272 from 4 applications by a health-based charity
7 applications with a family support charity, totaling £289,016
7 applications supported with a young persons charity, totaling £1,019,710
15 applications supported from a charity that empowers disadvantaged people, totaling £566,465
6 successful applications supported from a young persons advocacy charity, totaling £614,592″
The National Lottery Community Fund (formerly known as the Big Lottery Fund) which runs Reaching Communities, features elsewhere in this top ten, with Awards for All, Advice Services Fund and the Youth Investment Fund accounting for around 10% of money awarded. So what does the picture look like if we combine the programmes run by one funder?
Unsurprisingly, the National Lottery Community Fund makes up 65% of the total money awarded to groups we’ve supported over the past eleven years. Other funders have contributed as follows:
Football Foundation 6.8%
Young People’s Fund 2.62%
Dudley Council 2.51%
BBC Children in Need 2.42%
Lloyds Bank Foundation 2.39%
Building Better Opportunities 2.38%
Sport England 1.89%
Ibstock Cory Environmental Trust 1.6%
Grassroots Grants 1.3%
Remaining funders combined 11.25
The National Lottery Community Fund is still keen to fund Dudley borough organisations and we have great links with John Goodman, the Funding Officer from The National Lottery Community Fund who covers our patch. John is available at our office on Wednesdays to meet organisations interested in accessing funding from The National Lottery Community Fund. To arrange an appointment, email John at email@example.com.
A new fund for Dudley borough
Finally, Dudley CVS has recently launched a new fund for organisations that can develop and provide creative support for people who frequently use unplanned emergency care services (such as calling 999, attending A&E or Urgent Care Centre).
A couple of days ago, Deb, Helena and I met with the lovely people behind Deafscope, a brand new online Deaf community directory.
Set up by Ishtiaq and Kerry, BSL communicators with first-hand experiences of the barriers faced by the Deaf community, Deafscope aims to connect the community, break down barriers and highlight the amazing Deaf-friendly and Deaf-owned businesses around the West Midlands, the UK and eventually around the world.
Bringing together Deaf-friendly and Deaf-owned businesses, services and events in one place means people will be able to see how that business or service can communicate with them along with all the other features they need to see, their location, special offers, contact details and more.Businesses can add listings to the directory to feature products, services, images, social media and website links, special offers, an introduction to their brand and more. The reviews function is designed to build a trusted source of information about accessible businesses and services.
Here’s a great example of how the Deafscope website works:
It’s not only businesses that can feature their services on Deafscope. Deaf-owned or Deaf-friendly charities, voluntary groups, nonprofits and public services such as healthcare services, can register their services, events and activities free of charge. Ishtiaq and Kerry are really keen to get networked so that the website features a whole range of services that reduce the barriers that the Deaf community can face.
And it’s not only a website that lists services, but it can give people ideas. Deaf-owned and Deaf-friendly business can inspire others to set up similar things in their own areas; did you know there’s a Deaf Gym in Bradford? There are also plans for an app and to offer practical support to the Deaf community such as helping people find jobs, training people, nurturing Deaf-owned enterprise. On top of that, being based in Lye means they can offer space, training facilities and events locally!
We’ve helped them to start networking locally and they’ll be linking with the Dudley Deaf Focus Group which is supported by Healthwatch Dudley. Deafscope is also planning a Deaf Community Day for next month. To keep informed about Deafscope, follow on social media:
If you’re thinking of taking on a community building or facility, check out this excellent short webinar from Good Finance. It’s called ‘How to build a cocktail of funding for your community group’, but it covers so much more than that, as we all know that funding is about much more than asking funders, donors or supporters for money!
This webinar covers the things you’ll need to think about before you start and has a useful overview of fundraising options from Locality, as well as an introduction to social investment from Good Finance. It also contains an excellent case study from Stretford Public Hall, whose members brought its community together to bring a disused public building back to life, and ran a successful community share offer to raise the finance needed. Take a look at the webinar below.
