Charities can be vitally important to people’s recovery, but there has not been enough progress towards making sure charities’ work is truly shaped by Experts by Experience, who need to be engaged meaningfully. Larger charities will sometimes subcontract to grassroots organisations when working with underserved communities. Too often though they do not enable what is needed by that community, but merely what is wanted by the subcontracting organisation.

This is not good enough. In the future, charities need to work in the spirit of collaboration, not competition, and support grassroots organisations who are mostly led by Expert by Experience. In our Community Mental Health Unit, we try to be the stewards of the system – building alliances, allocating micro grants, encouraging innovation, taking on risks that smaller charities can’t, and giving a voice to as diverse a population as possible.

Charities have always reached deep into their communities. Grapevine are doing wonderful work in Coventry, supported by The Kings Fund, in which they’ve brought together people from the whole community over three days, including the vicar, community groups and people from the community centre. These are the true ‘mental health workers’. For an Expert by Experience, isolated and depressed, the smile from their postman made their day. What emerged as important to people wasn’t necessarily about mental health services but the value of connection.

Handing over Power

The pandemic saw traditional hierarchical structures challenged. We need to build on this momentum. We’re slowly progressing up the Ladder of Co-Production from the early days of ‘informing’, but the future needs to see Experts by Experience ‘leading’.

Experts by Training need to understand that they may be holding power that they don’t even realise they have. It can be intimidating to challenge a ‘Chief Executive’ or a ‘Doctor’, so this needs to be considered in ways of working.

In Coventry, as part of the NHS Community Mental Health Transformation, they have set up a ‘Design Authority’, which is a group of Experts by Experience who support and inform community mental health transformation. The Design Authority are embraced as equal partners and involved in every single workstream. By co-chairing, joint bid-writing, being on interview panels, influencing recruitment, and feeding back on and informing training packages, they are integral to the redesign. The Trust invests in the Design Authority with training and work coaches to build confidence in challenging Experts by Training and managing workload. The Trust recently hired an Expert by Experience to help develop a Lived and Life Experience Workforce, which is a strategic and highly influential position.

This is a challenging time for charities and the communities they work with. The worst thing you can do is retreat into old ways of working. ‘You don’t know what you don’t know’, so now is the time to share power with Experts by Experience to get deeper insights to make greater impact.

During the pandemic, funders started to take more risks and money flew faster with less bureaucracy, benefitting the charitable sector. Funders have the power to influence change and champion charities that genuinely engage with their communities. We very much hope and predict that this will be the future.

The time is now to embrace what we’ve learnt from the pandemic, to stand firm and resist going back to our old ways of working and to proactively engage with the challenges of today and what lies ahead for humanity.

Read the full article about community power in philanthropy by Helen Garnham at NPC.