By Justin Sargent OBE, Chief Executive
During the pandemic we saw how communities took a strong lead in developing local responses. They took what they had and used it with an energy and vigour that was nothing short of inspiring, and it certainly helped me and my team to keep pace as we fed off that energy in those crucial first weeks of the outbreak.
What communities did not do, however, was wait for the state to intervene. It was a swift and nimble response to an unprecedented situation, and it was instinctive: the same instinct that saw communities rise up urgently to help the people impacted by the 2012/13 and 2014/15 Somerset floods.
As lockdowns and social distancing come to an end (for now at least), it is tempting to sit back and wistfully reflect on that glorious uprising of community spirit, as we contemplate going back to life as it was.
In our day-to-day work at SCF we continually witness how communities make the most of what is available to them to change the world on their doorstep. Rarely is this a strategically planned intervention to have ‘X’ in place to fill a need. No, the bedrock of local charities, community groups and social enterprises is invariably a group of connected individuals who take the opportunity to do something good, starting with what they have.
They use their interests, concerns, and skills. They may have the use a local building or some land, and they can draw in favours, goodwill and, of course, money when they need it. Let’s face it, people are more likely to be generous if offering assistance to something that is organised by their neighbours. This happens day in, day out and I think it is one the greatest causes for hope we have today: People coming together to do something good with what they have within their reach and changing the world on their doorstep.
One of the greatest assets that our communities can almost universally access is land, or more specifically here in rural Somerset, soil. Alongside this, another of our greatest assets are the people who want and can do something with that soil.
In 2017 we started to notice an increase in enquiries and applications from groups using gardening and horticulture to effect positive change in people’s lives. We saw a whole spectrum running from those that are focused on health and wellbeing, using gardening and food production as a catalyst for change, to those that are about sustainable food production, through which people might develop skills or simply find meaning in their lives.
In March 2019 we worked with Spark Somerset to organise a networking session called Grow for Good, bringing together over 20 local gardening and horticultural projects, just to get to know one another, learn from each other and maybe work together. We played to our respective strengths; we provided some funding, and Spark did the organising – but it was the participants who made it. As a result, a Facebook group started up and is still active today, and currently has over 80 members.
That energy and interest has, in turn, fed into our discussions with Somerset County Council about sustainable food systems and food poverty, and directly influenced the creation of a £50,000 fund. Grants from this fund have now been awarded to 22 local organisations, including Westfield Community Association in Yeovil, who are creating new allotments in one of Somerset’s statistically most deprived communities, and the Plotgate Community Farm on the fringes of the Somerset levels, a community supported agricultural scheme providing volunteering and traineeships.
Against a backdrop of sustained interest in environmental issues, and a raised consciousness of what the environment can do for our wellbeing, I have a feeling this is an area that (and, please, excuse the pun) is going to grow and grow.
So, what to draw from this? I think that part of our job is to follow community leadership, adding our support - usually funding - where it will help fill a gap or unlock community potential. Sometimes we are in a position where we can see patterns and encourage people to learn from each other and work together. Sometimes we’re able to use the insights that come from the groups we support to influence the direction of future funding. Above all, though, our job is to work with the grain of our communities and then stay firmly on the sidelines, only emerging if we have something additional or helpful to contribute: and only then if it’s helpful on their terms.
By Justin Sargent OBE, Chief Executive
You would be forgiven for wanting to gloss over a column about charities after all the controversies covered (and uncovered) by the press recently. There is, of course, another and much brighter side to the coin and so, at the start of Small Charity Week 2021, please allow me to attempt to lift your spirits and your confidence in a sector I have been privileged to be part of for eighteen years.
While the charities that you may be most familiar with are likely to be the national and international causes that raise tens of millions of pounds each year, did you know that almost 75% of registered charities run on less than £100,000 a year, largely on a voluntary basis?
This 75% of the sector also tends to be the charities that are least well known but, by and large, touch our lives more frequently than we may be aware.
