I’m on a mission to make a difference …

I’m on a mission to make a difference …

As a proud non-exec Director of social enterprise Society Matters cic I’m on a mission to make a difference. Alongside my talented co-Directors, our wonderful staff team and our parent charity Citizens Advice Gateshead, we have a vision of a fair society for all, with lives well lived.

So what does that mean? To me, that means we are determined to help people in need to achieve their potential in life, to help families living in poverty, with disadvantage and deprivation, to become more self-reliant, resilient and move towards a lifestyle that is stable and secure. 

You might say – “well good luck with that” – and yes, it is a huge job. 

And it is one that is becoming more challenging daily while Covid takes its toll and employment – life itself – is ever more precarious.  Even people who are in employment are struggling to make ends meet and dealing with insecure jobs.

So, to achieve our ambition we have looked really closely at the part Society Matters cic can play – how our small but perfectly formed team can help to support people on a journey that leads to them ultimately supporting themselves.

Mobilising lived experience and specialist knowledge into the system

Proper support for people in need is crucial to enable them to emerge from poverty and avoid the traps that come along with it that often have long term impacts.  Debt, health problems, fuel poverty, housing and the knock-on impacts on education and social isolation are only a few examples of issues that that put people in crisis situations that are difficult to get out of.  

The Social Welfare system is there to provide such support but its complexities mean that people do not always get their entitlement and in many cases do not even realise they are eligible for benefits.  Accessing support can be difficult and not for the faint-hearted.  Not the best situation when you’re worried where the next meal is coming from or where you can get the bus fare to work.

So to help people access the support they need our approach is to mobilise the knowledge that resides in the advisers who deal with the complications of the system on a daily basis. The value of those experts, whose knowledge is second to none, and who have made a tangible difference to people’s lives, can’t be over-estimated.  So those advisers have invested their lived experience and specialist knowledge into the design, development and delivery of cutting edge training which is now delivered in a virtual classroom by Society Matters cic.

This is not training you can get from a book or a website. It’s coming at social welfare problems from the people perspective – not just relaying policy and practice. If you are one of the hundreds of people who have received this training, you’ll have the tools in your toolkit to really help people to navigate the social welfare and benefits system, and to get the best possible outcome for them and their families through your work.

We need more people to be able to help more people 

Like I said, this is a big job. So we’re on a mission to spread this acute, front-end knowledge far and wide.

On the ground, that means more people accessing the benefits they so desperately need, more people avoiding crisis points, more people moving out of poverty, more people taking the step from benefits to employment – more people reaching their potential. More people living their lives as well as they can. Isn’t that what we, as a society, should expect for everyone?

And of course, through the pandemic the public have grown a heightened awareness of the close connection between society and the economy. Through engendering more people with spending power the local economy gains, so we all gain. Did you know that in Gateshead alone in 2019-2020 the advice and information given to people by our parent charity Citizens Advice Gateshead  gained £7.8m additional income, most of which will have been spent locally – mind blowing!

Just think what could be done across our region with a bit more know-how.

Knowledge is power – Society Matters is mobilising knowledge through its training so the Social Welfare system provides the means to progress for people who need and want to battle successfully against poverty. And it’s already working.  Front line staff we’ve trained are picking up on potential problems with their users at early stages and averting crises like eviction and arrears, and people are being able to work through their disabilities because they have the right support to do so, because they’ve been helped in the right way to get what they needed.  Critically, through mobilising knowledge the trained support staff feel confident and empowered in their work, and the service users relieved – what’s not to like in such a great result. 

This is real social value.

Team helps IEP members with Universal Credit Webinar

Team helps IEP members with Universal Credit Webinar

We’re so happy with our very first webinar, kindly hosted as a ‘Live Learn Lunch’ by the Institute of Employability Professionals mid December. We chose to talk about the 6 elements of Universal Credit, with an explanation of each element, and then a focus on how changes in circumstances can impact on people’s claims, as well as some obvious references to adjustments associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The webinar was formatted as a presentation from myself and Adam, followed by questions and answers. We think it’s so important for the support system to understand this dimension of the benefit, because then they can spot opportunities to help early on, before a problem brews and a claim is affected, so we were really pleased to have a good turn-out but also to have the opportunity for a recording to be viewed by those who weren’t able to attend.

You can see the full webinar here.

