Having support from the very top of Thames Reach – the Board of Trustees – was invaluable to the inception and development of GROW.
Thames Reach has a strong, stable, and highly competent Board. Most of its non-executive members work outside the housing/homelessness/social care sectors.
One relatively unusual aspect for a third sector Board – although far more common in the commercial sector – is that the Chief Executive and the Director of Operations are co-opted as executive Board members.
The relative independence of the non-executive Board members from day-to-day homelessness work was a crucial factor in the decision to develop user-employment in Thames Reach.
The Board’s support has been invaluable. Luckily, they saw user employment as a ‘no brainer’ and needed no encouragement or persuasion to sign-up. Indeed, particularly in the early days, they kept the issue on the agenda and kept the pressure on senior managers to ensure that Thames Reach took action. Without this, progress would probably have been slower, and may even have petered out.
Achieving organisational culture change requires leadership and clear vision. Whilst it is sometimes sufficient, in a third sector organisation, for this to come primarily from the senior management team, it is stronger and more persuasive when it comes from the very top. At Thames Reach, we were fortunate that there were no ‘doubters’ at Board level.
In 2003, the Board read a new report about a bursaried visit to New York that a small group of senior managers from the London homelessness sector, including Thames Reach’s Chief Executive and Director of Operations, had just taken part in. The report, Tackling Homelessness - the New York Experience (London Housing Foundation, 2003) [PDF - ]described the high levels of user employment within homelessness agencies there, and the Board was surprised that this was not mirrored in the UK.
Even closer to home, the non-executive Board members were bemused that their own organisation was not employing homeless people. How could an agency that had encouraged peoples’ involvement, influence, and empowerment since its inception have such a poor record at directly employing its own service users? And what were the homelessness sector’s reasons for holding such widespread objections to user employment?
Most Board members had assumed that user employment was commonplace in Thames Reach and beyond. They were quite shocked to learn otherwise. As one of the non-executive Board members asked at the time, “What do you think would happen to the NHS if it didn’t employ its own users?”
From this point onwards, there was almost instant and unanimous agreement at Board level, amongst executive and non-executive Board members, that Thames Reach should tackle and resolve the user employment issue. Board members have since provided unequivocal support for the development and implementation of GROW, encouraging senior management and front-line staff to innovate, and ensuring that sufficient resources have been made available to meet the GROW project’s objectives.