Paul Streets: The value of small is far bigger than imagined

A visit to the buzzing Hive Avon in Bristol brought this home to me

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

The Hive Avon works with people who have learning disabilities and their families in Bristol and surrounding areas. It is based in an unprepossessing building some way up a hill beside a shabby garage on the outskirts of Bristol. It has one full-time staff member, a couple of part-timers – including the chief executive – and about 30 volunteers. It has an income of about £100,000 a year. When I visited earlier this year it was celebrating its 50th year and was buzzing with people and ideas for how it could do more.

The charity’s Bringing Independent Lives Together programme brings together parents and their disabled sons and daughters in separate structured sessions to tackle the tough questions about how ageing parents help their children to plan for a life after they’re gone. It’s challenging stuff. The first parent-focused session starts with discussion on what happens when they die and the consequences for their children, some of whom might be in their fifties, but still live at home.

Many people with learning disabilities who live with their parents don’t make basic life decisions for themselves, such as when to get to up, what to wear or what to eat. Hive talks parents through what they can do to help their children become more independent. Some of those who access Hive’s projects are hidden from statutory services because their needs are not acute. They don’t have social workers, they have no personal independence plans and nor are they on housing lists. Instead, it’s all "been kept in the family".

Adults with learning disabilities who’ve made the break to live independently provide useful role models at this time. This sharing of lived experience, fears and hopes is critical, but it is possible only through the hard work of the charity. About 250 families receive support from Hive, and it is vital stuff.

Small Charities Week took place between 18 and 23 June. It was an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the work of the thousands of small charities such as Hive. But welcome as it was to have that focus for a week, too much debate and policy in government, and within our own sector, focuses on the much fewer, much larger charities.

That’s why the research The Value of Small, commissioned by the Lloyds Bank Foundation but done independently by academics, is so important. Published during Small Charities Week, it concludes that size does indeed matter and there is something clearly distinctive in who small and local charities work with and how.

The research is clear: small and local charities make a real difference to individual lives, they help local economies and are often the glue that binds communities together. Yet there is a critical mismatch between the benefits, distinctiveness and value of small and local charities and the way commissioning is undertaken. Eighty-four per cent of local government spending on charities is now going to larger charities as they shift from grants to ever-larger contracts. This is despite the clear benefits of small charities to local communities and economies.

Small charities need all our help to enable them to do and be their best. That’s why they need to be at the front and centre of the government’s forthcoming civil society strategy.

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation

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