The Mayo family always looks for silver linings. It is not a great tendency, because at times, we just avoid hard truths, swerving away in the hope that something positive might emerge. But it is an ingrained habit.
So naturally I was pleased to see this finding from a new Demos report from its Renew Normal Commission on Life After COVID:
“On every issue we researched, from finance to friendships, healthcare to hunger – some people’s lives got better, and others got worse. But on average: things got worse. On almost every topic more people said life had got harder, with only two exceptions: connection to community, and connection to family. While mutual aid groups were established in streets and estates across the country, and community organisations mobilised to look after millions of vulnerable people, it is clear that community organising was not a universal experience. And yet, where it did happen, it was one of the few sources of hope and optimism in an extraordinary year.”
These connections to community and family translate into a practical, personal sense of well-being. Around three million people who had nobody at all before to turn to for help, now feel that they do.
The Demos research did not, as far as I know, ask about our connection to nature – that would have been interesting too. But, again positively, green space did top their poll of issues that have become more important as a result of the pandemic
I am told that whenever crisis, war or disaster has hit over the last century, around three or four out of five people volunteer to help. It is who we are. Polling from King’s College back in April 2020 found that 60% of people had offered help to others, while 47% had received help from others.
A connection to community, of whatever form that takes, is the bedrock of social action and improvement. So is this something on which we can now build?
With my friend and colleague Pat Conaty, I worked with Tony Gibson on the Teviot Estate in East London twenty years ago and with him, we developed an early training course on community economic development. It was called Nutshell – one of Tony’s acronyms, which stood for ‘neighbourhood use of time, space, homes and environment for livelihood and leisure’. Rather than start with money (the conventional economic or philanthropic route), Tony guided us to start by matching local resources to local needs. Nutshell was the potential for great oaks in every tiny acorn, as if every seed has a dream.
Although there are programmes of work today on high streets and on the needs of market towns and coastal towns, the community component is an afterthought, at least in England.
One exception is the ten-year pilot programme, Big Local. In Plymouth, the Big Local community work over COVID has taken on a dreamer’s objective, that people know everyone’s names in their streets.
In the West End of Morecambe, Lancashire, their goal in this year of the virus is for the neighbourhood to smell better.
Can we feel some slivers of hope emerging from all of this COVID shit?
Here are my five favourite authors and quotes on empathy:
1. “Without the capacity to put ourselves cognitively and emotionally in someone else’s shoes, to feel what they feel, to be interested in their fears and motives, longings, griefs, vanities, and other details of their existence, without this mixture of curiosity about and emotional identification with others, a combination that adds up to mutual understanding and sometimes even compassion, Homo sapiens would never have evolved at all.” Sarah Baffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others
2. “Society depends on a second invisible hand, one that reaches out to others.” Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy
3. “Empathy moves as a form of contagion, like a game of emotional tag.” Marc D. Hauser, Moral Minds
4. “People’s capacities for cooperation are far greater and more complex than institutions allow them to be.” Richard Sennett, Together
5. “If every human life, the species as a whole, and all other life-forms are entwined with one another and with the geochemistry of the planet in a rich and complex choreography that sustains life itself, then we are all dependent on and responsible for the health of the whole organism.” Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilisation
Let’s build this conversation and focus on what matters – the foundations for connection and social co-operation.
Once the capital of its county Ross and Cromarty in the Scottish Highlands, Dingwall is a market town with a population of around 5,500 people – a number which has been in decline for years, with a struggling local economy and young people moving to Inverness and beyond. The local Edinburgh Woollen Mill shops have closed and jobs are scarce. One Tesco store is the largest private sector employer and there are few facilities for any visitors who might want to stay.
The town’s isolation is in part a by-product of regional transport planning. When the town was effectively by-passed by the Cromarty Bridge and Kessock Bridge, shops, jobs and businesses gravitated to Inverness, now within easier reach.
The town is full of life once a fortnight when Ross County, the football team lying ninth in the Scottish Premier League, play at home at Victoria Park (officially the Global Energy Stadium after the naming rights were sold for corporate sponsorship years ago). There is pride in the club and the population of the town doubles for a couple of hours, but the swarm does little for the local economy in between.
But the town has dreamers, and they banded together five years ago to form a co-operative whisky distillery, Glenwyvis, community owned, using renewable energy and barley from local farmers.