Of course there’s a lot of detail we weren’t able to explore during the session, that we cover in a lot more detail in our Get to Grips with Universal Credit online training course, but the webinar did provide participants with some red flags they should look out for so that’s definitely a good start.

Lee Booth, 18th December 2020

A career in the Community and Voluntary Sector, really?

A career in the Community and Voluntary Sector, really?

The Community and Voluntary Sector (CVS) is probably better known as a route for people to volunteer, perhaps as a way to ‘give back’ at the end of a career, than as a provider of formative or developmental career opportunities. That’s understandable. To the unaccustomed the ‘third sector’ or ‘not-for-profit sector’ can appear to be a bit detached from ‘real life’ compared to the cut and thrust of the private sector, and the gargantuan establishment that is the public sector. But if you think about it, selecting the CVS as your career choice has the potential to transport you to as close to ‘real life’ as you can get.

So can you have a ‘career’ in the sector, really?

What’s the shape and size of the sector?

If we stand back and look at the sector in all of its different guises, there’s no wonder really there’s uncertainty about its potential. At one end of the spectrum we have un-constituted community groups run entirely by volunteers that deliver localised support, and at the other we have social enterprises that operate, from the outside, as a commercial private business, but with the unique characteristic of creating social rather than material wealth; and this comes with varying levels of obligation – some, like Society Matters cic for example, are asset locked, meaning that all profits/assets must go to the community they serve. Then firmly in the centre we have the charity sector, governed by the Charities Commission.

As a result of this diversity and varying levels of formality it’s really difficult to get absolute clarity on the numbers of people actually employed overall, however according to the UK Civil Society Almanac 2020 the voluntary sector has a paid workforce approaching one million, almost 3% of the total paid workforce, and representing a 17% growth rate in jobs since 2010. Most of these jobs are in voluntary organisations with less than 50 paid staff (which is a similar proportion to the private sector). Over a third of employees are engaged in social work activities, followed by education and residential care which each represent around 12%. It should also be said that although the sector’s primary focus is social wealth, a significant economic contribution is also made, estimated by NCVO and ONS to be valued at £18.2bn 2017/18, or 0.9% of total GDP.

Obviously when reviewing the shape and size of the sector, we can’t get away without making reference to Covid19 which has had an inordinate impact on the CVS. For some organisations income has been lost, with a fifth of small UK charities reported to be expecting an income reduction of more than 50% as a direct result of the pandemic, and as many as 1 in 10 charities are said to be facing imminent bankruptcy. Income through trading has been slashed due to lockdown restrictions, particularly in the case of charity shops, but for others their capacity has grown exponentially as a result of the availability of volunteers, which will improve their impact statistics which has the potential of helping them raise funds for next year.

However in my view the most fundamental shift is the heightened recognition of the part that not only the CVS, but citizens individually and collectively, can (should) play in supporting society and societal change. At every level the concept of community has entered spheres of influence that hitherto had been severely lacking. Beyond Covid19 this presents a tangible opportunity for growth for a sector that stands out for its essential contribution to all our lives.

Skills gaps

So onto career prospects and the need for new skills. Interestingly, according to the UK Civil Society Almanac 2020, employees in the sector are highly educated, with over half of the workforce being educated to degree level of higher, similar to the public sector and much higher than in the private sector. What also stands out is that reported skills gaps are lower than the other sectors, however the skills gaps that do exist contrast with other sectors, mainly focusing on hard skills such as complex analytical, operational and digital skills, and on soft skills most particularly self-management and management and leadership. This mirrors my own experience which can be explained in part by the starting point generally being that the charity and its people tend to be for society first, and a business second.

But of course, despite the social drivers, CVS organisations are economic structures – they are businesses: they employ people, they manage finance, they market, they manage facilities and IT, they develop operating models that enable services to be delivered. Although this is evolving, the culture of resisting ‘behaving’ like a business, combined with skills gaps that potentially get in the way of innovation, marketing and strategic change, present a significant barrier to survival and growth for many. However it must also be said, as someone who has worked in both the private and the community and voluntary sector, running a social business is far more complex than its private counterparts – at the very least because your main customer is highly unlikely to be able to pay for what you have to offer.

If we can get over this stand-off, a significant opportunity does exist for a heightened focus on leadership and management development across the sector (not necessarily delivered by those already in the sector), and a call for collaboration with the buoyant and growing digital sector, to uplift the capability of the CVS to build its efficiency and its ability to compete.

