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Meeting of minds

Meeting of minds
21 October 2015

Working with the voluntary sector can be a bonus when buying care for your population as it has invaluable insight to local needs

Working with the voluntary sector can be a bonus when buying care for your population as it has invaluable insight to local needs

Commissioners are clearly faced with a complex and daunting task in implementing the NHS Five Year Forward View. The Forward View recognises that to change health services in order to meet the needs of the future, new partnerships with local communities and users of health and care services is neccessary. As part of this, it calls for the NHS to improve its understanding of charities and voluntary organisations, and the services they provide.
The King’s Fund works with charities through the annual GSK (GlaxoSmithKline) Impact Awards, which are funded by GSK and run in partnership with The King’s Fund. The awards recognise and reward organisations that work to improve people’s health and wellbeing. We also manage a unique learning network, the GSK Impact Awards Network, for more than 60 previous winners, providing ongoing development opportunities and a way for them to share their experiences. This work gives us insights into innovative work of the sector.  

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Voluntary organisations
So, what makes these organisations so important to local health and care services? In simple terms, they deliver services that the public sector cannot. An example of this is Restore, last year’s GSK Impact Awards overall winner, which helps people with mental health issues to maintain or secure employment, including those with severe and enduring mental health problems who will struggle to remain in work. Lack of employment is associated with the onset or recurrence of mental health issues so by supporting people in this way, it aids recovery and supports the work of statutory mental health services.
What characterises Restore and the other voluntary organisations is their ability to align the services they provide to the ambitions of commissioners reaching out to marginalised individuals, groups and communities. For example, Leicestershire AIDS Support Services (LASS), another winner, provides rapid HIV testing, support, information and advocacy for those affected by the disease in one of the most diverse areas in England. To slow down the spread of HIV and help people to access treatment, they provide rapid testing, particularly in African communities (in Leicestershire), where uptake is low. Testing at African football tournaments is one innovative way they have done this.1
Voluntary sector organisations also have strong ties with the users of their services, understanding their needs and challenges. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, for example, supports 10,000 women online and at regular regional meetings with 400 volunteers, while raising the profile of the disease and understanding it. Service users are central to their work and there is a sharing of experience and support that gives the organisation an in-depth understanding of the issues the women face.
Good relationships between commissioners and the voluntary sector can be hampered by differences in language, understanding and approaches. Taking time to develop relationships can be hard when faced with urgent competing priorities, but the benefits are clear.
But how can commissioners build stronger relationships with voluntary organisations? In our experience there are two things that are particularly important.  

1. Create and take opportunities to talk in a different context
‘Do the same, get the same’ – it’s a simple logic but it is true. If you assume the voluntary sector is a part of the problem then it will be. Assume it’s a part of your solution and it can be. Approaching discussions with the voluntary sector as two opposing sides tends to lead to confrontation rather
than co-creation of solutions. But this requires work.
A recent GSK Impact Awards Network workshop brought network members together with local commissioners to discuss local priorities.
The conversations were open, demonstrating respect and a willingness to approach things differently. It focused on trying to understand each other, rather than finding agreement.
Such an approach, based on informed empathy, can have a significant impact if it’s used in contract and planning meetings.  

2. Exploit the fact that the voluntary sector think and act differently
The voluntary sector does not have a monopoly on thinking and doing things differently. However, they tend to operate and plan in a less hierarchal context.
Asking an experienced voluntary sector leader to explain their skills and approach can therefore be a powerful addition to strategic planning. These conversations can help commissioners harness the potential of the sector as partners and bring them closer to patients and communities.
This is just two ways to develop these relationships. The voluntary sector is a huge resource that can be engaged with intelligently, when the emphasis is on building good relationships. As the Forward View makes clear, this should be a high priority for commissioners.

David Naylor, senior consultant in leadership development at The King’s Fund.

1 LASS. Case study: know your HIV status football tournament. 2011. (accessed 11 September).

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