Thames Reach
Saturday 25 March 2017
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The role of the Board

Having support from the very top of Thames Reach – the Board of Trustees – was invaluable to the inception and development of GROW.

Photograph of a woman and man laughing
Ken Olisa, Chair of Thames Reach's Board, with Tina, a resident of Stafford House hostel

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.

"Two years ago the Board decided that calling on others to give homeless people the chance of a job was not enough. It was time to practice what we preach.

"GROW was founded to provide on-the-job training to homeless people – with support from supervisors and life coaches – so that they could compete for jobs on a level playing field.

"We have learned a great deal.

"Many homeless people want to work, but are turned away by agencies in the sector. One trainee said: 'I approached other organisations but they all said the same thing – I can’t apply until I have been re-housed for two years. I think it’s wrong.'

"People also do not want to be treated differently in the workplace. 'I feel more like a worker because I’m being treated equally.'

"But it can be a difficult journey. One trainee said: 'It is much harder than I thought it was going to be. There is so much paperwork and bureaucracy. It is hard to learn all this in nine months.'

"Not everyone will succeed in getting a traineeship or a permanent job. But the biggest challenge, and the biggest change, has been the culture within Thames Reach. Anxiety about conflicts of interest, inappropriate behaviour and lowering of standards is giving way to a realisation that homeless people in the workforce can succeed and that they bring added value.

“'It’s been such a positive experience having a trainee in the team,' said one manager. 'Him just being there and asking lots of questions has made us all think about the way we work. Our trainee’s enthusiasm and hunger for this work has encouraged us all to raise our game. He has helped the team to refocus on what is really important – our work with clients.'

"The lessons are profound and far reaching, not just for Thames Reach but for every other homeless agency in London. We are asking homeless people to take a difficult journey, and the agencies must be prepared to take one too."

Steve Wyler, Board member