A word about volunteering

Volunteering and employability do go hand in hand, both with respect to presenting opportunities for acquiring work experience and employment-related skills and assets, and as a direct route into employment. As an example, over 20% of paid employees at Citizens Advice Gateshead, the parent charity of Society Matters cic, started with the charity as a volunteer.

As the employment landscape continues to change as a result of the pandemic, the need for reframing and retraining to enable people in the sectors worst hit to move forward, volunteering in the CVS has the potential to provide the answer. An investment in making this work for the sector, however, is critical; the misnomer that volunteers provide ‘free’ resource needs to be eradicated, as under-investment will have a catastrophic effect on the sector, and will prevent this workforce development opportunity to be realised alongside draining the already limited resources needed to deliver social value.

Jayne Graham MBE
Executive Director, Society Matters cic

Call for Community and Voluntary sector to complete short skills survey

Call for Community and Voluntary sector to complete short skills survey

Social enterprise Society Matters cic is looking into skills gaps that are challenging the community and voluntary sector. particularly with respect to understanding the complexities of welfare benefits such as Universal Credit and PIP, and is calling for as many people across the sector to complete the survey, for a chance to win a free welfare benefits training course for up to 12 people early in 2021.

The team at Society Matters needs to understand the gaps that exist because they are looking for ways to support the sector at a time when investing in training is not currently on the agenda, for obvious reasons. Hundreds of paid staff and volunteers from the sector who have attended Society Matters’ social welfare training have said that without the right skills and knowledge they had found it difficult to provide the right help to the communities they support, and that once they understood the detail of the benefits being claimed by many of their clients they had so much more confidence, just after a few hours spent on learning and development.

Lee Booth, Trading Manager at Society Matters cic, who’s leading the survey explained “this year has been challenging for us all, but the community and voluntary sector has stepped up to make such a difference to so many people’s lives, and we send our sincere thanks. Through completing this survey the community and voluntary sector can help us to design programmes that can be delivered free to those who need it most, but don’t have the resources to pay.”

So please complete the short 2 minute survey to help Society Matters to understand the skills gaps you are experiencing in your organisation, and have a chance to win a free accredited welfare benefits training course of your choice for up to 12 staff and volunteers to give you a great start to 2021.

CLICK HERE TO START THE SURVEY

Do welfare benefits propel or prevent employment?

Do welfare benefits propel or prevent employment?

Millions more people are now claiming welfare benefits, and it’s probably fair to say that many believed it would never happen to them. So this is probably a good time to start a narrative around whether welfare benefits help or hinder employability.

Like me you’ve probably found it’s not unusual for the two issues of welfare benefits and unemployment to be couched as cause and effect; the implication that benefits ‘prop up’ people’s lives and diminish their motivation to find work. I honestly think this association has now become a lazy stereotype and we need to work together to dispel the myth. Why? Because while it’s out there, perception or otherwise, it carries a lot of weight, and that impacts heavily, not only on the by-standers who have a third party perspective, but also on those who are the main actors of the myth – the people who have been impacted through their self-esteem, and with a belief, perhaps, that they’ll never be taken seriously enough to get a job, because they’re on benefits.

It would be naïve to evade the reality that some people who are capable of working are satisfied not to, and that surviving on welfare benefits might be an option they have chosen (or that has chosen them). It’s also a truth that even in those minority of cases if we dig beyond the surface we can probably also find multiple reasons not to cast blame. But regardless, there’s no doubt we can do a lot better, recognising this connection between welfare benefits and employability as an over-simplification of what is surely one of the most complex and serious challenges for society, and one that’s been getting in the way of social justice for decades.

Unemployment of course is a complicated and multi-dimensional subject – for the unemployed themselves and for the support system at both a micro and a macro level. An important element of this support system is geared to managing welfare benefits claims but this has proven not always to be effective. Despite assumptions to the contrary, benefits are frequently under-claimed (in the millions) because the system is dogged with misinterpretation and/or misunderstanding.

For some people, benefits can hinder the prospect of employability (we explore this below, and the lazy stereotype doesn’t feature …) but more often than not this is a symptom of circumstance rather than an actual desire to be on benefits instead of earning a living. In fact there are many examples of welfare benefits making a positive contribution towards employability.

Welfare benefits actually help people to be employed

 To properly consider how benefits enable people to progress from unemployment to employment we need to evaluate how the welfare state enables millions people to actually be in work already. According to DWP data from July 2020 over 5.5m people were claiming Universal Credit, and about a third of those were reported to already have a job.