The last distillery in the town closed a century ago, bringing to an end a long tradition of whisky production. Dingwall was home of Robert Burns’ favourite tipple and when the town’s Ferintosh distillery closed, the poet was moved to declare:
Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost! Scotland lament frae coast to coast!”
I caught up with their more recent efforts when speaking to Josh from Glenwyvis in advance of a lecture I have given recently as CEO of Pilotlight in honour of the great Scottish co-operator and social entrepreneur John Pearce – hosted by Professor Cam Donaldson and the wonderful Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health at Glasgow Caledonian University.
They power their operations using wind, hydro, solar and biomass energy. The co-op has raised funds for its work from a series of community share issues, bringing in three and a half thousand people as members to put up £2.6 million between them to invest in something that they could believe in.
While the distillery takes shape, they have been grappling with madcap local planning catch-22s that stimy their hopes to attract visitors to the distillery. The tours they plan are all for 11am, timed to release those who come to eat out locally afterwards. Their ambitions are not limited to whisky as they want to turn around the fortunes of Dingwall by attracting in tourists and developing local services to meet the needs of locals and visitors alike.
During the lockdown, they have run virtual tours of the distillery, as a taster as it were. Casks have been a good seller, with people buying them as investments and Glenwyvis is selling bottles now of their inaugural malt, for delivery by Christmas 2021.
You can join me as one of those who will open a bottle in twelve months, but you will have to be fast before this first run is all sold. We are promised “a light, balanced oak influence with fruity maltiness and a little dessert richness.”
You may just taste the community spirit too? Glenwyvis is creating a community charity for local social action, to benefit from a cut on each sale.
Or you can opt for their GoodWill Gin, a Highland premium craft product with locally picked Hawthorn berries… and available this Christmas.
“So many distilleries in Scotland are owned by huge multinational corporations and, although the whisky industry is fantastic for Scotland, a lot of the wealth is taken out,” says Cait Gillespie, local historian for Dingwall.
The tools of a co-op and a community charity, a focus for our support at Pilotlight (see for example this post – does it have to be business or charity?) are a device for dreams: for bridging the present and a possible future.
The members and their supporters have a long way to go, but as I explain in the John Pearce Memorial Lecture they are using the tools of community economic development to make that journey.
They are helping to regenerate a town which the economy has left behind. With the economic headwinds ahead, this is a story that we can all take heart from.
Most voluntary organisations are started by volunteers and as they take shape and flight, their story is often one of exploring how to organise resources in the most effective way.
In 1981, Coventry was a city marked by violence and efforts to challenge that violence. The home band, The Specials, released their classic song Ghost Town as a single in June that year, playing an anti-racist gig following a series of racist attacks in town.
With that tune on the radio around the time, a group of local women established the Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre (CRASAC). They were inspired by an example in North London, the first UK rape crisis centre, that had operated a volunteer service successfully for five years. Until 1990, when CRASAC received its first formal funding and employed two full-time workers, the counselling service was run entirely by volunteers active in or sympathetic of the women’s movement.
Fast forward thirty nine years and the principle of support services for victims and survivors of sexual violence is established, but the challenge of achieving justice remains unresolved, with more people speaking up, women and men, on sexual abuse, in the context of the #MeToo movement, but the courts evidently failing survivors of rape, a rise in domestic violence in the context of the pandemic and constant, endemic insecurity of funding for work delivered through rape crisis centres.
A survey released today by the Victims’ Commissioner Vera Baird shows that only one in seven rape survivors in England and Wales believe they will receive justice by reporting a rape.
CRASAC is one of the most effective centres in the country and has grown over the years to serve the people of Coventry. 8,000 people have used their services over the last year, reaching across the diversity of the local population.
This includes men who have suffered. Anyone can be raped or sexually assaulted, CRASAC says, but if they believe that they are expected to be strong, to be able to act in defence, many men “often blame themselves for the abuse and turn the anger on themselves for not preventing what happened.”
All the services CRASAC offer are rooted in feminist values and a human rights framework, designed to “ensure the well-being, health and mental health effects of sexual violence and abuse are addressed in a safe service and victims and survivors are enabled to regain critical power and control lost through their experiences of sexual violence and abuse.”
As with so many other frontline charities, #nevermoreneeded as the hashtag says, CRASAC has worked throughout 2020, accepting referrals, offering telephone and online support, restarting some face-to-face services and re-opening their premises after the first lockdown ended – as soon as they could be classed as ‘Covid-secure’.