Here are the main things that I would take away from the webinar:
Funding options (led by Debbie Lamb, from Locality)
Business planning is incredibly important. You’ll have to be clear about what the running costs will be and what will generate income, as well as having a good sense of the advantages and risks of running a community building.
Be dispassionate. Try to be realistic about how viable this is and don’t let your emotions lead you to take on something that has very slim chance of success.
Think about your organisational structure and the people you have. Does your structure help you to manage risk and liabilities? Does it allow you to borrow (if you plan to borrow)? Does it allow you to raise money through a community share offer (if you plan to do this)? Do you have the right amount of people with the necessary skills and expertise to work as a team?
You’re more likely to be raising money through a ‘patchwork’. It’s very unlikely that you will have just one source of income.
This all chimes with my experience of supporting nonprofits with community asset transfer and funding. The strength of the team and its planning is really crucial to success.
The one thing I’d add here is that evidence of community involvement and buy in is equally important. It’s one of the key things Dudley Council will take into account when making decisions on bids for community asset transfer and funders like the National Lottery Community Fund make community involvement a key criterion of all its programmes. You’ll need to be able to demonstrate that the community has been involved in the development of your plans and that the community wants your project to happen!
In terms of community asset transfer in Dudley borough, Dudley Council has made a ‘How to’ guide which tells you what they look for in a robust business case and I’ve made a template business plan which is based on this. What the local authority will look for can be boiled down into a few things:
Realistic costings, projections and sources of income: Do you know what condition the facility is in? Does any money need to be spent to bring the building back into use and if so, where is this money likely to come from? Do you already have some confirmed resources to put into it? What are the likely running costs?
Robust income-generation model / evidence of sustainability: What activities will bring in income? How realistic are these? Have you spoken to people who are willing to spend money here? What evidence do you have to show that your income will be able to cover running costs?
Benefits for the whole community: How will the community benefit? How will people be able to get involved? What positive difference will this make? How will your activities link to local and national strategies? If your building will be used for just one type of activity, it’s less likely to get support.
Evidence of community-involvement in the plan: How have members of the local community been able to have a say on what will happen at your facility? Can they be involved as members or will they be able to have a stake in your project?
2. Social investment (Kieran Whiteside, Good Finance)
Social investment comes in many forms and, although it’s not particularly new, it’s constantly evolving. Not many of the organisations I’ve worked with have wanted to consider social investment, being put off by its repayable nature. In the current climate, though, I think groups should seriously consider it.
The starting point is to learn about what it is to find out about what type might suit you. And in this webinar, Kieran gives us a brief overview of what social investment is and what tools can help you to get started:
Social investment is repayable finance, where the investor looks for a social as well as a financial return on their investment. This means you need to be clear about what you need the money for, whether there’s an income stream that will help you to repay, and what social impact you will create (this is about ‘outcomes’ and I recommend the now archived ‘Getting funding and planning successful projects’ guide from National Lottery Community Fund back when it was known as the Big Lottery Fund).
The Good Finance website can help you to understand social investment. It has a diagnostic tool to help you to understand whether social investment is right for you and the type of social investment you should consider.
Community shares: This involves raising money from the community by issuing shares in the organisation through a formal community share offer. It’s a great way of demonstrating real community buy-in for a project, but only certain types of organisation can issue shares. The Community Shares Unit is a good source of information.
Blended finance: This type of social investment is typically a grant + a loan. It’s more common for investments of £250,000 or less.
Secured loans: Like a mortgage against an organisation’s asset. This means that the organisation needs to own a building / asset for use as collateral. Social banks, some high street banks and some specialist funders offer secure loans with typically lower interest rates.
Finally, crowdfunded investment: Different from rewards-based crowdfunding (Kickstarter, for instance), but more like peer-to-peer lending. You’ll find more information on Ethex or Community Chest
3. Case study of Stretford Public Hall, which ran a successful community share offer (Simon Borkin, Stretford Public Hall)
I was really inspired by the story Simon told of Stretford Public Hall and the power of a community coming together to make things happen!
