In my role as chief executive of the Cellar Trust and chair of the Bradford VCS Assembly, I hear plenty of criticism from sector colleagues about partnering with statutory services. Some find it difficult to reconcile a situation in which charities can challenge things that are wrong with statutory systems, while simultaneously working hand in glove with their services. Others have accused voluntary sector organisations of undermining their position by being too "in bed" with NHS providers or local authorities.
But when the charity I lead, which delivers vital mental health support to adults living in Bradford, was close to closure five years ago, adapting to deliver our services in an integrated way and working closely with statutory providers turned our situation around. Partnerships are now a central and immensely valuable aspect of our work. Yes, independence is absolutely essential, but making changes to systems, services and pathways that deliver better outcomes for people is a crucial part of what we set out to do.
By building relationships with and working alongside statutory services and commissioners in our area, we have found success in influencing, challenging and creating change at a systems and policy level. This is because we work closely with our partners and are trusted and valued. Our approach has proved far more effective than harbouring an "us-and-them" mentality or challenging as an adversary.
Of course, there are always challenges in the health space when bringing together a clinical medical model with alternative approaches, but there is huge value in being diverse. Almost three-quarters of the front-line staff at the Cellar Trust are peer support workers and people with personal experience of mental health problems, who are very specifically trained to use their lived experience to deliver services. The outcomes they achieve in our services, such as our Haven crisis support centre, are truly mindblowing and offer a serious challenge to the traditional thinking around what people want and need when experiencing difficulties with their mental health.
By working alongside our NHS and local authority partners, we can shape these challenges into constructive, innovative conversations with clinicians, and (slowly) influence cultural change in their own approaches.
We have found success in influencing and creating change. Our approach has proved far more effective than harbouring an ‘us-and-them’ mentality
Smaller local charities have the potential to play an invaluable role in statutory partnerships. Large national organisations that also work at a local level often do excellent work, but they are not always as invested in the locality and don’t have the depth of connection that smaller charities hold with the communities they are trying to reach, especially when it comes to grass-roots work.
I’d argue that it’s through these connections that our sector does some of its best work. Our sector has for too long been thought of as "the soft and fluffy" stuff, which is all very lovely but "nice to have" rather than integral. We have the ability to deliver in a way that statutory partners often cannot, and bring insight, expertise and innovation that can be transformational. I feel very proud to work in an area where this is valued and recognised and, while we work hard at it, it is going from strength to strength and delivering great outcomes for people.
As a sector we must also be better at articulating what we bring to the table. Charities and community businesses deliver an incredible amount in terms of social value, the money we bring into the locality, our partnerships, our volunteers, our innovation and agility, and our assets. There is also a growing recognition of the importance of our sector when it comes to delivering health and wellbeing outcomes.
Arrive assertively and tenaciously, but positively as partners, work as equals, and you will be amazed at what can be achieved.
Kim Shutler is chief executive of the Cellar Trust and chair of the Bradford Voluntary and Community Sector Assembly