Week three – the pace quickens

This week turned quickly into a small whirlwind of activity, so much so that by Wednesday there was a traffic jam in my brain that required a brisk walk in the fresh air around the Independent Living Centre (what there is of it with a busy dual carriageway alongside), which is in Smethwick, one of the six towns that make up the metropolitan borough of Sandwell. In many ways it was a positive and productive week, accompanied by a rising sense of excitement about the new community agriculture initiative we are beginning in another of the six towns, Wednesbury, but also by a rising sense of panic about my workload.

It began with a great meeting with Garden Organic, the UK national organisation for organic gardening and growing, which, like many charities, is undergoing restructuring due to the economic downturn, and is actively seeking out new opportunities and collaborations.  Among other things, we spoke about the Lottery’s Communities Living Sustainably (CLS) funding stream, and the possibility of a partnership (with others), to bring forward an expression of interest (EOI) in making a bid. It was also a chance to catch up with a couple of old friends who work there, who were long time (from 1987!) fellow travellers from my organic farming and growing days.

Following this, a day in the office was spent beginning to deal with the diverse and accumulating tasks in dealing with the requirements of funders, from match funding, budgets and spend profiles, through business cases, procurement, legal agreement and leasing issues, all the while thinking hard about how we were going to organise ourselves in terms of capacity to deliver on our commitment, preparing for the CLS partnership meeting and a Board seminar the following day, and discussing all of this and more with my two development managers.  A mild sense of panic began to set in as the list of tasks seemed to get longer not shorter.

Wednesday was a day with back-to-back meetings.  First up was a meeting of partners identified as being likely to make up a strong partnership group for a CSL application, discussing the forthcoming Barlow Road Community Agriculture Initiative, and how it, and we, could bring forward an asset based community development programme worthy of Lottery funding, that would stand out from the jostling crowd of other applicants.  This has to be submitted by January 31st, and seems to be in line with a new approach by the Lottery to open very short-term windows of opportunity to submit these EOIs.  This worries me, because it is only the larger and better resourced organisations that have capacity to dedicate staff (at the drop of a hat) to work on such things.  Although on the positive side. it is a kind of discipline in fundraising that makes you very focused.

It was an extraordinarily positive meeting, that included the Wednesbury Leaning Community Trust, a co-operative organisation encompassing all the area’s schools and many community organisations; Blakemores, a national food service firm with very local roots and which is still a family business with a strong commitment to positive action in the local community through a corporate social responsibility programme; and the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust, which brings a biodiversity and ecological perspective to the application.  Absent but there in spirit were Garden Organic, and Sandwell Primary Care Trust.  The Lottery CLS programme is about supporting communities to find ways to find ways locally for more climate friendly ways of living which may help address climate change (adaptation, and mitigation).  That’s us, then, as the guidance specifically mentions urban agriculture as an example.

This was followed by a meeting on the new site, which is a forlorn mess of old allotment junk and fly tipped rubbish, all comprehensively overgrown for the last 15 or so years.  It does not look too bad to the eye, but it is unsafe to use until cleared. This meeting was with Sandwell Council’s drainage genius, and together with the knowledge of some of the allotment old timers, so we now have a sound grasp of glamorous things related to installing drainage systems that will not let us down five years down the line.  The (ex) chair of the developing allotments association briefed us about its progress and how the members were taking the news that a major scheme was coming to the adjacent land – a mixed response of excitement and anxieties, one that we are familiar with from previous schemes. She spoke of digging up pig bones and a fridge-freezer on her plot, so goodness knows what we will find.

We then led a seminar for Trustees and Board members of Ideal for All, the charitable organisation of which we are a part, to inform them, and address any questions, about the new scheme.  It went very well, we (being Veronica (pictured) and Helen, development managers, and myself) presented the case as made to the funders, and responding to questions and comments. The excitement was shared, such a scheme being an overwhelmingly positive thing for all concerned, but afterwards the traffic jam in my head built up as the stress hormones were in full flow by then.