Imagine for a minute, your life without local charities: your local pre-school, which arguably gives your children the best start in life, may no longer be there; the breakfast club in your children’s school may be gone; there would be no counselling for a young person with an eating disorder; no community transport to help your disabled neighbour attend hospital or go shopping; people with dementia and other life limiting illnesses - and their carers - will be left with little or no support; you may no longer have a local community hall; and your village shop (or even pub) may have shut down for good.
These are just a few examples of the contributions small, local charities make to our day-to-day lives. You may call these ‘services’, but they are so much more. They say, “let’s do this together” rather than “this is what we’re going to do for you.” And because they are part of your community, they can go the extra mile - or ten.
I’ll share just one true story here, to illustrate this: when an elderly bus passenger was being dropped off at her home one winter’s evening, she told the driver that she wasn’t looking forward to the weekend: her boiler was broken and the engineer wasn’t coming until the following week. Without being asked, he drove back to the bus depot, picked up an electric heater from the office and took it back to her.
At Somerset Community Foundation we hear stories like this all the time. You can find some of them on our website here.
Please do whatever you can to support the work of small charities through donations or volunteering. But perhaps most importantly, please remember to celebrate the role they play in all our lives. Thank you.
By Justin Sargent, Chief Executive
At Christmas I was given Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History. It is a wonderful antidote to the day-to-day challenges of living in lockdown. I don’t want to underestimate or diminish the hardship that people face in their everyday lives, hardships that have been magnified by the pandemic, but perhaps the continuing success of the vaccine rollout means we can look forward to what comes next.
In this blog I’m going to talk about the charitable sector and the role that community plays in our lives and what this could mean for us at Somerset Community Foundation.
The role of community in our lives
I’ve written before of the pace at which communities responded to the first lockdown through semi-formal mutual aid groups, quickly followed by the local organisations that serve them. What I had overlooked was the very informal help of one person helping another - their family or a neighbour. In a recent survey conducted for The Law Family Commission on Civil Society, of the 40% of the adults who helped in some way during the first lockdown, the vast majority did so, not through an organised structure, but spontaneously and informally for a neighbour, friend or family member.
As we saw during the Somerset floods, people will go to extraordinary lengths to help others in need. This time we have seen many employers swiftly adopting flexible working practices and encouraging their staff to find a work-life balance, allowing them time to volunteer and look after their own mental well-being. Not only that, but we saw many use their assets to serve a greater cause. Just recently we have seen a small group of IT professionals in Taunton use their skills to convert redundant laptops into working equipment for children without access to IT equipment: not a registered charity, just another spontaneous, big-hearted community effort.
I’m not looking at our society and communities through rose-tinted glasses. Furlough, for example, undoubtedly helped many do more for their community and, in truth, Covid has viciously exposed, exploited and increased inequalities. Too many people have been suffering from the outset, and nurses, doctors, carers, frontline and charity workers are all exhausted.
Maybe, though, the pandemic has given us a sneak preview of how we can build back better and revealed the value of acts of kindness. Before last March, ‘community’ was a word more often than not bandied around without much thought, an abstract notion; now, I hope, ‘community’ will be given the respect, recognition and opportunity it deserves.
The role of local organisations
What does that mean for our local charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises? Again, the pandemic has brought into sharp focus how vitally important our local charities are in our lives, often through the absence of a service we had previously taken for granted. Suddenly, we could see what life could be like if the village hall didn’t exist, if our local pre-school wasn’t there, or if the people who look after one of our parents with dementia for half a day to give the other some respite were not there.
Sometimes, it’s because they were more visibly ‘there’ that we have understood their value in our lives: the village shop that managed to stay open because it is owned and run by the community; the charity that brought sports equipment to a family so that their disabled child could still enjoy physical activity; the community hall that converted its kitchens to allow hot meals to be prepared and served in the local community.
And above all, we saw clearly the adaptability and ingenuity of organisations to find ways to deliver their services to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities at a time when they most needed it. The rapid implementation of digital tools and transformation to deliver services and run local organisations – organisations that are often criticised for not being innovative enough or a bit stuck in their ways. This time last year who would have thought so many essential services run by small groups could go digital so quickly?
