It’s Small Charities Week this week, a week that aims to celebrate and raise awareness of the work that small charities deliver and the impact we have.
Being a small charity that delivers programmes for working-class young people, staffed by working-class youth workers, it felt appropriate that we not only celebrated our work but shared some of our challenges this week. Naively I thought we could have a short discussion as a team and package up the challenges in a handful of pithy tweets, but the longer our conversation went on, the growing frustration our youth workers were experiencing around meeting the needs of our young people became clearer.
We work with brilliant young people across Greater Manchester. They shape and influence policy, lead campaigns, hold decision makers to account and get involved in joyful and challenging programmes. On our programmes they also get fed, they get wellbeing calls and check-ins, they get signposted to other services and they have a connection to our youth workers long after the programmes have ended.
After over a decade of austerity that’s decimated youth provision and other frontline services, on top of serving communities that have long existed in a survival economy, our youth work programmes are becoming less and less about building young working-class leaders and more about plugging holes left by growing inequality in the UK.
One unfortunate success measure we can use to tell if our programmes are effective or not is the amount of welfare or safeguarding disclosures our young people make to us. Building those long term relationships where a young person feels safe, supported and aware of their own agency when it comes to disclosures takes time, skill and resource. It‘s the bread and butter of effective youth work, but it’s often under valued and unmeasurable when it comes to bidding for funding. Funded programmes are driven by outcomes - the number of consistent participants, the reach of the campaigns the young people run etc, but when so much of our time is taken up meeting the basic needs of our young people so they can get through the door, that’s sometimes what success looks like for us.
In some recent research with RECLAIM, Dr Elizabeth Ackerly identified the strong relationships between the staff team and young people helped sustain our young people’s engagement in activism and our programmes. However, this is often undermined by staff turnover due to short term contracts which are a product of the competitive funding landscape and tight turnaround and delivery time for funding bids.
“...I think funders don’t realise the impact that has on young people and I think especially with a lot of working-class young people there’s always knockbacks within their lives, so consistency is a massive massive thing and if the consistency isn’t there I think it can do worse damage going in and parachuting out than not at all.”
(RECLAIM Staff Member)
We run youth programmes with a purpose, we want young working-class people leading change. But if there’s no recognition of the economic and social landscape we operate in and the additional pastoral support that takes, we effectively become (a much needed) frontline service. For us, there’s success in consistency. Youth services have been cut by nearly 70% since 2010. Inequality has deepened and our communities are under-resourced. To get young working-class people on our programmes in a way that begins to address some of the damage caused by austerity, inequality and destructive policies, pastoral provision needs to be as valued as the programmatic outcomes themselves. The current funding culture doesn’t always allow for small charities like ours to build the infrastructure required to meet the needs of our young-people in a way that recognises the current climate they’re existing in.
Even if youth provision gets a huge cash injection from the state and a raft of new policies and schemes, the damage done is well rooted and the landscape isn’t changing any time soon. If we want our youth programmes to really challenge the status quo, we need to be able to deliver a sustainable and autonomous pastoral offer alongside them.