January 2024 brings up 30 years of working in the sector. I have no great revelations to share, but remain absolutely convinced of the importance and efficacy of locally informed, owned and delivered services, where the people that most value and use those services are able to influence their content, quality and methodology.
Long term involvement with two organisations has established and embedded this perspective. The first is Key Fund which I have seen grow over nearly 25 years, never losing sight of why it was set up, always ensuring that geographic expansion, product development and decision making retained a strong sense of purpose, connection to people and place. I know I am lucky to have spent the last ten years working here with people I genuinely like, trust and who share a commitment to doing the right thing in the right way. Not everyone gets to say that.
The second organisation is ZEST, a neighbourhood anchor providing citywide services in Sheffield, where I have been a trustee for 17 years. Zest runs the only ramp access swimming pool in the city, our local library, gym facilities, youth and sports services, employment support as well as smoking cessation and weight management services across Sheffield.
Working with incredible local partners, thematic experts such as Foodworks, other community anchors and the public sector, the organisation touches on the lives of many people, at different times, from parent and toddler swimming lessons through to our Death Café, dealing with loss and end of life conversations.
Many of these services run by Zest are financially marginal to say the least, many Key Fund investees find themselves operating in similar circumstances. Value and strength comes from a capability to align services, a care for people and place and a willingness to collaborate, share and commit for the long term.
It would be nice to say that the challenge of doing these things well had eased with time, the truth is that many of the challenges remain the same, although their characteristics change from time to time and place to place. New ones appear too. On the flip side, what also remains unchanged is the will and energy to address them. The conference season at the end of 2023 saw many familiar faces, some of whom still regard me as the new boy (I can tell myself that at least). What is more encouraging though, is the number of much younger, very focused people addressing both those old and all of the new challenges.
We must ensure that they have the space and resources to do what they need to do, appropriate support where required and the genuine ability to influence what happens in their communities, both geographic and thematic.
I’ve mentioned collaboration, trust and commitment in this blog and whilst not revelatory, they are fundamental to doing what we do and are often hard won. I’ve also said that I am lucky to work where I do, which is true. Over the years, I have seen these characteristics at the heart of many organisations and have been fortunate to build some excellent, new working relationships with external partners based on these principles. It’s a team game, let’s get to it.