In the same survey from the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, there was an interesting (and surprising - to me, at least) insight into the public’s perception of charities. On whether there are too many charities and community groups, there was a fairly balanced view between ‘too many’ and ‘not too many’, while stronger majorities felt that charities are not wasteful nor working on the wrong priorities and that they are efficient, effective and - most notably - can be trusted.
After a number of years when trust in the sector has been relatively low and we have faced a tough time in the press, I do wonder whether this reflects the greater visibility charities have had in our lives, and in our communities, in this last 10 months. If so, it gives us a fantastic opportunity to build on that trust to make a bigger difference in the years to come.
I fear that we could slip back into old habits. When the first lockdown ended I had to firmly resist slipping back into the habit of commuting to the office and popping into the supermarket on the way home every day. Not good for me, not good for the environment and, ultimately, not good for SCF.
If we are going to build back better we are going to have to plan and make an effort to sustain that change. In Lewin’s change management model, change starts with unfreezing the status quo; what is often overlooked is the effort required to refreeze in the new, better place.
Here are three things to look out for:
1. Digital – in this case sustaining and continuing the better use of digital within local charitable organisations, but also across society. As I mentioned previously, our sector proved just how nimble it was by the speed at which many charities adapted to delivering their services online. All done with a little funding, some support but most importantly the imperative to try, learn and adapt and carry on regardless, which it seems can carry us a long way. Crucially, we must be able to crack the digital divide. Of course, we look to the government to provide infrastructure, but community has a role too - from running training and support programmes to the provision of hardware for those in need. In the past couple of weeks I have come across two local IT firms volunteering to upgrade and recycle laptops for pupils, and I am sure there are more. Imagine, once we are past this emergency, if every Somerset ICT firm could refurbish just one donated laptop every week? We could deliver strong social, health and environmental benefits to people of all ages. But creating coherent and effective infrastructure for such initiatives is key; where will the leadership come from?
2. Financial pressure on the sector – we know Covid has significantly impacted on charities’ abilities to raise money from their normal fundraising activities; fun runs, charity dinners, coffee mornings and all the things that rely on people coming together for a good cause. In some cases this has been offset by new sources of income, but I am very concerned there has been massive hit to organisations’ unrestricted funds, which in most cases is their lifeblood.
No organisation has a right to exist, but our communities deserve the services they provide. We need to make sure that organisations that have taken the hit and stood by their communities are supported when they need it, when they need to adapt, collaborate, merge or – where necessary – close well.
For funders, like us, we have to re-consider to what extent we need to fund tangible ‘things’ – projects, equipment or buildings - and to what extent we should offer more flexible funding, trusting our brilliant organisations and the difference they make. For an interesting take on this, this podcast with MacKenzie Scott from CAF’s Giving Thought series is worth a listen.
3. Trust – this point about trust is pivotal. Above all else, we need to trust our communities and the organisations they create. The recovery of society and the economy may be long and arduous, but one silver lining from this crisis is that we can see the magic that happens when communities take more of a lead in creating their own destinies.
This is recognised in Danny Kruger MP’s report Levelling Up Our Communities: Proposals for a New Social Covenant which places as much emphasis on social cohesion, equality of opportunity and equity of outcome as it does on economic growth. This creates opportunities and challenges for all of us, including us at SCF, but it is possible to build back better if we want to.
Change happens at the speed of trust; trust is the currency of community.
By Justin Sargent, Chief Executive
A couple of weeks ago Sir Stephen Bubb, Director of the Oxford Institute of Charities, wrote an article in The Times outlining how the coronavirus crisis had “exposed the weaknesses of too many charities”.
I have to say, that doesn’t reflect what we are seeing here at Somerset Community Foundation, but perhaps it is an understandable perception, given the nature of the national press coverage charities have received during the past few weeks. All we seem to have heard is either how much money is being lost by charities, as fundraising has largely collapsed or been diverted to the NHS, or how the largest charities have furloughed thousands of staff and withdrawn services.
What has been absent in the press – at least nationally – has been decent coverage of the response by the vast majority of smaller, local charities. These are not organisations that are immune to the loss of fundraising, but, by and large, we’ve seen them step up to meet the rising demand for their services. Their reserves of hope and commitment for their communities are not always matched by their financial reserves and I know many are concerned about the impacts of coronavirus on their long-term futures.
