If you go into the woods today…

March 21, 2023


By Justin Sargent, Chief Executive

One of the best things about living in the Mendips is the ancient woodlands. There is a tangible and irresistible force of nature at work: plants and trees of all shapes and sizes living side by side symbiotically. If a gap emerges, it does not take long for new plants to fill the space left behind, and as the seasons and climate changes, so do the woods, adapting to new conditions around.

It feels to me that this is a pretty good analogy for what the local voluntary sector is about.

Last Thursday I took our President, HM Lord Lieutenant Mohammed Saddiq to five charities that have been funded by Somerset Community Foundation in Taunton and Bridgwater.

I wanted to show Mohammed a cross section of organisations that are rooted in our communities and to explore what that local focus means for the way they go about their work. We visited Arc Inspire, Community Council for Somerset, The Nelson Trust, In Charley’s Memory and The Hub in Bridgwater.

They range from larger organisations employing several dozen people, operating across large parts of the county, generating over £1 million of income and owning substantial properties to small groups led entirely by volunteers, focusing on just one community, and running on just a few thousand pounds. Between them, they are helping people who are experiencing homelessness, mental illness, racism, isolation and loneliness, substance misuse and domestic violence.

Mohammed Saddiq, Lord-Lieutenant of Somerset and Justin Sargent chatting with some people at The Hub in Bridgwater. Photo credit: Brian Bateman.

Mohammed Saddiq, Lord-Lieutenant of Somerset at The Hub in Bridgwater. Photo credit: Brian Bateman.

Just five local organisations doing all that – and much, much more besides.

The visible common thread that runs through them is how they adapt and evolve to keep doing the very best they can for the communities they serve. Very simply it is their irresistible force of nature that compels them to keep going, overcoming obstacles and relentless challenges, being – and creating – the good in society.

To be honest I expected this. I cannot do my job without believing in the unique value that comes with being rooted in a place, whether it is a small village or the whole county. I was inspired (always!) but not surprised.

But, there is more. If my ecology is correct, beneath the forest floor there lies a secret network of fungi called Mycelium, connecting the visible plants to each other, sharing resources and even knowledge with each other. And on my visits that day I believe I saw the voluntary sector equivalent. This is important because it is often not appreciated because it’s not visible or measurable, but it is so essential.

The level of cooperation and generosity between these organisations was incredible. The formal, and particularly the informal, connections that exists between these very different organisations was breathtaking, even during our whirlwind tour. One organisation was exploring how their social enterprise might be a vehicle to help the people looked after by another of the groups we were visiting later; two charities had the same person working for them each part-time, and they were going to start exploring how to work together; one provided a space for specialists from larger organisations to reach people most in need of their help; and a support worker in one of the charities sits on one of our grants panels as an independent local resident.

These organic connections and this cooperation – the kind that lasts – cannot be engineered or controlled. It can’t be created by funders or commissioners. As funders we love this stuff, but I believe the more we try to create it, the more elusive it becomes. Going back to the trees, remember that after the great storm of 1987, it was the areas that were left to rewild that grew back most swiftly and successfully, not the new plantations.

Funding is important, but funders have to be humble or generous enough to know their limits. We have to not just say we trust the sector: we have to show that faith by not overreaching. Sometimes we might be invited in – as I was recently, to convene rural community enterprises by one community owned shop – but otherwise approach our work as genuine and equal partners. Yes, we hold cash, but in our hands that cash does not achieve anything. The simple truth is we need these organisations in order to fulfil our mission and we need to be led by them. Whatever social issues we are trying to address, and whatever great opportunities we want to realise, crucially we need a healthy and vibrant local voluntary sector to help us all build stronger Somerset communities together.

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