Alternative Futures Group’s vision, of a world in which people are in control of their lives, guides everything the charity does. It has informed a strategy that has seen AFG prosper in a difficult environment, and provided the moral bedrock upon which the charity has built an approach that does not compromise on the support it provides to its service users.
Established in 1992, today AFG provides personalised around-the-clock support to around 1,100 adults with some of the most challenging learning disabilities and mental health needs across Lancashire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, and Cheshire.
Neil Campbell joined the North West charity in 2006. Like many organisations, AFG has been forced to adapt its offering since financial markets and then the economy so spectacularly hit the rocks from 2008.
AFG relies upon winning contracts from the health service and local authorities for all of its funding. As budgets have been squeezed, so has the income available to AFG. However, its commitment to maintaining service levels and remaining sustainable has at times seen it turn down work on the basis that the terms would result in an unsatisfactory service for its beneficiaries.
“Over the past couple of years it’s become really difficult in this sector with many commissioning bodies wanting to impose what I would consider to be poor practice or inappropriate actions on the third sector,” Campbell says.
“We’ve increasingly exerted ourselves to be in control of our life too. We’re taking decisions that are right for our beneficiary group, sometimes in the face of significant challenges from commissioners.”
Taking control has meant innovating, finding ways to look after its service users and staff to the same high standards while deploying less in terms of pounds and pence.
“It would be easy to get sucked into just responding to what’s being asked of us in order to win work,” Campbell says. “But we’ve been trying to describe and influence how the work we do should be done to get the best outcomes for the people we support.”
It is no surprise AFG wants the best levels of support for its beneficiaries, all good charities do. But there are also wider considerations on account of AFG’s size and profile.
AFG has annual income of around £60 million, and employs around 2,500 people. As such a large provider in its region, Campbell cautions that AFG needs to take its position as a standard-setter seriously.
Traditionally the charity tried to spread its offer as widely as possible, taking on work wherever it was able to provide a service.
“But increasingly AFG has had to be more selective and actually turn down work from certain commissioners on the basis that to do so wouldn’t just compromise our standards but it would mean that we are colluding to provide a sub-standard service,” Campbell says.
“If we commit to do something on the basis of a commission that we don’t believe is good enough for our beneficiary group it then allows the commissioner to offer the same kind of commission to other people who may find it more difficult to turn down.”
AFG also takes seriously its role as an ambassador for the third sector. While regional in its activities, by almost any measure it ranks among the country’s largest service-delivering charities. The way it conducts itself, Campbell says, has a role in shaping the way the people in the communities it serves see the sector.
“Criticisms of this organisation can end up as criticisms of the sector, in the same way that acclaim of this organisation can end up as acclaim of the sector,” he says. “It’s important that our leadership is good, because if we get it wrong judgements are often made about the sector as a whole - that’s a responsibility that we have.”
Campbell does not shy away from the “massive” challenges facing the sector. But he is sanguine about the prospects for success despite the tightening of purse strings. AFG has thought carefully about how to advance its vision of a world where people are in control of their lives, and reaped the rewards.
Reduced funding has seen AFG cut the price of its service by just under £10 million over the past four years, while maintaining the same level of support provided to service users.
AFG has worked on alternatives to paid support, utilising communities, families, technologies and weighing a variety of options to ensure the best outcomes for beneficiaries and staff.
Campbell provides the example of three of its service users who had been in receipt of round-the-clock paid support. AFG moved to have these individuals work at a local food bank for several hours a week, taking advantage of a voluntary support network while also improving the service users’ social participation and quality of life.
“It’s changed their lives because instead of being a recipient of support, which is the role they are traditionally used to, for those three or four hours a week they are working in this foodbank and actually providing support to someone else.”
Developing out of the box solutions involves a degree of risk, and Campbell says this is something that requires considered discussion with commissioners. Strong relationships underpinned by trust are important.
Although AFG would turn down work before it would offer a sub-standard service, the charity prefers to have constructive conversations with commissioners towards finding ways of achieving solutions.
“The conversation isn’t ‘we won’t work with you’, it’s ‘instead of what you’re asking, this is what we’re prepared to do’. We try and be solutions focused.”
AFG has also been required to innovate in the way it looks after its staff.
“As I started work here it increasingly became obvious that we should also be saying that our vision of a world where people are in control of their lives was just as important for our staff.
“We’ve got to find ways of investing in our staff. That can’t be by paying them lots more money – we’ll do our very best to continue to improve the terms and conditions for our staff but we’ve got to find other ways.”
One example is a partnership with West African charity Mobee Gambia, which does similar work to AFG but on a smaller scale.
The tie-up sees staff travel to Gambia and work in the local communities. They gain exposure to different ways of working in a vastly different culture, and gain an invaluable life experience.
“Creating ways for people to feel like they have a real stake in the organisation means we’re galvanising the workforce. We’re creating a sense of ownership and therefore their creativity and enthusiasm for work improves and as a result of that your offer as a charity can get better.”
Campbell accepts that there is going to be less money available for the foreseeable future. However, he is confident solutions can be found among existing opportunities and new initiatives.
“Not having a well-funded public sector is the new normal. That’s our starting point, and every organisation should be thinking about how we can do things differently,” Campbell says.
“Invest in employees, be innovative and creative around the people you support, and gain and hold onto the trust of your funders.”