Last week we were in Liverpool and Merseyside for our final leg of research. You can read all about the organisations we met in our live fieldnotes, or catch up on fieldnotes and summaries from previous weeks.
We travelled around Merseyside, visiting organisations to the north and south of Liverpool, as well as over the river on the Wirral. Our visits took us from affluent areas to some of the most deprived areas in the whole of the UK. Across our sample, we met more organisations that were not registered charities than we had in previous weeks.
Crea8ing Careers and Wirral Unplugged are Community Interest Companies (CICs). CIC registration is intended for businesses with social objectives. CICs are permitted to make a profit, however, this has to be reinvested in the business to further its social impact. We heard that one advantage of being a CIC is the ability to pay leadership, as opposed being a charity where it is difficult for a board member to become a paid employee while retaining a decision-making role.
In addition, CICs were seen to be more flexible than charities with a quicker registration timeline. Diana from Wirral Unplugged felt that charity boards are often made up of ‘high up’ influential people. Lacking those connections, she opted to become a CIC, which felt like an easier and less formal process. There may also be a network effect at play in the area — organisations spoke of seeing others successfully operate as CICs and receiving advice to opt for this type of incorporation.
“The feeling amongst the Wirral was that CICs were the future and they’re in a much better position to respond quickly to people’s needs.”
Make It Happen is a company limited by guarantee. After deciding that the organisation’s ethos didn’t fit with the charity model and language, Amy was advised to become a company to allow for maximum flexibility in how the organisation operates. This has worked fine so far, although they are looking into the possibility of becoming a CIC in the future.
Liverpool SOUP and Croxteth Community Garden are unincorporated groups. Both are very new organisations; Rachel foresees registering the garden as a charity in the future when they are more established to increase their access to funding. Liverpool SOUP is currently working well without a constitution or registration. Louisa pointed out that any income goes directly on event costs or is sent to the winning pitcher immediately, therefore there isn’t the need to have a constitution to formalise handling of assets at this stage.
While there are advantages to these alternative structures, not being a charity had also led to certain challenges. Overall, we heard that there is a lack of awareness about CICs, what they are and how they operate. Funding and fundraising can be restricted for CICs — some grant funding is only available for charities, and donation platforms like Facebook Giving and Just Giving do not have a CIC option. It can also be harder for non-charities to collaborate with other organisations. Make It Happen works with supermarkets to intercept surplus food, but in some cases being a company prevents this — “ALDI won’t touch you with a barge pole without a charity number”.
Another set of challenges that stood out in Liverpool and Merseyside were those around relationships with statutory services:
- Crea8ing Careers and Make It Happen work closely with statutory services. However, both organisations are focussed on interventions that challenge traditional models and aim to address the root causes of social problems instead of just ‘the symptoms’. Amy and Lynne each expressed frustration at trying to work with services that are stuck in a firefighting mode of operating.
- Kindfulness Cafe found that people in their neighbourhood had low trust in statutory services, with many avoiding all contact with authorities including GPs. Instead, people had begun to lean on the organisation, coming to the cafe for help or to be an intermediary.
- We also heard about challenges related to social prescribing. In some cases, GPs had poor knowledge of the area and so did not effectively socially prescribe patients to useful services. However, in the case of Kindfulness Cafe, a number of patients had been prescribed to their cafe but they have received no additional funding to manage this influx and recently had to cut back the hours of the cafe due to a lack of funding.
Finally, reinforcing our findings from the previous three weeks, we heard major challenges around funding (for core costs and salaries; time-consuming applications; income uncertainty and the inability to plan) and attracting and managing volunteers (finding reliable people with the right skills; mentoring and supporting vulnerable volunteers).
We had a productive end of week workshop, where participants from very different organisations came together to think about possible strategies for overcoming key challenges. As well as echoing suggestions heard in Swansea, Dundee and Derry, our participants proposed several new ideas.
To address the challenge of attracting and managing volunteers:
- Our organisations shared advice of having a structured recruitment process with a job description, clear communication of two-way expectations and redirecting to other organisations if a person’s skill set would be better suited elsewhere.
- Funders could support micro-organisations by offering more funding for volunteer training, while local businesses could provide more volunteers through CSR schemes.
- It would be very helpful to have a volunteer portal that matches interests and skills with suitable opportunities, like the Liverpool Guild of Students Volunteering Service portal we wrote about in our fieldnotes.
To improve local visibility:
- Some organisations successfully used local radio and newspapers to spread the word about their work, while others found collaborating with other organisations to be an effective strategy for reaching a wider audience.
- Participants supported the idea of funders helping to publicise grant holders’ work, for example through blog posts.
- Finally, we reflected that local councils could be more willing to help community groups find unused council land to use for community benefit, which would help groups access suitably visible spaces — a challenge that Croxteth Community Garden and Liverpool Beekeepers faced.
We hope you’ve enjoyed following along with our research. It’s been amazing for us to get to know such a diverse array of micro-organisations and see the vital role they play in communities nationwide. We’re now going to spend time making sense of everything we’ve learnt over the past month. We’ll be back in March to share our findings.