​Jane joined NAVCA as Head of Member Engagement in September 2016, and in 2017 took on the role of Chief Executive for this national charity and membership organisation. She is able to draw on a substantial career leading engagement and communication at the most senior level, across the NHS, the Civil Service, and the public and private sectors.

Tell us a little bit about NAVCA and the current key areas of focus for your organisation?

NAVCA is the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action. The ‘for’ is important because we are part of a movement for local social action rather than just an external body. We are a membership body for what were traditionally CVS organisations, but are now more generally known as local infrastructure. They are organisations that are very much place-based; working in a local area to support, promote and work with the multitude of very small, local voluntary and community organisations that are the lifeblood of
communities across England.

If you think about the world with its big public systems like the NHS, civil service and local authorities, the organisations our members support get into the cracks between those big players. They see a need in their local community, step up to the plate and do something about it! Our members are there to help them to do that effectively. 

That help might be helping a new charity to set itself up and making sure they get the governance and structures right, or making sure they stay up- to-date with what’s new in the world (digital skills, fundraising challenges, or regulatory issues). When an organisation has the will and need, but perhaps not the capacity or experience, our members are there for support and to help navigate the way through.

NAVCA is there to support its members. Local infrastructure organisations are the experts and exceptional at what they do. NAVCA’s role is to help promote local infrastructure with two main aims in mind: to build and maintain the network or NAVCA family (200 members all in very different contexts doing very different things), and to give an important voice at national level. Policy makers at national level and those who are influencing the way the world works need to think about and understand the situation for the smallest local charities and voluntary groups, and NAVCA is a key voice in that debate.

We are keen to change the narrative from traditional big system thinking. Big systems have lots to do and currently rely on charity to plug the gaps. We want to flip that round so that we start with community and community groups. What do they identify as the issues and see as the solutions? Looking at it from that angle you can completely transform the perspective on things like health, justice and education. You change not only the funding, but also the thinking. It’s a difficult thing for people who work in big systems to
get their heads around. That’s where organisations like NAVCA and our members can help to start a different conversation.

Please can you give us a health check on the social, local and community aspects of the third sector? How is it faring through austerity and greater need?

We have been going through austerity for seven years now. Whilst there are definitely still major pressures, I suspect that we’re now in a place that if people have survived this long they will continue to do so; certainly we’re seeing our members across the country finding innovative and resourceful ways to work with commissioners and funders. I hope they are feeling more hopeful, resilient and better able to handle the current landscape and the uncertainties.

That’s not to say there aren’t some real challenges out there, but organisations are finding ways to survive, cope and negotiate their way through. We know times are tough for us, which means they are an awful lot tougher for the people we are here to serve. Our ultimate beneficiaries and people living in disadvantaged communities are struggling really hard, perhaps more than ever when you look at issues such as universal credit and the housing crisis. It hasn’t eased up at any point in the last seven years.

Because of Brexit, the one big cloud in the middle of all this is that we don’t even know whether we have hit the hardest point yet. Three years ago, my husband and I did the pilgrim walk to Santiago in Spain over five days. The third day was a really tough day climbing hill after hill after hill and it took hours. Feeling relieved, we got to the top of the final hill and then we discovered we still had three hours to go to get to where we were staying – over even more hills! I worry that is where we are now. We think we have been through the toughest bits, but because of Brexit we just don’t know that for sure. That is a very difficult position for the sector to be in.

Having said that, lots of lessons have been learned in the last few years and some of those lessons needed to be learned and changes made. I’m really interested in the Lloyds Bank Foundation’s digital skills programme. It is worrying that so many organisations in our sector still haven’t caught up with the opportunities digital capability offer them. For small organisations, they may be able to free up an extra day a week just by being more digitally confident and working digitally. Who wouldn’t say yes to that?! Not to mention
the resilience that a small charity can gain by making sure you are mobile and flexible and having the digital platforms to allow you to do that. NAVCA itself is actually a small charity; we punch above our weight as a national body because of the advantages working digitally gives us.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities currently facing the organisations that NAVCA supports?

The whole principle of working collaboratively and seeking out meaningful partnerships is so important. We need to find ways to negotiate over and around the genuine difficulties and issues there can be, whether they are political or economic. There are some brilliant examples of organisations willing to set their differences aside for the sake of the bigger picture and that is all down to leadership. I am certainly seeing this happen within our membership.

Getting better at telling our collaboration success stories loudly and clearly is critical right now. It’s the classic marketing technique of ‘do it well once, tell people a hundred times’. Not something we are too familiar with in the sector, but it’s actually a relatively simple thing to do. Telling the story of local infrastructure is a specific strand of NAVCA’s work, helping our members to tell their stories and making sure their voices are heard by local and central government, policy makers and commissioners.