Some may feel that there are too many charities, that there is too much duplication and inefficiency. The sector, like others, can be a bit messy and untidy. I can tell you, as a funder, it can sometimes be frustrating, and to some extent I would agree there is an issue to be addressed, but the issue is far more complex than it first appears. For example, as NPC reported earlier in the year perhaps we should focus on where those charities are and which communities they serve; contrary to what we might expect there are fewer registered charities in the most deprived communities than in the most affluent areas.
However, on the whole – and this is the bit you tend not to hear about – local charities are run by passionate, compassionate, big-hearted, committed, collaborative, generous and thoughtful people. What they do is little short of a miracle, sometimes.
Like a lot of small businesses, small charities see their role as being local – they don’t want to or need to scale up, or merge, and if they did they would risk losing the essence of what they are and how they do it. The current crisis has shown that vulnerability and disadvantage is not solely found in inner city estates. People in every community need a helping hand, and there are people in every community who are happy to lend a hand.
It is worth reflecting on the wide range of services provided by our local charities and community organisations that has prevented thousands of people becoming more vulnerable in the past eight weeks. So here is a list of people that our Coronavirus Response and Recovery Fund has supported:
• children and adults with mental health illnesses
• children and young people living in poverty
• children and young people with autism
• ‘detached’ young people
• families with new-born children
• former service personnel affected by trauma
• fostered children and their adoptive families
• people in financial hardship and food poverty
• people in need of end-of-life care
• people who are hungry
• people who are lonely or isolated
• people with long term health issues and disabilities
• women affected by, or at risk of, domestic abuse and violence
• young farmers with mental health needs
By and large these services are always there, quietly going on in the background of our communities. We couldn’t have lived without them – or the many thousands of staff and volunteers - in the past eight weeks, without increasing the level of suffering in our communities and the burden on our public services. But the same is true every day of every year.
The voluntary ethos that runs through these organisations often means it is very tempting to see them as ‘nice to have’ compared to statutory services. I think what we are seeing is how, in the words used by a Government minister recently, they are the lifeblood of our communities.
‘Nice to have’ does not come close. They are essential. If you don’t believe me, just think about how life would have been for all of us in Somerset if the community support provided by our local groups had not been available in the past few weeks.
And that is why we should all be concerned about the impact of coronavirus on our local voluntary sector. We must work together as funders, donors and statutory bodies to support and fund the sector if we want it to survive.
As we all slowly move towards something that resembles a normal, albeit different, way of living, at Somerset Community Foundation we are looking at the task in front of us. Our local charities, community organisations and social enterprises have stood by us when our communities needed them; now we must stand by them.
By Justin Sargent, Chief Executive
As I sat down to write this, I was listening to Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, announce the Government package of measures to support charities. I recognised many of my feelings in the way he spoke about our sector.
So, to quote the Chancellor, I wish to throw a spotlight on “…those small charities in our villages, our market towns, in pockets of our cities…the unsung heroes looking after the vulnerable and holding together our social fabric.”
Before I get to that, though, I want to go back to 2014 and the Somerset floods. You will remember the dramatic scenes on the Somerset Levels. Then, like now, there was an astounding and immediate response from the wider community. It drew on the very best of humanity, helping those who felt lost and bereft while their homes and businesses sat under water. Inevitably, at times, it was fragmented, chaotic and disruptive, but it was also life-affirming.
As we are seeing now, these community responses happen first because they move at the speed of emotion. It is an instinctive human response which creates so much positive energy; the joy of giving back on one side and the relief of feeling supported on the other has an immeasurable benefit. It goes beyond the tangible benefits of fetching shopping and prescriptions for people who can’t leave their homes to give us a more intangible sense of togetherness that will sustain us through some difficult times. A thousand acts of kindness add up to more than the sum of their parts.
So, if this is the case, we might be left wondering: why do we need registered charities and formal community organisations which are weighed down by their legal obligations, governance and accountability, when tens of thousands of volunteers can be recruited overnight?