Stretford Public Hall is a Grade II listed Victorian building that fell into disuse (for the second time) in 2014. In 2015 the Friends of Stretford Public Hall successfully used the Localism Act to get the building listed as an asset of community value. The group secured the freehold of the hall from Trafford Council which meant they could start refurbishment.
To raise money through a community share offer, the Friends of Stretford Public Hall had to set up as a community benefit society (or Ben Comm) so that the organisation could issue shares. This allowed members to invest in the organisation in return for shares, but the principle of the Ben Comm is that each member gets one vote, no matter how many shares they bought.
To set up a community share offer, the organisation had to draw up a business plan and a formal share offer document. Both of these are available on the Stretford Public Hall website, along with lots of other information about how the organisation is run.
What struck me most about this case study was the importance of engaging with the community and the real openness to involving the community in the organisation’s set up and decision-making. It really shows that the friends of Stretford Public Hall did the legwork to make sure the community was engaged and motivated, resulting in the organisation successfully raising £255,000 over 56 days from 790 people in the community and 7 organisations. It’s that kind of community involvement that decides whether a venture will succeed.
St Paul’s Community and Learning Centre is a haven on the Hawbush estate in Brierley Hill. No wonder, then, that it’s the location of the welcoming Cake, Cuppa and Chat Group (or ‘3 Cs’), which gets together every Monday afternoon (except bank holidays).
The group is open to anyone who has been bereaved, is feeling lonely, facing a life changing experience like having a partner go into long-term care or for people caring for a loved-one. The idea of the group is to give participants the opportunity to chat with people in a similar situation over a drink and some delicious homemade cake. The group makes it clear that “People who come set the agenda – if you want to play cards or do a jigsaw such things are available, but if you want to come for a chat only that is fine!” It’s like a big tea party every week!
The group’s main organiser is Beryl (whose cakes are incredible!), but it’s probably fair to say that everyone chips in to make the group happen and the conversations flow. Beryl wasn’t there when I arrived, having to pop out for something, but I was welcomed in like an old friend and swiftly offered a place to sit, a cuppa and of course a piece of delicious homemade cake. I’m not great around new people, especially large groups whose members already know each other well; but I was encouraged by a helper to introduce myself to the entire group and to explain why I was visiting. After reassuring everyone that I wasn’t there to talk at them, but that I wanted to be involved in the conversations, I was invited to sit with a small group who were happily chatting about their week.
It became clear to me very quickly that this was a group in which all the participants had built important relationships with each other. It felt like over the years, people had really taken the time to learn about what made each other tick, that they’d listened to each other and respected one another. At the same time, the warm welcome I’d received told me that they were still very open to new people visiting and joining them.
I learned that some of the members had been coming for the seven years the group has been running, others were very new and enjoying making new friendships. Some members came because they lived alone and wanted to feel connected, some were carers and this was their only respite from their caring responsibilities, while others were also involved in lots of other hobbies groups. One gentleman is a member of two singing groups and a keen plant collector, giving me some hints and tips on how to keep my orchids alive! He seemed so busy with his hobbies and told me he really enjoyed keeping active and interacting with people, including his friend who he helps out with lifts to 3 Cs group and to other appointments.
One member was a carer for her husband. She told me that Cake, Cuppa and Chat was the only chance she got to take some time for herself, so it was clearly crucial to her wellbeing. It was really lovely to hear her speak highly of the support she’d received from our Integrated Plus team!
I’d expected most of the members to live within walking distance of the venue, since it’s right in the middle of a large housing estate, and many of them told me they walked there and that they went to other activities at St Paul’s Community and Learning Centre. I was surprised to learn that some members came from further afield. St Paul’s Community and Learning Centre is on a bus route, and some participants feel able to get buses there, while others drive and offer their friends lifts.
The friendship group doesn’t work in isolation and is connected to other things that happen at the centre and in the community. This much was obvious when Kathleen from Briar Lea Over 50s Club paid a visit to invite the members of Cake, Cuppa and Chat to their next trip to Liverpool because they had some spaces available. It’s this kind of sharing that helps groups to keep their costs down and reach more people!