Over recent months, Pilotlight has had the privilege of working with Natalie Thompson, the relatively new CEO of CRASAC, with the support of a talented and motivated team of Pilotlighters (our members) drawn from Barclays Bank. The work is under the theme of Setting Directions.
The organisation challenge that the team have looked to help with is the opportunity to develop a new service, which would be using the skills of the charity, its staff and volunteers, to train and accredit organisations in society or the economy on addressing sexual violence.
The idea of a training service would, as Natalie described it, be a ‘win, win, win’, generating unrestricted income for the charity, raising awareness and supporting victims/survivors of sexual violence. One of the first engagements was with the University of Warwick. The university has worked with CRASAC over time, stepping this up when a series of complaints by students on sexual abuse were mishandled.
Another priority sector highlighted by the Barclays Pilotlighters in their report, delivered to Natalie and colleagues this month, is the legal profession. A global survey in 2019 across 135 countries by the International Bar Association confirmed that sexual violence is endemic in the sector, with one in three women who responded reporting that they had faced sexual harassment in a workplace setting.
The need for training is also because ironically, despite more exposure in recent years from the Everyday Sexism and #MeToo movement, there are still so many myths about rape and sexual abuse – including about what consent is, about the kind of people who rape and about who it happens to. As CRASAC says “these myths discourage survivors of sexual violence from coming forward after they’ve been raped. They shift the responsibility for the crime from the perpetrator to the survivor who may fear that they will themselves be put on trial.”
One of the benefits of a new service if it takes off as a social enterprise arm would be to reduce a reliance on statutory and grant funding of the charity. CRASAC is in a relatively stable financial position compared to some, having benefited from strong support over time from Coventry’s decision-makers. But as a CEO with twenty years experience of work in the voluntary sector, starting at the Doncaster Council for Voluntary Services, Natalie knows that an economic downturn puts pressure on charity incomes.
Organisation choices such as this are commonplace across voluntary organisations and to succeed in a climate of risk has meant a close focus on organisational capacity, the core work of Pilotlight. As Jane Grant writes in her outstanding biography of the Fawcett Society “The women’s voluntary sector is on in which it has been notoriously difficult to operate… Women’s organisations are chronically underfunded, which makes the struggle more difficult. At the same time, women’s organisations have faced problems of governance and leadership, often believing that women cannot misuse power in the same way as men and that ‘being sisters together’ will somehow of itself ensure peace and harmony. Unsurprisingly, they have been, often painfully, disabused of these beliefs and have had to struggle to build structures that enable and protect both individuals and groups.”
In this context, the work of CRASAC and other women’s organisations is all the more important and the more impressive for the formula that they have found for values, volunteering, employment and governance.
The importance of CRASAC’s work is expressed well by Duncan Shrubsole, Lloyds Bank Foundation, talking about rape crisis centres more widely: “such a charity often reaches people that others can’t, works with them in ways which others won’t and stays engaged with them in ways which others don’t.”
In 2021, Coventry will be the UK City of Culture. The Specials will return, with band members due to take to the stage to play live again.
CRASAC will celebrate an anniversary of forty years of service… and with a fair wind, we will see a new training and accreditation service take off for tackling sexual violence for the years ahead.
The world is full of self-help books, it always seems to me, and rather short on books on how to help others. A new book on philanthropy by the distinguished writer Paul Vallely tries to redress the balance.
The book, Philanthropy from Aristotle to Zuckerberg (Bloomsbury), is weighty. It runs to around 750 pages – excluding the footnotes and references which are set apart online. It justifies the length with the quality of research and writing that takes the reader on a journey from the earliest times and ideas around giving to others around you through to the extraordinary chapter of contemporary philanthropy at a time of deep inequalities.
An example is what appears to be the oldest continually operating charity in England, which is the medieval hospital of St Cross near Winchester.
The founder was Henry of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror. Appointed as a young Bishop of Winchester in his twenties, in 1129, Henry was an active warrior during the period dubbed ‘The Anarchy’ of struggles between the supporters of Stephen and of Mathilda for the crown. The Peterborough Chronicle described the period as ‘nineteen long winters, when Christ and his saints slept.’