Here in Somerset, our rural setting means we are particularly dependent on smaller organisations – the type Rishi Sunak was referring to in his speech in the quote above. These are the organisations that reach out and support the most vulnerable people in our communities every single day throughout the year. They touch all of our lives, often in ways we do not see. They have the knowledge, skills, and expertise to make sure the most vulnerable in our communities receive the right support at the right time and in the right way.
They also have an unbreakable commitment to their communities because their communities run through their DNA, and that means they are amongst the ‘first responders’ when crisis hits. They can be unbelievably creative, flexible and entrepreneurial when they need to be.
At Somerset Community Foundation, ourselves a small organisation, we have been able to draw on our experience of running the major Somerset Flood appeal in 2014, to respond to the impact of coronavirus today. Within two days of closing our office and moving to home-working we had launched an appeal and set up a new grants programme underpinned by new governance processes that enable us to turn funding around swiftly, often within 24 hours. Within ten days we have supported over 70 organisations with over £165,000.
The organisations we are funding have had their own disruption to contend with and yet have shown tremendous resilience to adapt and extend their reach in many different ways, including:
•coordinating relief efforts in their communities and supporting volunteers
•organising the distribution of food parcels and providing hot meals for the most vulnerable
•setting up new mental health support services
•making sure that people with disabilities have the resources they need
•providing advice and support to families with young children and virtual support sessions to disadvantaged young people
•providing support to people experiencing domestic abuse
These organisations are in an unenviable position. At the same time as the usual fundraising events like dinners, sky dives and fun runs have been cancelled and a huge source of income has been lost, the demand for their services has grown substantially. I spoke to one Somerset charity that had received 4,500 calls for assistance two weeks ago, rising to 6,000 last week, and a local foodbank we funded had three times more demand for food parcels than usual.
This is not a sustainable situation for the sector and it is quite likely we will lose many valuable organisations in the coming months. While Karl Wilding, the CEO of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, was correct when he told MPs last week that no charity has the right to exist, he was also right that people have a right to the services charities provide.
At a time when we are naturally focusing on the crisis in front of us, we must not lose sight of the thousands of people in our communities facing profound hardship, disadvantage and crisis every day. Like the welfare state, charities sustain us from cradle to grave; without them the society we belong to would feel very different and the burden on the state would be far greater.
Our Somerset Coronavirus Appeal stands at just under £390,000 today, thanks to the generosity of individuals, companies, local authorities and funders who are coming together to stand shoulder to shoulder with our voluntary sector, just as the voluntary sector stands shoulder to shoulder with all of us throughout the year.
The long-term future of many of the organisations we are supporting now cannot be taken for granted. It is unlikely that the voluntary sector will spring back to where it was just a month ago, and maybe it should not try to. We need to capture and keep hold of the growth of the community spirit that has emerged, but we also need to recognise that our established charities and community organisations are an essential fabric of everybody’s everyday existence.
For that reason, Somerset Community Foundation will continue to advocate for them and raise as much as we can to help them continue changing lives every day, now and once the outbreak has subsided. We will need them then, more than ever, as they continue to be an essential part of our social fabric.
By Justin Sargent, Chief Executive
“I don’t really need my Winter Fuel Payment, so if I donated the equivalent amount to you, could you use it to help someone in much greater need?”
From that simple and generous offer ten years ago, sprang an award-winning fundraising campaign, devised and led by Somerset Community Foundation: the Surviving Winter appeal. We have now raised £700,000 in Somerset, and millions of pounds across the UK. Endorsements have ranged from Somerset residents Michael Eavis and The Bishop of Bath and Wells through to national personalities such as Sir Terry Wogan, Joanna Lumley and Michael Parkinson.
Each year, hundreds of better-off recipients of the government’s Winter Fuel Payment living in Somerset, donate to our Surviving Winter appeal to help pensioners who face untold hardship during the winter months.
If you are fortunate enough to have a good income but have experienced your boiler go on the blink during the winter, you will know how miserable that can be. For some people, that is their reality throughout the whole winter.
We have estimated that in Somerset alone there are a staggering 6,500 households occupied by older people who are considered to be fuel poor – meaning they have to make the decision between paying for heating or buying food. On average, an additional £300 would be enough to heat their homes adequately for comfort and health.