When I met Beryl, she told me that the group had been meeting for the last seven years. Initially, members played board games, but it soon became clear that participants simply wanted to talk to one another, it almost didn’t matter what kinds of other activity they did. And I heard lots of different conversations on my visit; people sharing their experiences, giving knitting tips and swapping patterns, sharing their skills and encouraging each other.
The group regularly gets out and about, too. Members have visited places like Barnet Hill for afternoon tea, they’ve done theatre trips together, pub lunches, visited botanical gardens and they always have a Christmas party! The group is dementia friendly; both carers and those living with dementia are welcome to attend and there’s a quiet space in case anyone feels distressed. Beryl also let me know that every month, she offers time and space for people to reflect and think about their loved ones that they may have lost, which brings us back to the whole point of the group. It’s a caring environment for those that have gone or are going through challenging experiences, a place that shows them that there are still friendships to be made and people that care about them.
If you would like to see if the Cake, Cuppa and Chat Group is suitable for you or a loved one, you’ll get a warm welcome every Monday (except bank holidays), 2pm-4pm. There is no charge to attend, but donations are gratefully received for the hospitality you’ll be shown.
Hearts and Crafts group based in Sedgley is a social group where people can take part in a range of arts and crafts activities in a welcoming and supportive environment. It’s a place where people can learn new skills from their peers, share knowledge and get creative! Perhaps more importantly, it’s a place that nurtures people as well as their creativity.
I was introduced to Hearts and Crafts by my colleague Georgia, who through her role as Integrated Plus Link Support Worker has referred people to this group as a way of helping them to be more connected in their local community. The group has been running for 4 years, and it’s co-ordinated by a team that shares all the practical tasks. In fact, it’s become so popular that they’ve set up another session on the same day so that more people can attend and take part in comfort. There were at least 25 people when I paid the group a visit recently as part of the work I’m doing with Age UK Dudley. The knitting table was particularly busy!
At Hearts and Crafts, there are opportunities to take part in a range of creative activities. There’s a table for knitting, needlework and crochet, a table dedicated to papercrafts and another table for painting. People are free to choose to do as much or as little as they please and as I chatted to some of the members it became clear that Hearts and Crafts was less about what they did and more about the friendships that have been made there.
One lady didn’t find it easy to be among new people or in new situations. She was introduced to the group after someone struck up conversation with her at a party where she didn’t know many people. That one connection led her to tentatively joining the group. Now she’s a regular and gets involved in the papercrafts, chatting to her new friends and helping each other to design cards. She told me that this is the only place she goes, so she really looks forward to it every week. She walks there and she’s certain going to Hearts and Crafts gives her purpose and keeps her fit and active.
Over on the knitting table, participants were making all kinds of things for themselves and for others, sharing skills and encouraging each other. I was told that one of the participants who was knitting with such dexterity was recovering from a stroke. It was obvious how much people value Hearts and Crafts as participants told me that attending had given them a sense of purpose.
On the busy painting table, people of all abilities were trying out working with watercolours and acrylic. A gentleman was helping two people who had come for the first time, reassuring them that the worst that could happen was that their paintings might end up in the bin! By the end of the session, the two people had painted beautiful landscapes and they were looking forward to coming again. It’s that kind of welcome and encouragement that has made Hearts and Crafts so popular. When I asked the gentleman about his painting, he told me that he’d been to a class in the 1990s and realised it was harder than it looked at first. But he persevered and now helps his wife to decorate cards that she makes. He loves painting and told me that he can forget all of his troubles by becoming immersed in his creativity. He comes to Hearts and Crafts specifically to help others to get the same benefits.
Another lady told me that Hearts and Crafts was her lifeline, especially after she’d been through a difficult period in her life. She was full of admiration for the team members who make Hearts and Crafts happen every week. She said that the team got upset when the group was so big that team members couldn’t get around to everyone to have a conversation with them; that was the reason for setting up another session later that day. It felt like the team has really fostered a sense of belonging and family as I was told that the team members would text people if the session had to be cancelled to save them setting out; whenever anyone missed a week, someone would be in touch to check everything was ok. It’s the kind of belonging that would help anyone feel connected and wanted.