Whether as a penance for his warfare, on the side of both candidates in turn, or because he saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, some time between 1132 and 1136, he founded the Hospital of St Cross as an almshouse to provide shelter for thirteen poor men in dire need of help. Mary had visited him in the form of a young peasant girl who begged him for help as people were starving because of the civil war which had laid waste to the land.
The construction of the building, the size of a small cathedral, with its limestone walls and associated buildings made a big impact on the local economy. The nursery rhyme ‘See Saw Marjorie Daw’ is said to have its origins in the efforts of Henry, whose name was anglicised as ‘Messr de Blaw’ which then became Marjorie Daw. The new master was offering an attractive wage – a penny a day – to workers (Johnny, an Everyman name for craftsmen).
The possible original version of the rhyme is quoted by Vallely as:
See Saw: Messr de Blaw, Johnny shall have a new master, He shall get a penny a day, yet shan’t have to work any faster.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the story slows down as it comes closer to the present, including indeed a late inserted chapter on philanthropy at a time of COVID. What results is an expansive account of the accelerating recent trends in philanthropy, good and bad, with Matthew Bishop’s book on philanthrocapitalism critiqued in effect as a prescient but one-sided account of the field.
The value of a historical approach is to allow the writer to elucidate on but not endorse the increasingly bold claims and big sums of contemporary philanthropy. He commends the understanding, dating back to Jewish, early Christian and Muslim teachings, that “the act of giving creates a three-way relationship between the giver, the receiver, and the society in which they both live.”
Drawing in particular on Catholic social thought, on which the writer is both at his best and at his most comfortable, Vallely sets out how philanthropy can ‘recover its lost soul’.
Having written a short history of mutual aid myself, I found parallels and differences in reading the story of philanthropy. The most evident contrast is in where power lies – so much mutual aid is the self organising of those relatively without power in society, where philanthropy is both the exercise and expression of that power.
As the soldier priest Henry de Blois showed, in a gift of enduring generosity that continues today, you probably don’t have to be anywhere near perfect to show your love for other people through an act of philanthropy. But as in his vision of Mary in a field of hunger, you have to be open to what love asks of you.
It is tough for pretty much everyone at the moment in business, but spare a thought for those charities, community co-ops and social enterprises who face the same conditions but with far more of an urgent call on their time and services from people in need.
I’m proud that the Pilotlight Programme is open to help with patient strategic support. This is one of the leading organisation development programmes in the UK, with skilled support on tap (our network of pilotlighters) and a track record of impact. We don’t give money, we give something more precious – capability.
Organisation development is an art or craft and not a science, but the best programmes do something consistent, which is to allow organisations to breathe, and in breathing, to move forward in a more effective way. One word I have heard consistently of the Pilotlight Programme from those who have been through it is ‘magic’ and there is magic in the best of organisation development.
As Alison Pringle of Independent Advocacy North East said to me “Our Pilotlight experience was utterly transforming. The insight and support we received from the four business professionals was more than we could have hoped for.”
We can do better. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed and accelerated inequalities in our economy and society. As we build back, we are calling on people, business and government to give back better.
There is a long tradition in the UK, eroded perhaps in recent years, of generosity and of fair play, an ethic of doing good as well as doing well. With rising needs, the way to foster solidarity is to show how it can be effective.
At a local level, voluntary and community organisations have played a vital role over the pandemic, but with rare exceptions, they lack the stable funding and support that they need.
The infrastructure for voluntary action has been decimated. The scope to earn income has narrowed, with public service commissioning for example characterised by bureaucratic process and sudden death contracts. The sector is falling behind when it comes to professional skills including new fields of digital services. A new wave of activism is setting the challenge of dismantling the paternalistic and racist ways in which traditional charity has been delivered. And rather than fostering positive change across the sector, funding streams have encouraged a culture of competition rather than collaboration across charities, co-operatives and social enterprise.
We have to make it easier to do good. In line with the renewed interest in ‘effective altruism’, and in line with the voluntary sector campaign #NeverMoreNeeded and the wider call to ‘build back better’, we believe in the possibilities and the benefits of giving back better.
Our call to action from Pilotlight, to give back better, is to:
Be generous, remembering that giving can be good for you
Share skills, because it is not just money that makes a difference
Back institutions and not just initiatives, because then change is lasting
Think big and act small, recognising the social value of many smaller charities
Encourage co-operation, because lasting change needs people to work together
Give voice, supporting those with lived experience of poverty, disability or exclusion
Follow the evidence not just your heart, because impact and evaluation matters.
