The Resilience of People in Community-facing Organisations: What’s the role of funders?

Last Autumn, our members started to share with the London Funders team that their grantees had been reporting back that increased pressures, complexity and demand were leading to concerns about the resilience of their staff and volunteers. 

In October and February we held roundtables for our members to understand the issues better and to explore what funders are doing to address this.  We’ve also spoken with community facing organisations, with the infrastructure organisations that support them, and with experts in the field. Today we are launching a discussion paper that asks: The Resilience of People in Community-facing Organisations: What’s the role of funders?

The increased pressure on the workforce in community facing organisations comes from the complexity of the issues presented by those seeking help, often as result of reduced access to statutory services. Pressures also result from organisational issues including a lack of space for thinking strategically, disinvestment in learning and development, and the changing structure of the workforce to include more volunteers and fewer paid staff. One member told us about the youth sector, where previously 75% of the team would have been paid staff with 25% volunteers, but where these proportions have switched to the exact opposite. And finally, there are the personal pressures of living in London and working in a community organisation.

Community-facing organisations working with people who are expected to present with complex and multiple issues such as a homelessness or domestic violence project might be expected to have qualified staff with clinical supervision in place. Organisations such as youth clubs and community centres aren’t necessarily designed for people with complex and multiple issues, but now more frequently come into contact with them, and no longer have other options to refer them on to.  Also, it’s also not always the staff you expect – if you’re working in a counselling role you might have access to professional support, but what about the receptionist who is the first port of call? What about the fundraiser who has to re-tell stories of trauma to generate the money? In a small charity, it’s also the Chief Exec or Trustees in the firing line. And how does a relentless stream of distressed and, more often now, destitute people that you struggle to help with ever tighter resources, affect the people in the civil society workforce who have lived experience of those issues themselves?

It is amazing, that despite these pressures, morale in the civil society workforce bears up.  This may be due to people’s connection to the mission and values of the organisations for which they work. However, increased demand and complexity, feeling out of your depth or that you can’t respond appropriately, can result in anxiety and depression, burnout, and even secondary trauma.  Data shows that these are on the increase in both civil society organisations and the public sector. We learned that “charity sector staff are particularly susceptible to burnout because of the combination of scarce resources, high need clients and expectations of sacrificial behaviour. Over and above the impact on the individual, for community-facing organisations, the ability to staff your organisation is becoming a key risk.

There is an emerging and very welcome focus on supporting good mental health at work which is supported by common understanding, new frameworks and resources. But we struggled to find a common understanding of what we mean by resilience.  We particularly liked this one from the Workplace Mental Health Research Group in Australia:

“Resilient people have strong resources and skills to manage stress and conflict as well as a good support network to help them deal with the pressures of work… Resilient people are also flexible, adapt to new and different situations, learn from experience, are optimistic and ask for help when they need it”.

If we go beyond good mental health to our wider definition of resilience, there is less agreement on the concepts and fewer resources in place.  City Bridge Trust are about to launch a call for ideas to pilot called Responding to the Resilience Risk and CAF has a project seeking to strengthen the organisational resilience of small charities

The third element our discussion paper considers is how we might challenge the context that creates the increased pressure on community-facing organisations. Again, there are fewer frameworks but some interesting thinking emerging: Collaborate have recently published their report on funding in complexity, the Early Action Neighbourhood Fund continues to test new models that prevent future needs arising, and Lankelly Chase invests in systemic change approaches seeking to “change the systems that perpetuate severe and multiple disadvantage”.

Our discussion paper provides a range of case studies from community-facing organisations, infrastructure and specialist organisations.  There is also an overview of what funders are already doing to tackle these issues.

We propose a shared goal for funders, Trustees, managers and workers: community facing organisations in which staff and volunteers are resilient. There are a series of building blocks for moving towards this goal which include firstly, ensuring organisations have good HR practice to support mental health, secondly, enabling organisations to build resilience through being reflective and adaptable, and thirdly, challenging the context by investing in organisations seeking to influence policy and practice. Our discussion paper sets out a series of recommendations for funders under each of these building blocks.

London Funders hopes that this discussion paper is a useful first step in enabling members to develop a shared understanding of resilience, to see what their peers are already doing and change their own practices, and to commit to taking action together to ensure staff and volunteers working in community facing organisations are able to continue to deliver outcomes for London’s communities.

By Geraldine Blake, London Funders