Over the last few months I’ve been working with the lovely Lorraine, a music enthusiast who wanted to explore the idea of setting up a new ladies choir. I recently visited the choir and spoke to the ladies now taking part in its activities to see how far they’ve come in such a short space of time, a testament to the work Lorraine and her team have put in to get this off the ground!
Setting up a group of any kind takes time and plenty of groundwork to move from being one person’s idea to a collective that a whole team is behind. Much of the requests for support that I receive focus on getting paperwork in place, like constitutions, and funding. I can understand this impulse – having a constitution (with certain key clauses) makes a group eligible for funding and constitutions aren’t something people come across every day – apart from me, I suppose!
But a constitution isn’t a group’s starting point and diving straight into writing one misses crucial steps in the process of setting up a group: team building and planning.
Team building and planning
A not-for-profit group of any kind is always a collective. Although one person might start with their vision and be the driving force, a group should never be run by just one person. A successful group needs a strong, diverse team with a range of skills to be able to make good decisions, reflect society and benefit the people it is set up to help. For me, this is one of the hardest and most crucial aspects of setting up (and continuing to run) a group; building a team will help to ensure that goals are set collectively and that there’s greater motivation to achieve them.
Which leads us to planning. Planning is a really important step in establishing a group and in keeping a group going. The planning process helps everyone involved in the group to agree exactly what the group is about, what it’s trying to achieve and the activities it will do to meet its objectives. Doing it as a team will unite team members behind collectively agreed goals and it will bring lots of different skills and viewpoints to the process, making a plan robust. Planning is also about connecting with others, considering what’s already happening in the community, identifying gaps and linking with other people and organisations to show how the group will operate and demonstrate the level of interest in its work.
Lorraine and her team did this really well, linking with the many community groups in Wall Heath in order to build a picture of potential members, to get word out about the new choir and to secure a venue. This process also helped Lorraine to think about and demonstrate the potential value of the choir and how singing together has social benefits and supports good wellbeing and mental health.
The benefits of planning and connecting with others helped Lorraine to feel more confident about applying for small grants to launch the choir. I helped to identify some small funders who might be interested in supporting the choir, particularly as a way to help people become more connected in their community and feel less isolated. Soon, Lorraine had secured grants totaling just over £3,000 from Blakemore Foundation, Geoff Hill Charitable Trust, Helping Hands Wall Heath CIC and the local Community Forum!
It was great to hear that Wall Heath Ladies Choir could start its activities thanks to the small grants it received which helped to cover venue hire, materials and small items of equipment. It was even better to pay a visit to one of the rehearsals to see how members were getting on!
That night I met a dozen or so smiling women, beginning the night with a catch up, asking about each other and chatting before throwing themselves into warm-up exercises and then into a rousing rehearsal that I couldn’t help but join in with (sorry!). The choir is led by the energising and encouraging Karen, a vocal coach, who has whipped the ladies into shape in no time. Karen’s approach is brilliant and engaging; she helps people feel comfortable and confident, and she knows how important it is to involve everyone in deciding on what songs they should perform. She brings warmth and humour to the group and it’s obvious that she’s built a wonderful rapport with the members of the choir.
During the break, I got to chat with some of the ladies. I found out that all but one of them hadn’t sung in a choir before, but that they didn’t feel stressed or daunted by being in the choir. One member remarked that she liked that they don’t get told off if they get it wrong, which shows how welcoming the choir is to all sorts of abilities.
Some of the members knew each other before they joined Wall Health Ladies Choir, though all of them said that they’d made new friends by joining. I was also told that coming to the choir is good fun, a pick me up after a difficult day and a place where you can forget your stresses. One member told me that she hadn’t seen anyone else that day until she came to the choir. It seems pretty clear that the choir is about more than singing, it’s about the fellowship, friendship and sense of belonging that can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing.