 Source: DWP

 The welfare benefits that are enabling employment for millions of people are as diverse as people’s life situations.

The system is designed – in principle – to be accessible for all, geared to fulfilling people’s potential employability on an individual level, rather than stifling it.

Universal Credit, for example, is a means-tested benefit which is geared to supporting low income families, whether they are in work or not. The childcare element of Universal Credit can pay up to 85% of childcare costs if household income is below a minimum threshold, making a huge difference to working families, and ensuring that they are not disincentivised to work through the cost of childcare provision. It would be helpful if families that are concerned about losing childcare benefits by progressing into employment were aware that this help is available, because it’s highly likely that their starting assumption is that it isn’t. The Carers element  of Universal Credit makes work accessible for those who are undertaking caring responsibilities for 35 or more hours a week; this can support someone to continue to work at least part-time, supplementing their wage to make room to look after a disabled family member, for example, and can remove barriers for many working and single parent families.  Helping families to recognise that moving into a caring role does not preclude them from working, and that working part-time can make them better off than leaving employment altogether, is key to avoiding working adults leaving their job altogether when they’re facing these challenges. There’s no doubt that welfare benefits can enable employment for people in this position.

Benefits for working adults also include non means-tested benefits such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and government schemes that include Access to Work, both geared to removing personal barriers which can affect employability. At a practical level, this can include anything from access to aids such as a disabled person’s railcard, bus pass, the Motability car scheme, or a blue badge – all significant in improving people’s ability to travel to work. Access to Work enables employers to access special equipment, adaptations or support worker services to help them in the workplace as well as with getting to and from work.

Like Universal Credit and PIP, key to the success of these welfare benefits in enabling employability is the knowledge and support of the wider system – including employers and health professionals. If people become aware that these benefits are available to them as early as possible, and they can be supported to access them, as easily as possible, jobs can be saved through benefits. With the right benefits in place unemployed people will more readily access and retain jobs, avoiding them being unfairly disadvantaged by their need to tackle life challenges while they are working.

The benefits system and the push for employment

It is difficult to imagine how anyone living in crisis, not even sure whether they will soon have a roof over their head, unable to feed their family and coping with domestic chaos, could possibly be motivated and sufficiently confident to look for employment. Yes, a job would lead to a better income that in turn can help to turn around a challenging family situation, but that journey can be long and complex. Welfare benefits, if accessed effectively, can provide for basic needs during these times of crisis, and keep families together and safe.

Our primary challenge, then, is to ensure that once a foundation of security is established, this is quickly converted into a platform for progression, avoiding it transforming into a barrier to employment or a crutch.

Like it or loath it in practice, but the principles of Universal Credit when it was announced by the Conservative party 10 years ago were hard to argue with, cast as fairer for claimants and taxpayers, and designed to avoid the ‘cliff edge’ that was said to ‘trap’ people in unemployment when benefits ended as work started. Although the UC system has been criticised in practice (much of this criticism, in my view, being fair), many have gained employment as a result of the ‘extra push’ it has given. For people who have been assessed as needing to search for employment, Universal Credit payments are made in return for evidence of active job search activities. This can be anything from training, volunteering, or submitting job applications. Evidence of this activity being absent results in sanctions – reduced benefits payments – which have been proven, for some, to focus the mind on looking for work.

The welfare benefits system – including the broader employability support system – has the capability of giving people the ‘third party’ push they need to spur their confidence and help them to actively seek employment. This can be in the form of people pressure, or through the nature of the systems and processes in place, but to be effective it also needs to be person-centred. The support system surrounding welfare benefits that has been set up by DWP included the introduction of Job Centre work coaches. These coaches are intended to build relationships with benefits claimants, and to provide them tangible support to become more active in the job market.

On the ground, the level of service offered is inconsistent, and not everyone is able to recognise the benefit of this support or understand how take best advantage of it. It is therefore important that other players in the support system take an active role in brokering these relationships, ensuring that the claimant recognises the purpose of the work coach’s role in helping them to move forward but also, pragmatically, ensuring that the benefit claimant is clear about what they should expect, so they get all of the support that’s available to them; people need to be educated to expect regular access to relevant training and development, support with CVs and applications, and also to receive practical help with access to grants for travel to interviews and clothing to improve the likelihood of a successful outcome on the day (this can relate to increased confidence as much as making a good first impression to a prospective employer). This is a two-way street.