What would you add? And how can you give back better?
“We retreated behind our windows, afraid of the virus. But out of lockdown came a great positive – increased community support.”
When lockdown came, Steve Lewis took to his camera to record the response of residents in his neighbours on South Street in the town of Lewes, Sussex. The result is a wonderful photo book, Our Street in Lockdown that transforms those everyday contacts and concerns into a little bit of magic.
Janet was self- isolating over the lockdown, but would come out in the afternoon to chat to the neighbours across the street. At the end of March, neighbours Sue and Susie convinced her, Steve, Kath, David and many others to come out at 3pm to dance in the street. Jan and Michele brought their dogs to the dancing. The street kept up the music and dance for 100 consecutive days.
Even so, loneliness was an enemy for many people and, delivering the post, Gary never missed a day keeping everyone in touch. Lariola was responsible for some of the elderly – the pay for a care assistant is so poor that she also worked extra hours in Asda. Both have a copy of the book now, dedicated in thanks to those key workers who kept working over the time.
The street self organised too in response to the needs for food and for contact. Serena set up a mutual aid WhatsApp group, so that volunteers could go shopping for the neighbours. Caroline purchased vegetables in bulk, to parcel around. Janet made scrubs for nurses, while Bill raised cactus plants for sale to raise funds for charity. Dilly (pictured) and others with allotments shared rhubarb and fresh vegetables with those in the street.
Algerim, who is originally from Kazakhstan, said of the street during lockdown “I’ve lived in the UK for four years and rarely met my neighbours before. Now I know all my neighbours and have many friends in the street.”
You can see many of the photos on the Instagram account for Steve Lewis or you can purchase a copy of the book. With a donation from every book sold going to Lewes Coronavirus Volunteers, who support shielding families, there are only a few copies left to sell and it has sold particularly well on one Sussex street. Stocking the book is neighbour Rachel who took on running a children’s book shop, Bag-of-Books, in town in March, opening on Friday March 13th, just days before lockdown…
Our Street in Lockdown is a social record of an extraordinary time. As cases soared and families retreated often in fear into their homes, many also rediscovered through self-help and mutual aid the power and magic of community.
The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is reported to have said “Let whosoever believes in Allah and in the Last Day honour his neighbour.”
In that spirit, there is a great report out today from the Muslim Charities Forum, The Neighbours Next Door which tells the stories of just under two hundred Muslim charities and groups proving community support over the pandemic.
A similar story can no doubt be told of the local contribution of other faith communities and voluntary organisations.
At Pilotlight our members, drawn from the world of business, have been working with the charity Sport4Life since 2018, supporting it to develop and grow. The CEO and founder Tom Clarke-Forrest is wonderfully now a bursary Pilotlighter himself, helping to spread that support and guidance to other charities and social enterprises. This moving video talks to the work of Sport4Life with young people over the pandemic.
All this is a heartwarming reminder of the extent of community cooperation across the UK
A decade ago, I was part of a research team looking at neighbourliness. We concluded across the UK, there are at least twenty one million conversations taking place each day between neighbours. Fourteen million people drop round for a chat with their neighbour.
But… set against this, the UK is ranked as one of the more lonely countries in the world and it has been a tough time for those who are alone and feel alone.
How do we understand the surge of community spirit under COVID-19 in the UK?
The Neighbours Next Door report warns that “At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in the UK, there was an outpouring of compassion from the public with a desire to volunteer and serve their communities during this unprecedented time leading to many voluntary sector organisations having long volunteer waiting lists. However, as the lockdown eases, and individuals get back to work, the number of volunteers may fall despite the need to support the community not diminishing.”
Perhaps the conclusion is that we should respect but not idealise what can be done through the spirit of self help and mutual aid. Our sense of community can be inspired by our values or our faith, but still fall short. It may be that we are closer to the seventeenth century aphorism of the Welsh poet, George Herbert, who adds a cautionary note “Love your neighbour, yet pull not downe your hedge.”
This video is eight minutes of heart warming, charming stories told by the children of Year 5 at Deptford’s Tidemill Academy drawing on the archives of the local Ragged School, founded in the nineteenth century.
Thank you to Katharine Alston, from the local Bear Church, who unlocked the archives. You have brought the past to life for a new talented generation of Deptford’s young people.