Saturday, July 30, 2011

Working with our beneficiaries

Having an interview certainly does stimulate my thinking.  One of the questions that is often asked at an interview for voluntary sector jobs is about user-involvement.  This can be a bit tricky especially if you are a user-involvement cynic like myself.  

If you have money you can buy services and if you don't like them no-one expects you to then answer questions about why you don't like the services and what would have made them better.  No-one expects you to get involved in user events or to sit on a committee.  You just take your money elsewhere.

For public and voluntary sector provision there is a lot known about what makes a good service - there's loads of good practice and you can pay people to give you advice about specialist subjects.  If there was £5,000 going spare would you rather spend it on some user-involvement event or on delivering some more services?  I know which one I'd choose.  When the choice made is user-involvement, more professionals get employed and money gets taken from front-line services.  

My view is close to heresy.  So when asked about user-involvement I talked about the difference between user-involvement and being user-led, which was the specific question, and then talked about the difference between users and beneficiaries.  Every charity has to have beneficiaries and it is hoped that service users are a sub-set of these - but there are likely to be many more potential beneficiaries than actually receive services.  So who are those people, how do we know what they want, are they not using services because they don't want to or because they can't?  And are they more needy than the people who actually use the service now?

If we think about our own communities we talk more in terms of democracy - that everyone should be involved in decision-making.  But what of those people who might want some involvement but either don't know we exist or can't get to us (travel difficulties or the wrong time) or into the building?  What about those who want something similar but slightly different - what might that mean?  How do we find out about these people?  How do we find out what they want?  How do we design something that suits them?

Comparing with services provided by the public or voluntary sectors there is less information available, very little good practice to draw from.  We need to gather data about what we do - what others do - and how well that works.  This is not about increasing the numbers of bottoms on pews but about meeting spiritual needs.  In this instance I am all for spending resources on finding out what people want because we don't know.  We know what people in our communities want - the actual 'service users' - but we don't know what others want (or need) - these are the remainder of our beneficiaries.

One of the things that we do do is to try new things - does this bring in new people or are we just providing something a little different to our existing community members?  It seems to me that we all need to commit to talking with people who have a liberal view on spirituality and who are not attending any church (or are unhappy with the church that they do attend) and to explore with them what they actually want, what they actually need.  For whilst people currently within our communities may be very happy with what is on offer this may not reflect the needs of those who potentially would benefit from what Unitarianism has to offer. 

And then how do we develop this body of knowledge and make it useful for others to both use and to add to?  As a rational faith we often seem quite irrational.  Let's see what works for others and take the best bits for ourselves.  I will say it again - we need a few models - this time about how to engage with a broader range of people.

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