This role is being played by employability professionals and independent agencies such as Citizens Advice, however this interaction often comes at the point of crisis. More can be done at the outset to avert crisis, and perhaps in some cases it’s not ideal for the paymaster to own this responsibility.

So can welfare benefits actually hinder employability?

We can’t pretend that welfare benefits is the silver bullet that will fix unemployment, but there’s no question that attitudes to benefits need to change. The lazy stereotype image isn’t owned exclusively by the media. People who are claiming benefits feel the stigma. Some worry about whether they should make a claim and decide not to although they will suffer a detriment as a result, ‘just in case’. When applying for jobs, concerns about recruiters discriminating against them because they claim benefits is a real barrier to making the effort to apply in the first place.

People who have been in the position of claiming welfare benefits for long periods can be prone to believing they have become unemployable.

The bias of employers – unconscious or otherwise – can serve to further entrench these barriers – employing someone who is already in employment feels a lot easier and lower risk than employing someone who is long-term unemployed, does it not.

Helping employers to engage unemployed applicants in volunteer programmes to provide work experience, or work trials before a full commitment to a job is made, would make a huge difference, supporting people who feel ‘trapped’ in the benefits system to break down these barriers, and better equipping the employer and the prospective employee to remove prejudices associated with welfare benefits as a hinderance to employability.

If you would like to talk about how you could start breaking down these barriers in your organisation please get in touch; if we can’t help ourselves we’re pretty sure we’ll know someone who can.

A call to action – let’s change attitudes

So, do welfare benefits propel or prevent employment? I usually resist the temptation to talk about culture as it’s a pretty intangible concept in real terms and we can almost exonerate ourselves of responsibility for pretty much anything by blaming culture. But in real terms our attitudes shape the culture that exists around welfare benefits and unemployment, so our call to action today is for us to work together to help those who have found themselves claiming benefits for whatever reason to know that this offers a safe platform for progression back into employment, that the stigma that may have been attached to welfare benefits in the past no longer exists, and that benefits actually enable millions of people to work.

 

Jayne Graham MBE (Director) and Adam Matthews (Social Welfare Instructor) 

Durham business funds community social welfare training

Durham business funds community social welfare training

A family-owned funeral service that has served the local community for almost 50 years throughout East Durham is the latest business to ‘pay it forward’ to sponsor the Durham community sector to access vital social welfare training in partnership with Society Matters.

The East Durham Funeral Service has sponsored a Charity Discount Scheme that makes training more accessible to local charities and volunteers working on the front line in community organisations that could not afford the social welfare training otherwise. Through the scheme up to 100% discount can be offered, with the cost supplemented through the sponsorship which is also matched pound for pound by Society Matters. With their £500 donation this means Society Matters can offer at least 6 people places on Universal Credit or Personal Independence Payments (PIP) training courses, so they can have the confidence and knowledge they need to help their clients to navigate the complexities of the welfare benefits system.

Managing Director of East Durham Funeral Service Philip Maddison was keen to find new ways to support local people, and recognised that Paying It Forward with Society Matters was a useful way to contribute:

“When we heard about the Society Matters Charity Discount Fund, and the invaluable support that Society Matters provides to front line services, we were delighted to help. We recognise how important the services are to really improve the quality of people’s lives within our local area at a time where it has never been needed more due to the pandemic.

As a family run funeral service, proudly serving our local communities for almost 50 years, it is our ethos to support and guide families through their darkest hour and beyond. We are extremely proud to be able to share Society Matters vision of ‘Make Your Mark’ and hope to continue to back such invaluable services now and in the future.”

Lee Booth Trading Manager of Society Matters, who launched the fund earlier in the Summer said “We are over the moon with East Durham Funeral Service sponsorship of our social welfare training – this will make a massive difference to local charities and volunteers. As a social enterprise we have a clear social purpose, and the support of local businesses like the East Durham Funeral Service shows that we’re not on our own – by working together we can really make our mark”.

Lee and Society Matters cic Social Welfare Instructor Adam Matthews have received fantastic feedback from hundreds of people who have already received the training, which is now exclusively delivered through in an online classroom environment to ensure it has continued to add value despite the pandemic.

If you are involved in a local charity or community organisation that would benefit from receiving training in Universal Credit or Personal Independence Payments, but you can’t afford it, please get in touch to see if you can access help through the Pay it Forward Charity Discount Fund.

Click here to get in touch