So if you’re interested in joining a fun, friendly and relaxed choir, why not go along to a rehearsal and see for yourself? Wall Heath Ladies Choir rehearses on Thursday evenings, 7.15pm-9.15pm at Church of Ascension, Wall Heath. You’ll get a warm welcome!
I’ll leave you with a cheeky video I took of the choir rehearsing ABBA’s Dancing Queen and I challenge you not to smile!
Meet Paul and Alison. They’re the team behind the lovely Alzheimer’s and Friendship Group that meets at the Storehouse in Brierley Hill on most Monday evenings. It’s a place where people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia and their carers can come to meet others, share mutual support and make friends.
I visited them recently to learn more about them and what the group means to the people that attend.
As soon as I got to the door, I was greeted by Paul, who welcomed me into the Storehouse coffee shop which was laid out nicely so that everyone could see and talk to each other, or talk in smaller groups if they wanted to. I introduced myself to everyone and soon people started telling me their own stories about caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, which I think was a sign of how comfortable they felt in their surroundings.
Paul and Alison clearly have time for everyone who walks through the door, helping them to feel welcome, wanted and comfortable. This is something that they’ve been doing for the past nine years; I was bowled over to learn that the group had been going for that long, just over the road from my office!
Back in 2009, Paul, who has a background of working with people with dementia, met someone who couldn’t go out because of their caring role. In response to this, he and Alison, who worked with older people, thought about providing respite, a space for people with dementia while their carers got some time to themselves. They spoke to Albion Street Church, who agreed to let Paul and Alison use some space, first in the church itself and then in the Storehouse when it was refurbished. The Church also holds a small budget for the group which they can dip into for things like refreshments and entertainment, though they rarely use it and make sure it goes a long way!
Over the years, the group has been flexible to the wishes of its participants. While some carers have brought their loved ones and taken advantage of the respite offered, other carers have stayed with their loved ones and participated in the activities. At the moment, the regular participants are all former carers, who continue to attend for the companionship they have gained over the years; none of the participants knew each other before they started attending the group. Some come from as far as Sedgley because of their shared experiences of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. As we all shared our emotional experiences of loving and losing someone with Alzheimer’s, it did feel good to take some solace from people who had experienced it too. I can completely see how the Alzheimer’s and Friendship Groups helps people to feel less isolated.
On the evening of my visit, we were treated to some entertainment from Rachel a talented musician, who played a range of pieces on saxophone. As a music obsessive myself, this was a peaceful treat and I think everyone enjoyed it! In fact, Alzheimer’s Society says that
evidence suggests that the brain processes music differently to other functions, allowing people with dementia to enjoy songs and music long after other abilities are challenged.
Rachel is connected to the Church herself and she gave her time and skills freely to entertain us for a couple of hours on a Monday night. This group really is a great example of how great things can happen with the right ingredients: people with a passion; a friendly venue and a supportive organisation behind them; good connections which can be mobilised for very little outlay. This is why I hadn’t heard of the group before: they have everything they need to succeed!
Of course, this group is open to new members, whether they’re carers, cared-for, or both. So if you’re interested in making new friends in a supportive environment, the Alzheimer’s a Friendship Group meets on Monday evenings February-December (except bank holidays), 6pm onwards.
It’s wonderful that the Alzheimer’s and Friendship Group exists. According to figures from Alzheimer’s Society:
225,000 people will develop dementia this year – one every three minutes
There are 670,000 carers of people with dementia in the UK
In 2015, an estimated 850,000 people were living with dementia
So there’s room for groups like this and others to create supportive environments for carers and their loved ones. In fact, in Coseley residents have been coming together to develop a Dementia Friendly Cinema to help people with dementia to stay connected in their community. Using a wonderful guide from Alzheimer’s Society to make small adaptations to help people with dementia feel safe and supported, they’ve had one screening and are planning another soon. The next screening will be Some Like It Hot on Tuesday 16 October, at 2pm. To register for this, please visit the Coseley Community Cinema page.
If you’d like to get more involved with either the Alzheimer’s and Friendship Group or the Coseley Dementia Cinema, then please feel free to get in touch and I’ll link you with them.