This year I had the privilege of collaborating with around 25 organisations on a project called Connected from the Start. At the heart of the work, which was initiated by Home-Start UK and funded by both Nesta and Catalyst, was an aim to support parents giving birth during Covid-19.
This project was intended to be a rapid collaborative design project. Aiming to put something quick, useful and additive into the world. In the end the process was not rapid. Instead it became the vehicle for a longer, more detailed and personal exploration of the dynamics that underpin the civil society that supports families through pregnancy and the early years.
As we began to collaborate back in April, our focus moved from something parent-facing to something that sought instead to support the individuals who were stepping up in their communities to support, champion and advocate for parents across the UK. It was clear from our early work that this loose network of individuals formed a vital fabric of support for parents, especially where much other support was stripped away. They have been, are and will be the people who continue to support regardless of the whims of funding. The people who are driven by personal urges to support and protect, not the strategies of leadership teams and boards. They are the people with close, intimate access to the parents and families they support. They are the people who many marginalised communities don’t find hard to reach.
Through this work I’ve become convinced that protecting and strengthening this core fabric of civil society is vital to ensuring all families get the support they need through the early years.
Yet in this work it was clear that while this group of people provided a vital fabric or safety net, it was a net that was immensely fragile. With free work masquerading as volunteering, poor access to system power, support or resources, and our scale-hungry industrial complex all leaving this vital group running on fumes.
Through this work I’ve become convinced that protecting and strengthening this core fabric of civil society is vital to ensuring all families get the support they need through the early years. There are vital roles, of course, for organisations – especially for families experiencing the most acute needs. But, in order to invest in prevention, and create a system where families flourish by default rather than fail, we have to build space for community action and support. Moreover, in order for new organisations to emerge and offer acute support to those families we’re not yet great at serving, we also need to give other individuals and entities space and fuel to grow.
Based on what I experienced, heard and learned during this journey, I call on us all to start to strengthen this vital fabric of people in the day-to-day work they do. I recommend we start this journey in three key ways:
- Value difference
- Pay equitably
- Share our power
01 Value difference
We are scale- and process-obsessed in the family support sector. This is likely because funding favours the big, structured and established over the small, adaptive and emergent. As a result we often accidentally lure those emerging changemakers to our world view, which focuses on how to scale and formalise. With that often comes the process and bureaucracy that weighs changemakers down and turns a promise of something new or different into something just like us – equally unable to serve the communities that do not feel we represent them.
One of the key ways this happens is through the introduction of structures that mitigate risk. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle because it does indeed breed scale (giving the growing organisations more to lose) but when it comes to supporting marginalised families it doesn’t always breed success. One way to practise this is to build larger networks of individuals and work with them to maintain space, time and energy to support the specific communities they already know. They don’t have to scale to all similar communities across the UK to be successful, unless that’s their personal passion and ambition of course. It might be better for them to spread, or share or deepen. In most cases, pursuit of scale is driven by a desire to unlock resources in a system that is in love with single-source impact metrics that sound concrete and big. It’s also something that often accidentally stretches growing changemakers and organisations too thin, demanding deliverables and reach that are at best anxiety-inducing and at worst impossible to achieve.
So, value difference and accept that awesome and impactful doesn’t have to be driven by organisations and scale. Individuals, collectives, freelancers, and groups are all important for long-term change. Think network and fabric not individual and thread.
02 Pay equitably
Don’t mistake someone’s passion for their cause and community as their passion for volunteering. Many people perform free work to drive the change they want and need to see. Not all of this is voluntary volunteering, much of it is just unpaid work. When working with a person with community access and trust, learn about how they ‘pay for their activism’ e.g. through free time, their own investment, their time to spend with their own children or maybe through their personal wellbeing and mental health. If your organisation is being paid for your activism consider equitably sharing the wealth. Within this it’s also important to remember that civil society is driven on human energy.
Because passion and urgent needs sit at the heart of the work many changemakers do, it’s really really easy to accidentally exploit. This can come in the form of free labour (e.g asking someone to present to your board or at your conference for free), unreasonable requests (e.g. paying someone to help you design a new programme in two days), transferring risk (e.g. asking someone to fill in 30 pages of due diligence for tiny pots of funding) and more. When this happens individual changemakers and emerging organisations grow on fumes, and we pay for progress with their mental and physical health.
When we pay equitably however we are investing in a more resilient and healthy network of support – a generative approach that means people have more space and time to give back and contribute without the risk of burning out.
03 Share or give your power
As a large, established organisation you are more likely to be able to unlock funds for your impact and activism. This money is less easily unlocked by individuals, collectives, activists, changemakers and growing organisations who don’t have your track record, scale or access to trust. If you’re unlocking money to work in communities that are a new focus for your organisation consider partnering with individuals and growing organisations, paying them equitably (see above) and truly co-leading – or better yet being led by them. This takes considerable discipline as there is power in the money holder; even in a ‘collaboration’ money-holders typically call the shots. And, if this isn’t for you, or doesn’t feel like something you could start immediately, don’t worry – perhaps consider sharing your resources instead.
A privilege of your tenure, scale and access to trust is that you have likely unlocked space and time to create processes, procedures, training and funding bid structures that work. Consider donating some of these, open-source, to ensure others can use your power to unlock a little power of their own.
So value difference, pay equitably and share our power. These are three things I try to practise in my daily craft at Shift. It’s not easy but I believe it will help usher in a more equitable civil society that I believe we should aim to create.
Now as this work draws to a close after almost eight months, we are continuing to explore these themes and how we might all build a sector of early years support that works well for all families across the UK. We know and believe that we all have vital roles to play and that by thinking more about our collective contribution to the system, we can create a landscape of support that is resilient, everywhere, and generative in every way.