I remember the time, 10 or so years ago, when many charities were reviewing their local offices worried about an uncertain future for contracts and cost bases. Many seemed to shed or streamline their local centres to control their nerves about leaching costs.
At that time my charity, Independent Age, was starting a fundamental transformation from being a grantmaker to a service organisation. We had staff working across the UK from home, coordinating a volunteer-led befriending service.
Fast forward to today and we are now entering an exciting stage of growth and investment which includes building what we offer locally. And we can’t help but notice that many other organisations are in the same shoes, thinking harder about their frontline presence.
Our starting point
Currently we lack local visibility – no community centres, offices or charity shops in the high street that declare our presence, and as a result we have patchy local networks.
We see this as a huge disadvantage. A visible ‘shop window’ helps build awareness, prompts passing trade and drop-ins and provides a hub for volunteers. It could allow us to develop more meaningful relationships with local commissioners and other voluntary and community groups.
Our website and helpline work well, reaching over 1.5 million people, and we have dipped our toe in with a couple of regional admin offices. But we know that if we really want to enhance our face-to-face support and work more closely with older people we need to be embedded in their communities.
In some ways a blank sheet of paper liberates us to look at this with an open mind, rather than an existing list of leases and buildings – but there are still many questions to answer.
The most important challenge we have found is to decide what we want a local presence for. It sounds obvious, but there’s a risk one factor blinds us to others — services are very important, but we have wider organisational objectives around engagement, campaigning, public affairs, media and fundraising too. Can we combine them?
Services at the coalface (and the hairdressers)
We know that our first priority is to enhance our wellbeing services, both our face-to-face befriending and pilots of new services tackling isolation and loneliness, working alone or with others.
We know from looking at the many models out there, that the recipe for success is being integrated in a local area. Getting as close as possible to older people to co-design support, identify the hotspots of need and where the harder to reach people live, go to the doctor, drink, shop and have their hair done and engage in other community activities.
We need to understand the factors like local facilities, transport and safety that prevent them getting out and about. And a well connected local team and base can build the referral routes and signposting relationships with many other agencies that will help deliver quality and success.
But growing services is not our only priority. Independent Age is investing in its engagement activities, to build more and stronger relationships with current and future partners, funders, supporters, volunteers, fundraisers, service users and campaigners. Everyone we want either to give or to receive our support.
We recognise that our local presence will give us opportunities for influencing, campaigning and reaching out directly to the public and that these might also affect where we choose to be, what kind of space we want and how we want to use it.
Independent Age has always sought to work in partnership, matching our skills with the expertise of others, and developing a local presence is no different. Partnerships ensure better quality outcomes and more sustainable and scalable growth.
As Independent Age explores other opportunities to grow over the next 10 years, that may come as much from potential partners as it will from our own in-house creativity. And those partners may bring existing commissioning or funding relationships which make us look at new areas we haven’t focussed on before.
Relationships and knowledge are not grown overnight. There are a number of ways in which we could develop our local hubs that we are currently looking at.
It could be through embedding ourselves close to relevant statutory teams or services centres, co-locating with other kindred bodies or working in ‘pop up’ locations. Each carry challenges to our brand, to relationships and to clients’ perceptions and costs.
One of our greatest dilemmas is how to design a clear and cost effective model across the UK that helps meet our goals but allows for very different local characteristics, populations, and local services. We will be trialling our new interventions for wider roll-out and will work hard to learn from the different experiences we gather in very different areas.
It’s very likely that our local model won’t lend itself to simple standardisation. One size will not fit all. Local needs will dictate that.
It’s clear there is a sea change in attitudes in the sector and across other organisations we’ve spoken to, and being more local is at the heart of that.
Building your brand is seen as less and less important than working effectively together on shared goals. And in the last 6 months I’ve had many more conversations about co-delivery of existing or new services, raising funds and campaigning than I have done over the last 6 years. Austerity has bitten, but it also seems to have enhanced the willingness to innovate and collaborate — and to strengthen local communities and reach unmet need.
We are yet to make the big decisions for a more local focus in Independent Age – but we will soon, very likely in ‘test and learn mode’.
We will be sensitive not to step on the toes of other organisations and park our bikes on their lawns. We will focus on where there is greatest need. And we will be looking for partners to work with who don’t just share our ambitious goals but can help shape them. We want to make sure we don’t arrogantly assume we know the weft and warp of local need from our helicopter view. We will try to be clear from the outset about the objectives for our local hubs in terms of meeting all of the charity’s goals – not just services.
And we look forward to being closer, and listening harder to, the millions of older people who inspire us every day.
Do you have an example of how you’re recognising the importance of place? Please share it and help inspire others.