By Ruairi White, Project Manager
This piece is the second in a series of NSUN staff blogs that aim to go deeper into specific areas of our thinking during our period of strategic reflection in the first half of 2022. This led to a new articulation of our priorities and direction.
Quite a lot of my first months at NSUN project-managing our Community Constellations work were spent trying to explain my new job to people. My go-
In a traditional understanding of the charity sector, an infrastructure organisation sits in the space between organisations acting to change things and decision-makers like funders and government. The idea is that the infrastructure organisation helps its members to influence more powerful decision-makers
, and helps decision-makers reach its members. Because of the relationships it brokers, change happens. It might also offer members access to stuff they wouldn’t otherwise get, like training, support, consultancy, networks, advice and access.
Realistically, though, it’s complicated. Take ‘capacity building’, for instance. I think the idea of capacity building is a good one: it’s about acknowledging systemic challenges and coming up with long-term solutions and alternatives. But in practice in the charity sector, capacity building often looks like a management training session or a one size fits all template for a governing document or safeguarding policy. There’s value in these things, but they’re not long-term solutions. They have a cost: even if the training session you’re offering is free, there’s a time cost in choosing to go. And if everyone’s using the same cookie-cutter policy, where is the space for peer-led lived experience knowledge, cultural sensitivity and trust?
Most damningly, traditional capacity building models sometimes construct an imaginary world in which capacity can be magicked up without an investment of material resources – time, space and money.
Resources are the elephant in the room when it comes to infrastructure organisations. When you work in these in-between spaces, it’s easy to become a middleman or a gatekeeper, soaking up funding and oxygen in the space while claiming to be representing and serving members. At NSUN, we don’t want to grow our organisation indefinitely at the expense of our members. Instead, we want to be intentional about what we’re doing and constantly checking our decisions against our commitments to our members.
As well as the risk of taking up excess space, infrastructure organisations can also misrepresent their members. It would be very easy for us to style ourselves as the ‘acceptable’ voice of service users, survivors, people with lived experience of mental ill-health, distress, and trauma. But we’re not interested in playing those respectability politics or diluting the lived experience of our members and our staff team.
Instead, we want to redistribute power and resource to our members. Here are some of the approaches we’ve been trying out so far, and which we’re now committed to continuing:
Questioning awareness and visibility
We’re not here to make small groups ‘more visible’ to bigger institutions, funders and actors in this space, unless there’s a clear and useful demand tied to that visibility.
There’s no point having a high profile unless you’re also properly resourced to respond to the pressures that visibility brings: we’ve learned this from small user-led groups overwhelmed by referrals due to social prescribing, and it’s a dynamic that plays out elsewhere too.
When we ask questions like ‘what do user-led groups need?,’ we do so with a clear purpose: to move practical support and resources into the hands of our members.
NSUN is a small charity, but we’re bigger than most of our grassroots members: we have more resources and a firmer structure, so while we can’t do the things that user-led community groups can do, we’re resilient in ways they’re not able to be.
We should use our size and shape to take on risk for those groups because we can weather risk more easily. Some examples of how that works in practice are:
- Temporarily hosting organisations which would benefit from using us as a container to support their finance and governance structures
- Considering how, when we give funding, we can minimise and take on reporting burdens from grantees
- Giving voice to discussions that go against the direction of travel and received wisdom of the charity, mental health and other sectors, based on conversations we’ve had with our members
Traditional funding and capacity-building structures keep many of our member groups precarious, excluding them from funding streams due to capacity, funding, or evidence requirements. Over the past two years, we have expanded our work to include running grants programmes for our members. We want to meet groups where they are with flexible, accessible funding offered on the basis of mutual trust and alignment.
We will open a new fund in August 2022 which will be open to applications from small community groups building mutual, nourishing spaces.
We are also developing a ringfenced pot, funded by individual donations, which user-led groups will be able to apply to for those vital hard-to-fund small costs like Zoom accounts, publicity, art materials, etc.
As well as offering small grants, we will push bigger funders to fund user-led work properly and skilfully by modelling participatory and trust-based approaches.
User-led groups are the experts in what they do. There is a hidden curriculum of knowledge relating to how groups come together, what support works, and what their communities need. NSUN doesn’t need to reinvent that curriculum. Instead, we can create spaces for members to share and refine their knowledge together, in ways that might not be possible elsewhere.
The benefits of these spaces are that members don’t feel like they’re alone in the knowledge and experience they have, that they have access to peer networks of people who know what it’s like, and that they have people to join up with to test ideas and take action.
One of the challenges we’re setting ourselves is meaningfully linking these knowledge-sharing spaces with our policy work. We’re going to be trialling open member events – a mix of discussion spaces and workshops – to create more opportunities for connection and influencing.
Our Hosted Projects Coordinator, Alaina Heath, explains what hosting projects is and how it relates to our resourcing work:
“Hosting projects means using NSUN’s infrastructure to temporarily hold groups, giving them the space, time and resources to sustain themselves without the burnout that is so common within the grassroots space. Key to this is ensuring NSUN doesn’t take over or micromanage, with groups maintaining autonomy over what they do and the direction of their work.
When coming into a new role there can be lot of pressure to prove a high
–level of knowledge and expertise around a subject, however, as the hosted projects coordinator, I am constantly learning about different approaches to social justice and community wellbeing through the lens of mental health. For a long time, I have supported the idea that there can’t be one ‘expert’ or ‘leader’ when it comes to grassroots organising and movement building. However, getting to know those involved with the hosted projects, member organisations and other groups out there doing the work, I am understanding more and more that there are a myriad of ‘experts’ with incredibly valuable knowledge and skills, gained through their own experiences and challenges, in dealing with the specific needs of their communities.
Although I am still developing my relationships with hosted projects, it is already clear that they will be very different. I see my role as malleable and something that will constantly change over time depending on the groups and where they need support. I hope that, within NSUN’s hosting, I can relieve as much of the pressure and stress that comes with doing grassroots work so that hosted project groups can continue to do their valuable work.”
Committing to resourcing and redistribution is a declaration of trust in our members and their work. We will not be gatekeeping resources in the name of building power amongst people with experience of mental ill-health, distress or trauma. We encourage others in the mental health space, the charity sector, and other better-resourced organisations seeking to make material change today
, to consider how they can also shift their focus away from consolidating their own positions and towards redistributing power.