There are some very damaging perceptions about local infrastructure that it is ineffective and unwilling to change, but that is absolutely not what we are seeing among our members. They have changed enormously and are making difficult decisions and a huge difference. However, it is tough for local infrastructure organisations to demonstrate that impact because they are a step removed from the front line. Sometimes there just isn’t going to be hard, meaningful evidence that no one can argue with. We have to educate commissioners and funders on how to view ‘impact’ realistically and effectively. Sometimes it comes down to having to trust in seeing a difference being made and people feeling that they are being better supported. Turning the conversation around and imagining if these organisations weren’t there anymore can be a useful way of changing perspective and helping people to realise the relevance and importance local infrastructure has in connecting, convening and bringing people together.

A big part of my job with NAVCA is to make that case. I am keen to do more work on gathering evidence, data, stories and case studies to support our family of members. I think back to my previous life in PR where the mantra was ‘numbers tell, stories sell’. It doesn’t matter how much data you offer to somebody; the cold, dead hand of the Excel spreadsheet means nothing, unless you have a story to tell with it.

What role does volunteering have to play in our future communities?

As an outsider, one of the things that struck me coming into the sector is that you tend to presume that volunteering is all about the benefit to the organisation or their beneficiaries. Actually, for those involved professionally in the community and voluntary sector, I am finding that they are very focused on the benefit to the volunteer. I think this is hugely interesting – and entirely valid – and certainly raises a few questions for me as CEO of NAVCA in terms of our thinking going forward.

There is a really interesting move away from people wanting to volunteer and therefore helping once a week in their local charity shop for the next 10 years. Now, busy individuals who want to do something worthwhile are able to ask ‘what can I do to help?’ in many different ways. That could be a village clean-up or helping at a school fair. I think there is an awful lot of informal volunteering that goes on that no one would necessarily consider to be volunteering.

In some ways, that is where you can see the divide between ‘organised’ volunteering that supports the volunteers and ‘disorganised’ volunteering where people do it because it’s their kid’s school or local church. And there are some very fine lines between whether volunteers are doing it for others’ benefit or their own. I remember years ago, I used to volunteer over Christmas with a local homeless shelter and realising that it was sometimes very hard to tell the difference between the volunteers and clients. Many of the volunteers were there because they didn’t want to be on their own at Christmas. And that was as true of me as it was the others.

There is some very interesting work starting to happen that links up with the wider digital conversation. We are having some important conversations post-Grenfell around volunteering and disaster recovery. The British Red Cross have a fantastic example of this. They have a critical role to play in emergency response and have a formal role in responding to community crises. One Sunday morning I spotted a Tweet from the BRC Community Response Team promoting an amazing volunteer programme allowing people to sign up to volunteer as and when needed for emergency situations. Within four minutes I had read the Tweet, clicked onto the link showing a video explaining how people are needed within communities to be pulled in to help in an emergency situation. This isn’t necessarily just for huge disaster recovery, but perhaps in the event of a flood or local community issue. You might not hear from them for ages, but they have your details for when you are needed and will alert you by text when you are. I filled in my details and then passed the link on to my husband and he did it too. What a fantastic call to action delivered in such a slick and smart way! I am now a British Red Cross community volunteer and I didn’t even have to put down my cup of coffee. That’s a really strong example of one direction I see volunteering going with younger people and busy working professionals.

There are also some challenges to be addressed here too. At At Grenfell, there was an outpouring of people wanting to help, but nobody actually capturing that. If you have offered to help once and nobody said ‘yes’, the chances of you offering to help again are greatly reduced. We need to understand how differently people want to volunteer now. Volunteer-led organisations really understand that. It is the rest of the world that hasn’t caught up yet and are still using an old model of what volunteering used to be. Again, we have a job to do in educating the wider public about volunteering and getting our stories out there.

At the other end of the spectrum, voluntary and community organisations are increasingly being engaged by the big systems to help deliver services. There is always going to be a debate around the fact that it isn’t our job to bail out public services. I don’t see it as bailing them out, but providing a better service than the public sector is able to, and I say that as the wife of a CCG commissioner! There are things that the NHS is really good at, but there does come a point when someone needs to leave hospital or medical services. Why would we think that an acute hospital with 3,000 staff is going to be the right organisation to help make sure Mrs. Jones has regular cups of tea when she gets home?

The world has changed and today’s problems look different. If you go back to when the NHS started, somebody would be sent home from hospital and the community would be there to look after them. That simply isn’t the case anymore, although it still can be, albeit in a much more managed and process driven way. This is the other end of the spectrum from that instant, volunteer-now person. The potential challenge here is to find volunteers who want to volunteer on a reliable, regular basis and can be allocated a shift and there are plenty of those people out there. But it is essential that our system partners realise that volunteers don’t come for free; there is a cost to recruiting, training and managing them effectively, and I think the reason many in our sector feel that they are being asked to bail out the system is because they are being asked to provide these services at the cheapest possible price – sometimes even at a loss to their own organisations. That has to change; we are equal partners in the process, not the poor relation.