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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

More That Unites Us

On Monday of this week I spent the day in Southend on Sea, a place which, I'm informed, has the longest pleasure pier in the world and which I recognised as the seaside town where Eastenders characters would go for their summer holidays. I was hoping to bump into Ricky and Well'ard on the seafront, or to have some chat with Alfie Moon, but sadly it was not to be!

My real reason for being there, however, was not leisure related! I was in town to run a session with the trustees of a charity called Off The Streets who work with homeless people in Essex and who are at a very exciting (and nervewracking) stage of their growth as they approach the final stages of a building project to convert a guest house into a homeless shelter. This has been a mammoth undertaking for the trustees - generating the money through fundraising, grants and loans, getting the planning permission and all of the other mountains of paperwork completed, planning out the shelter, getting quotes for the significant work needing done and ultimately managing the builders through the process - all while ensuring that the work of the charity continues (supporting those on the streets with food parcels, clothing and companionship) and, for most of the trustees, doing their day jobs at the same time!

Naturally, this project and the stress that comes with it, has taken its toll on the team. There's no blueprint for something like this and so there have been thousands of decisions which needed to be made along the way, and everyone around the table has their own view on the right thing to do at each point, naturally leading to disagreements and debates. That's ok and it's perfectly natural in any organisation, but what makes OTS unusual, compared to many of the organisations I work with, is just how diverse they are. Each is an individual and they all have their own thoughts and approaches but, loosely, they could be separated into three circles.

In circle one, there are the founder, Kirsty and her mum Karen. Kirsty is the least corporate person you could imagine meeting; she is fiery, feisty, shoots from the hip and says exactly what's on her mind at all times. She wants relentless progress in pursuit of her vision. Karen is the voice of reason for Kirsty, absolutely adores her daughter and is incredibly proud of what Kirsty has achieved with the charity, through sheer force of will. They make a great combination! In my four decades, I don't think I've ever met anyone as passionate about a cause or an organisation as Kirsty and Karen are about Off The Streets and what they do! It would be impossible to spend time with them and not want to find some way to help them with their work.

In circle two, there are a group of trustees whose professional careers have been spent in a corporate environment. They approach the running of the charity the way they approach the running of their teams, departments and businesses. Their outlook on the things which the charity needs to do, especially now that it's taken on such a big project and a significant amount of risk with it, are shaped by those corporate experiences. Processes and structure need to be in place. Recording of the charities activities needs to be rigorous, in order for watertight reporting, to ensure that the funders are satisfied with where every penny has gone. This rigour will also allow the charity to use its data to make strategic decisions about their future direction, and to advertise their work, in order to attract more volunteers, trustees and, ultimately, money.

And in the third circle, there are a contingent who had long careers in social work. They're deeply empathetic, as you might expect, and during times of tension they form a really interesting bridge between the other two groups who can often find themselves on opposite sides of disagreements!

Of course, these descriptions are an over simplification and everyone around the table is much more nuanced than these two dimensional caricatures suggest, but it should allow you to build a picture of the environment and the ways in which lines can be drawn and debates can play out their meetings. Their backgrounds, at times, divide them. They look at each situation, as we all do, through the lens of their lived experiences. Where some see opportunity, others see risk. What some view as caution, others view as negativity. What some view as positivity, others view as naivety.

And the reality is, they're all correct! Borrowing money DOES generate opportunity, but it also generates risk and that risk needs to be managed. Not borrowing money reduces the risk but it also limits the scope and the reach of the charity. Rolling the dice with a belief in the possibility and in pursuit of a noble vision IS exciting and exhilarating and many great stories of visionaries and entrepreneurs involve their having a high tolerance to risk, but doing it at every cut and turn generates a level of anxiety that many people are simply not built to handle!

What was evident, however, from the first moment that I met the team, was how passionate they all are in the mission of their organisation. Those who think big and bold and grand, do it because they want to make the biggest possible difference to the people who the charity serves. They're restless for change and impact. But those who want a more cautious approach, want it because they want to protect the charity, in order that it can survive and thrive and they know that it if all falls apart, the charity loses its ability to help anyone at all. Those who are less inclined to engage in the processes and the rigour and the reporting aren't less inclined through malice or to be obstructive. They get why it's important - they just see it as less important than the hands on work, with helping the homeless they meet as their number one priority.

And when you're close to the work and deep in the stresses of a major project, you're often unable to lift your head up and remind yourself of why you're there at all. Small frustrations emerge, which lead to a reduced inclination to communicate and to find common ground and those small frustrations grow into bigger frustrations, which manifest themselves in all kinds of unhelpful ways.

But on Monday, when they did stop and raise their heads from the work, spend time together in the same room and take stock of their progress, they were able to recognise and remind themselves that the reason they give so much of themselves to the charity, is because they all believe passionately in the vision and the mission and they all want to make a difference. Sure, they have different ideas about how to get there; but the things which divide them are barely visible in the light of the things which unite them. And so we spent the day working through their worries, challenges, anxieties and frustrations, looking at where they see themselves and the parts they play in the organisation and sharing their thoughts on the magic they see in each other. There were tears, smiles and lots of laughter. Frustrations were aired and challenges were thrashed out. And when we all left at the end of the day, everyone was equal parts exhausted and excited about the future and their ability as a team to tackle the obstacles which lie ahead.

And for me, it was as rewarding a day's work as it's possible to have. I consider myself very lucky to have been given the opportunity to help them, even a little bit, along on their journey - and I'm excited to see the shelter open and visit to experience their work in person.

On a final note, something else you could do, while you're here, is to donate a penny or two to Off The Streets - they're an incredible charity who do hugely valuable work and anything you do to support their work will make a real, tangible difference to the lives of people who are experiencing hardship. The case studies on their website are inspiring, but those are only the tip of a very large iceberg. Spending time with the team, it's impossible not to be inspired by the work they do, but also to recognise that there's a lot more still needing done, and your support matters.

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