So, a brisk walk, and gulps of cool if not fresh air, helped to clear the jam, and by the end of the day, after a recap with Veronica and Helen which included discussions about coping with technical and procurement issues, I had cleared my desk, and my brain, of several important tasks, mailed home those that I had not managed to get to, and left others not completed neatly on top of my computer keyboard for next week. Then I drove 86 miles home dodging the spray from the big trucks on the M5, M42, and M40.

I have been thinking about whether to let on in this blog about my long-term illness, but as each week, each day, is variously dominated by my state of health, which fluctuates wildly and unpredictably, it is inevitable that this will be woven into my experiences as recorded on this blog.  I have a disabling illness called fibromyalgia, which is one of the ME/CFS family of conditions affecting the central nervous system. about which medical science is learning, along with its sufferers.  It causes widespread and often untreatable pain (unless you resort to opiates, which I do from time to time, but sometimes even these don’t work unless you take enough to put you in a coma), chronic fatigue, brain ‘fog’ and memory problems.  I am the queen of lists and visual memory aids, being a strongly visual thinker in the first place.  But sometimes I forget to look at the lists and memory aids, indeed I sometimes forget I have made them, which all adds to the fun and stress of managing a significant workflow, topped off by a major new initiative, in 25 hours each week.

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The constant challenge of evaluation

It being the last quarter of the financial year, our thoughts are turning towards reporting to our various funders, and the putting into place new contracts and funding agreements with those organisations that generously support us.  There are too many of them to name here, but Sandwell Primary Care Trust deserves a special mention.  The director of public health there, and numerous others, including members of the public health team, and the food team, have been essential to our development. We have for many years enjoyed being part of, and supported by, a configuration of extremely talented people with vision about the regeneration of public health and the urban environment going hand-in-hand – so demonstrating the principles of sustainable development. Sandwell is a very challenging, de-industrialising, poor quality urban environment, with some pretty poor indices of deprivation and ill health, so it needs all the talented people with vision it can get.

Reporting to funders and supporters is itself a challenge, as they are many and various, often requiring very different methods of reporting, from a simple report on a small project with a specific outcome, such as purchasing a new Kederhouse ( a kind of polytunnel), to reporting on a significant contract such as a service level agreement with many different types of activity and potential outcomes.  We can count and record data about many things – who uses our services and all the standard monitoring data such as age, ethnicity, gender, etc, and keep track of all our processes, such as dates, places and types of activity – using databases which can be interrogated in multiple ways.  That is relatively easy due to the skills of our database developer in Ideal for All, the charity of which we are a part.  And we work hard to record evidence of positive outcomes for the people we work with, who are members of Sandwell’s diverse communities through capturing qualitative feedback, and tracking the benefits expressed by individuals and groups. We use some validated tools such as the Short Warwick Edinburgh Mental Health Scale, and wish to extend the use of validated approaches, and methods we can use over time.

Evaluation, and especially meaningful evaluation, which reliably captures and demonstrates data, in ways suited to both an intervention itself, and to funders and commissioners of services, in a constantly shifting configuration of exepctations, is a constant challenge. And we are in the white waters of a major reconfiguration of local governance, what with huge cuts, the seismic changes to the NHS, Primary Care Trusts and the public health function, which will bring big changes to the way services are commissioned and evaluated.  Again, but this time with gigantic bells on.

But for now, it’s time to talk the commisioners of our main contract, in the PCT, to agree the best way to produce an annual report that draws together the monitoring and qualitative data in a way that demonstrates the outcomes of a year of intense activity, including significant success in securing additional funding to add value to the commissioned services. It’s a time of huge upheaval in the voluntary sector, but thanks to the brilliant work of a dedicated team, we have had one of our best years, if not the best, in 11 years of being Growing Opportunities.

One more thing to add to the growing ‘To Do’ list when I return to work tomorrow, that now includes a major new project in a new part of the borough with an already growing list of funders, and meetings with other public, private and third sector organisations to try to unlock more funding to develop it.  Oh, and I’m part time, as are the two development managers!