Too many people have to choose between heating and eating. Too many people only heat one room to save costs, retreating to bed as soon as it falls dark. I remember meeting a lady who moved her bed into her kitchen during the winter to save costs and stay a little warmer at night.
The consequence of cold weather is a significant rise in the number of deaths every winter. In 2017/18 there were 542 ‘excess winter deaths’ in Somerset alone, most of whom were older people. For each one, hundreds of others will be experiencing hardship and suffering that is, quite frankly, avoidable.
The media are already reporting on the expected pressures that will be placed on the NHS this winter. In one of the richest countries in the world it is shameful that this additional burden is caused because people cannot afford to keep warm or that they become more isolated and lonely in the winter.
Here in the rural West Country many areas are dependent on expensive sources of energy such as oil or LPG, and many people live in old cottages that are expensive to insulate.
When we first launched the Surviving Winter appeal I was challenged on how we would reach those people in greatest need. As a Community Foundation, we fund hundreds of local charities each year. We’ve asked them to use their networks to reach those most in need. In so many cases it is not just the extra financial help to stay warm, it is about the human contact, the extra advice and support that goes with it that makes all the difference. Last year, a lady in her 90s with no close family was given a Surviving Winter grant; through the process she was then able to access additional financial support that she was entitled to from the state.
Surviving Winter is an incredibly simple and effective community-led response with a very neat symmetry. Over 500 people donate each year and, in turn, we are able to help just over 500 households stay warm and well. There is something really magical about the thought that your gift might help someone just down the road in your village or neighbourhood, especially in the colder months. So, if you can afford to, please donate today and spread some warmth this winter. Thank you.
For information on how to apply for a Surviving Winter grant, please contact Community Council for Somerset on 01823 331222.
By Kirsty Campbell, Programmes Manager
After saying a fond farewell to Jocelyn Blacker, who retired after 15 years at the Foundation, I stepped into her very large shoes in April of this year and started my new role as Programmes Manager. What I’m enjoying most about this new role is getting to know the community groups, charities and more generally the VCSE sector in Somerset, better. My new role has allowed me the opportunity to get out of the office and meet groups, and also attend some interesting collaboration meetings.
One of the first groups I had the opportunity to visit the Balsam Centre in Wincanton, finding out more about their work and at the same time speak to members of Guardian Adoptive Parental Support (GAPS), a recent grant recipient, who meet at the Centre. Hearing about the many difficulties and stresses that families face when raising adopted children or those of other family members such as grandchildren, was eye opening, and how families are very much in need of the support GAPS provides. I was also impressed with the work of the Balsam Centre, which is clearly a vital part of the local community. It is a hub of activities for all ages to promote health and wellbeing, a place to learn new skills and to connect with others.
I’ve also been able to meet several friendship groups for older people who provide social connection and activities to help people stay active and maintain their wellbeing. For group members getting out is always difficult and access to transport is often a problem. All of these groups, the majority of which are run by older people themselves, are doing a fantastic job reducing isolation and loneliness.
Most recently I had the pleasure of visiting the toddler group Little Saints in Williton. As with so many rural areas, there is very little support for isolated parents. The closure of Children’s Centres has increased this problem and Little Saints works with Home-start West Somerset and Health Visitors, to reach parents who are isolated. The toddler group provides not only a safe place for children to build social and other skills, but also for parents to be able to get out and socialise. It was great to meet parents and hear directly from them about how they benefit from the group, and it took me back to the days when I was an isolated parent living in a village with young children and no transport, remembering just how vital a toddler group can be. It was great to hear Little Saints is establishing a new group in Watchet in an area where there is currently little provision.
Hamdon Youth Club, which serves the villages of Stoke sub Hamdon and Norton sub Hamdon, wanted to thank their funders and I was delighted to represent SCF at an event arranged during one of their weekly sessions. It was fantastic to see these young people socialising and clearly enjoying themselves, while also learning key life skills and gaining knowledge to help them in the future. While talking with some of the young people, their recognition that the youth club tries hard to make sure they enjoy the sessions came across, commenting that “it’s nice they do that for us”, which clearly made them feel appreciated, an important thing that can often be forgotten.
