Paul Streets: The dilemma of the bottom-up approach

It makes for accountability, but can lead to a patchwork of provision

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

It’s been a challenging run into Christmas and a time of reflection for me: a year of personal loss that’s made me challenge my assumptions about what matters and what works.

At the Lloyds Bank Foundation we launched our strategy on the back of our report The Value of Small, driven by a desire to absolutely understand and scaffold the work of small, local charities, which matter greatly to those with nowhere else to turn and whose approach very definitely works.

Across the sector Julia Unwin’s Civil Society Futures inquiry has encouraged new debate and books such as Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari, which I’ve just read and which won the Orwell Prize for its fresh perspective on our times.

The inquiry challenges us all to question our practice around PACT: where do Power and Accountability sit? Are we genuinely Connected to and Trusted by those we claim to reach? Questions like these must be implicit in funders’ decision-making. But the mere fact that we ask them smacks of the power imbalance between funder and funded, leaving us to some extent between a rock and a hard place. Yet for me accountability is crucial: I don’t subscribe to the view that we should simply listen, give people the money and go. And I suspect I wouldn’t last long as chief executive if I did.

McGarvey’s book and Julia Unwin’s inquiry pose a challenge to people like me – a step removed from the front line – to be responsible for how we understand and respond to local need, rather than superimposing our own ideas. McGarvey’s book opens with lines from Tom Leonard’s brilliant satirical poem: "jist whut this erria needs… it last thiv sent uz a liaison co-ordinator."

I’m not aware that the Lloyds Bank Foundation has ever funded one. Our grants are more often for chief executives or front-line workers. And we’d hope and expect that most of our grantees are "PACT-compliant": rooted in and run by and for those they serve. They’re also an embodiment of the "kindness" Julia Unwin wrote about being the gap in public policy, calling for friendly, open conversations about what people and communities need.

But the bottom-up approach the inquiry and others call for poses a genuine dilemma. It can lead to a patchwork of provision, whether by issue or geography. A properly holistic approach can help us to focus on the person, not the service, but won’t guarantee great service across the board, which is why commissioners, especially those with statutory obligations, will often revert to large and national.

So next as a sector we need to harness the "PACT-type" benefits of the small alongside the "reach" benefits of the large, responding to an issue the economist EF Schumacher raised in his seminal book Small is Beautiful. Federated models such as Mind and social franchise models such as Emmaus offer some solutions, but fall short of the ideal – the best of small and large combined. In 2019 the Lloyds Bank Foundation, together with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Acevo, will grapple with this further.

Meantime, as you pack your Christmas stockings find some space for Poverty Safari, Small is Beautiful, the Civil Society Futures inquiry and Julia Unwin’s report on kindness. And save time too for reflection on what they mean for those who won’t spend prosperous, fortunate holidays with their nearest and dearest, or wishing they had a liaison coordinator in their stockings.

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation

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