Getting Real:  Prototyping a new kind of social sector support  

A little over 2 years ago now, I took a new job as CEO of Knowsley CVS (KCVS), a small local support organisation with the traditional dependency on local authority and lottery funding. My cross sector work experiences, combined with the realities of the austerity driven socio-economic conditions, led me to believe that we had an opportunity in Knowsley (now the second most deprived borough in England) to develop and deliver a ‘’new deal’’ for communities through uncommon, rather than traditional voluntary sector support.

Working with the KCVS team and other key stakeholders, we embarked on a journey of radical change that was underpinned by the shared belief that the world had fundamentally changed and was not going to return to either the pre austerity budgets or liberal agendas of previous decades. Our aim was to try to create a new type of local support service for social action, activities and organisations. One that was not dependent on local authority core funding or driven by government agendas. We knew we had to be brave enough to find a new way forward!

We committed to making our work ‘’real ‘’ for us, for Knowsley and in our own accountability as sector leaders. We now strive to frame all of our work against our purpose of inspiring local community and voluntary action through leadership and ingenuity, and we ensure all of our activity fits with our values of insight, authenticity and boldness. Our purpose and values are NOT rhetoric to guide a business plan, they are the living cogs that drive our charitable actions and activity and we measure all of our individual and corporate actions against them.

Our approach is totally asset based and is underpinned by an unshakeable belief that local voluntary and community action are inherently good things that can, and should, be used to drive positive social change and regeneration. Our team and stakeholders share a blinding passion and belief in ingenuity and authenticity as key tools to underpin our work.

As a small staff team working with a wide range of associates, we keep our overheads low which is helping us to be flexible in reacting to changing policy or economic agendas. We have been learning to use staff skills and capabilities in new ways in order to create living dynamic connections that can help to create positive sustainable models of sector engagement. We never miss an opportunity to talk about our passions and to build relationships! And that is a key part of what makes our work both enjoyable and worthwhile.

We call ourselves a prototyping charity and our business model is that of a learning organisation that builds upon ongoing feedback loops. We are very clear that we don’t have all the answers and we create processes that allow learning or ‘’failure’’ to be used as the levers for the next action, activity or conversation. THIS is our reality…. ongoing learning that is trying not to be afraid to ‘’ fail to learn. ‘’ This is not easy and requires constant awareness of our own dependency on traditional positive feedback as a key motivation as well as a constant process of trying to enable safety that allows honest feedback.

I have always believed in leadership as an action tool and that if it is to be meaningful …then it must be real and it necessarily should ensure honest conversations and genuine relationships.  This means we sometimes aren’t popular, because we tell the hard truths about both the need for change and the times when we believe that traditional good practice models no longer fit the bill. It also means acknowledging the time and investment required to create trusting relationships that allow for new kinds of collaboration.

We have learned a lot over the last couple of years. We have learned that while we need to take greater risks if we are to find better solutions, we also must balance that against being able to engage the imagination of funders and the community. We still need to learn how to exploit and grow current feedback loops in order to create even greater engagement and bigger impact. And it is a real challenge to explain who we are and where we are going to statutory partners, funders, even our own Directors at times, because we ARE a bit chimeric, we ARE prototyping and it is not a straightforward process!

It was a very natural fit with our insight model to partner with researchers and values experts in order to try to frame and define paradigms with regards to making inspiration happen, as well as to discover what local social value and activity actually looked like in real time.

An outcome of this work is our recently published report exploring the real experience of Social Value for social sector organisations in Knowsley. The report highlights the findings of a collaborative research project with the University of Liverpool Management School. Its aim was to provide KCVS with a greater understanding of the experiences of working in the voluntary and community sector in 2015, with particular focus on the impact of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012.

The key findings show a picture of a social sector in Knowsley that has belief and passion, a desire to make a positive difference, empathy, and a willingness to learn. BUT it is also a sector that is struggling to survive in an increasingly challenging world. There is a lot of firefighting that compromises long term planning and everything is underpinned by the constant search for funding.  It is vital for these organisations to be able to network, share and collaborate with peers.

The report clearly identified that there is a need for the support of organisations such as KCVS in order to navigate increasingly and constantly changing, socio-economic environments. The report also identifies important challenges for commissioners; they need to be clear about social value and ensure that the social sector can take full advantage of opportunities presented by the Act.

The research findings have provided both a validation of what we thought about the current status of social sector organisations in Knowsley, as well as highlighting sector support opportunities and gaps.

As part of our different way of working (as well as living our values) we committed to sharing this research freely, in the spirit of open data.  By doing so we hope to provide important knowledge and information to as many individuals and organisations across the country, in order to inspire and support voluntary and community action.

Our colleague Dr Clare Moxham, University of Liverpool has said “Collaborating in the design of the research with KCVS in this way ensured that the work was relevant, timely and has the potential to provide real benefit to the third sector in Knowsley.  We anticipate that the findings will be of interest to voluntary and community organisations across the UK, and that they will provide a platform for continued conversations about social value across wider stakeholder groups, including commissioners and third sector policy makers.”

We will use the report to inform our future work on social value, a nationally recognised specialism of the team.   It will also be used to start further conversations with the voluntary and community about how KCVS can support them in developing methods to prove their social value to commissioners.

Our journey is never going to be over…. a learning organisation that has think tank and innovation hub aspirations will always be looking for the next challenge and trying to learn from its local communities.  Part of our job is to share stories and learning, if you are interested we hope you will contact us.

We are fond of saying that KCVS may be among the first infrastructure organisations to tackle the current challenges, but we certainly won’t be the last. We really hope our work and insight can benefit others……to make it real.

A summary document and the full social value report can be downloaded from the KCVS website or a copy can be emailed on request to


Pamela S. Ball, CEO of Knowsley CVS (KCVS)

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