Personal Achievements Creative Experiences (PACE) in Frome held an open day earlier in the year and I was very pleased to be able to take up the invitation to join them. PACE is a group for people with mobility difficulties who meet once a week to enjoy activities and lunch together. Again, the members of the group said how much they appreciated having somewhere to come to socialise, learn and try new things. In fact, many said this is the only time they get out each week and how important the club is to them; the friendships that have been established were clear to see.
One issue running through these visits is rural isolation, and this is the first topic to be looked at in our series of ‘Hidden Somerset’ reports. I would urge to you to read our Hidden Somerset – Rural Isolation report and let us know your thoughts, and any insights you may have.
What struck me most on my visits was hearing the personal stories of those that benefit from the excellent work happening in our communities. These stories really bring home the challenges people face but also how, with help, they are overcoming them – showing us what community is about.
By Andrew Hanson, Somerset Education Business Partnership Manager
Developing the Somerset Education Business Partnership over the last year has been fascinating and rewarding. I’ve visited major employment sites such as Hinkley Point C and Numatic, and met with small business owners and not-for-profits firmly embedded in their communities.
The employment opportunities in Somerset are vast – yet so many of our young people aren’t aware of what is on their doorstep. Why would they be, when so often businesses are tucked away in business parks, industrial estates and farm units?
The good news is that schools are working hard to inform and prepare their students by providing a robust careers programme including regular ‘employer encounters’. There is good reason for this, as research shows that students who have four or more employer encounters are 86% less likely to leave school with no education, training or employment destination.
At Somerset Education Business Partnership we connect employers with schools and colleges so that businesses can create a talent pipeline and young people can prepare for work. Why? Because having good skills leads to better personal outcomes and having high quality jobs strengthens our communities. We know this intuitively and the statistics confirm it - but feedback from our partners and local young people is the best evidence…
Corinna attended a mock interview at Haygrove School and told me: "It gives you the confidence to go into a real interview." Cora, from a major employer that is supporting our work, emailed us to say: "It was so lovely to be recognised for something that has made a difference to young people and their family’s lives."
We always welcome new partners to inspire our young people - and whatever your background you will have something to contribute. To find out more contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or sign up to our newsletter to see the latest opportunities. I look forward to hearing from you.
By Laura Blake, Development Director
Last week, while I was driving home, the song ‘With a Little Help from my Friends’ came on the radio and I found myself grinning. Not just because Sgt. Peppers is one of my favourite albums, but because it was one of those moments where my car radio provided the perfect soundtrack for what I was feeling. In my case, because I’d just spent a day visiting some of the projects we have supported that showed me that community spirit was truly alive and well.
My final stop of the day was St. Peter’s Church and Church Hall on the Westfield Estate in Yeovil, an area that is identified as the most disadvantaged in South Somerset. The Church Hall has provided a vital meeting place for the 5,000 local residents since the 1960s, originally hosting everything from pantomimes to community bingo. But in 2012 the hall was recommended for demolition. I can see why. The former farm outbuilding is cold, difficult to access and lacks modern facilities.
Reverend David Keen walked me around the site and shared the vision that he and the local community association had for a new Westfield Community Centre. A true community hub for everyone to use, that would bring much needed services to local people. The new hall will host everything from Citizens Advice to IT classes; parent and toddler groups to Girl Guides; and a mobile library service.
It is a truly ambitious project with a £1m fundraising target; scary for even a large charity, let alone a group of local volunteers. And yet, at the time of writing, the group have secured almost all of the funding they need, raising more than £200,000 in the last few months alone.
Much of the funding from the centre came from charitable trusts and local companies. But what inspired me the most was the incredible support of people from the Westfield community itself. Hundreds of people have made a donation to ‘buy a brick’ for the new hall or gone along to fundraising events. Thanks to their determination, community spirit - and a little help from some friends - in October 2019 the Westfield Community Centre will open. The 5,000 local residents will have a wonderful new space that will provide fun, friendship, support and advice for generations to come.
St. Peter’s is just one of many inspiring projects I’ve had the pleasure of visiting during my first month at SCF. The others include a homeless day centre, a nursery for children with additional needs, a support group for people with mental health problems, and a thriving community centre. I plan to visit many more in the months ahead.
The staff and volunteers working in communities across Somerset are delivering vital and specialist services. But as an outsider looking in, the golden thread I can see that runs through all of these amazing organisations is friendship. Taking the time to have a cup of tea and a chat with a lonely older person who may not have seen another person for a week; helping a parent navigate the complexities of getting support they need for a child with additional needs; volunteering to cook a hot meal for someone who has spent the night sleeping on the street.
As an organisation, we're delighted to play a small part in supporting groups like these to help their communities to thrive. But we can only do so with a little help from our friends; from families, companies and trusts who are passionate about supporting good causes in Somerset.
If you’d like to know more about giving through Somerset Community Foundation, please get in touch and I’d be delighted to help.
By Kirsty Campbell, Administrator
It was World Mental Health Day recently which made me think about the Employers Symposium for Better Mental Health that I attended in September. The Symposium was organised by local Mind charites in Bristol, Bath and South Somerset to increase awareness of the issue of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.
I initially started writing a summary of each talk, but realised that was far too lengthy, so here are the things I took away from the Symposium:
- 300,000 people leave their job every year due to mental ill-health.
- The cost to employers of mental ill-health is £32-34 billion nationally.
- A Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development study found 37% of sufferers are more likely to get into conflict with colleagues, 57% find it harder to juggle tasks, 80% find it difficult to concentrate and 62% take longer to do tasks.
- Taking care of staff and volunteer mental health is not only duty, but brings the benefits of better performance and morale, increased productivity and innovation, and reduced staff turnover.
- Resilience and mindfulness training are proving very beneficial for the Army and these are now included in the continuous training throughout a soldier’s career.
- Organisational stress in the workplace can lead to long-term health problems for staff. This type of everyday stress includes unmanageable workloads, tight deadlines, insufficient resources, lack of control and poor support from management and peers. A pro-active approach is needed and a commitment to listen to and address staff concerns.
- Mental health difficulties can have intangible symptoms, taking many forms, and can be mistaken for ‘difficult’ or ‘obstructive’ behaviour. It can also manifest in poor performance, poor time-keeping, excessive sick leave, self-medication, aggressive behaviour, attempted suicide and self-harm. The ‘silent sufferer’ is a key symptom of mental health problems, and it is often the most diligent of staff who are at the greatest risk of stress. Don’t ignore, trivialise, avoid/exclude or perceive as weakness – this is a health problem. Talk about mental health, assess the mental health needs of individuals and prioritise mental health in the workplace.
- A Somerset County Council employee gave an insight into his mental wellbeing journey and the positive message that having mental health difficulties doesn’t mean you can’t succeed and progress, you just need the right support, and recommend the use of ‘wellness plans’ to help staff.
- Healthy food and exercise can help with mental health wellbeing. Work place initiatives include fruit bowls, office yoga and meditation, herb and vegetable growing, lunchtime walking clubs and nutritional therapy consultations.
- The new ‘Mental Health at Work’ gateway is an online portal developed by Mind in collaboration with Heads Together, to help organisations and individuals to find resources, and also includes case studies of good practice, a blog sections and glossary. Take a look at this website for more information: www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk
The voluntary sector relies on funding to operate and needs to ensure its charitable aims are being met in the most cost-effective way possible, but this can mean staff needs are further down the priority list and organisational stress is an issue. In addition, salaries are often low, annual leave the bear minimum, and training and development needs go unmet due to lack of finances. I have experienced first-hand extreme long-term stress in a previous job and faced the difficult choice of taking sick leave, which I knew would put more pressure on my colleagues, or leaving the job I loved (I chose the latter).
Mind is leading the way in workplace wellbeing. If we all increased the priority of staff wellbeing then many more of the dedicated, hard-working staff who make a real difference in the voluntary sector would feel more valued, appreciated and enjoy better mental health and wellbeing. Surely they deserve that recognition and reward.