By Alex Fox, Mayday Trust CEO

Strengths-based, so what?

There is no shortage of organisations which claim their work is strengths-based, led by people and trauma-informed. Those ideas, all of which are about being people-shaped rather than system-shaped, have taken hold. They have been a positive force in public services and charities at a time when constant cuts are pushing services back towards one-size-fits-all models. This traditional approach can have a lower unit cost, but we know from experience it’s a poor fit with the complexity of our lives, particularly when we face lots of challenges at once.  

Like all successful ideas, they have been victims of their success as well. Organisations don’t always match their claims to be people-shaped with the values and behaviours that would make those claims true. Many don’t fully understand the ideas they lay claim to. Being strengths-based also means co-producing your work with people so that they decide what their strengths are and what’s important to them, not the organisation. It means engaging with people within their social context, their close relationships and their experiences of inequalities. It means enabling people to define themselves, and recognising that it may be the services around someone which need to change, rather than the individual.   

The Strengths-based Directory gathers some of the organisations which are thinking the most deeply and radically about strengths-based and relational working, and which are putting those ideas into practice. They are not perfect: like us at the New System Alliance, they recognise that strengths-based organisations are learning organisations, constantly reshaping what we do in response to what people tell us works – and doesn’t.  

The Directory aims to connect these organisations and to help funders and commissioners find their way through a world of innovation – which can be exciting and confusing in equal measure. The Directory comes with a structure and guide, which offers councils and NHS partnerships which are serious about a strategic approach to public service transformation a framework for their commissioning.  

The three main categories include Working with People, with organisations like the 999 Club which provides a friendly open door and support to anyone experiencing homelessness in Lewisham or Greenwich. 999 Club avoids offering help which stigmatises, segregates or labels people and instead recognises and empowers the humanity, strength and potential in us all, no matter the challenges of our current situation. In the youth sector, The Foyer Federation pioneers and leads a strengths-based approach called Advantaged Thinking that inspires, challenges and enables youth-supported housing projects to work with young people who can’t live at home to realise their power and purpose. Recovery Connections in the North East of England has a substance misuse recovery team which is mainly made up of people with their own lived experience of recovery. Foursquare embeds strengths-based thinking into its supported accommodation for young people and women who experience domestic abuse in Scotland.  Kirklees Better Outcomes Partnership, an outstanding alliance of eight specialist organisations, collaborating to empower and enable individuals at risk of homelessness to achieve their potential and live independent and fulfilling lives.

The second section focuses on working which is based with a particular community, including work in the arts, leisure and community development fields. Stay Up Late’s ‘Gig Buddies’ project matches people with learning disabilities, and autistic people, with a volunteer with the same interests, to enjoy mainstream cultural activities, with branches around the UK and worldwide. People who like the same music go to gigs together which they both enjoy. Grapevine helps people build power to spark movements for change in their communities. Through Connecting for Good, a movement against isolation in Coventry, Grapevine is working alongside and being led by the local community to create isolation-tackling initiatives.

The third section is for organisations which work at a national or cross-sector level, offering research or strategic support to organisations or whole sectors. The Relationships Project aims to build the emerging field of relationship-centred practice, connecting leaders who are putting relationships first and supporting organisations to embed relationship-centred practice in all that they do. Learning Disability England is creating a movement for change where people with learning disabilities, families, friends and paid supporters come together on an equal basis, which they believe is the only way to create a world where people with learning disabilities have good lives with equal choices and opportunities as others. New Local, an independent think tank, is on a mission to unlock community power, strengthen public services and help renew local government. It is doing so by uniting over 70 councils and other organisations in a drive to create sustainable and community-led public services, as well as exploring new ideas on some of the most pressing issues we’re facing today.

All these brilliant organisations are creating positive change and there are so many others out there doing the same. Through the Directory, we want to drive this change forward.

The Directory’s launch is just the start. We invite all organisations who are building their strengths-based, person-led and trauma-informed work to join us. If you are not sure that your work is ‘good enough’ yet, you may well have the humility, curiosity and desire to learn that would make you a great addition to the Directory  – join the club! 

We would also like to invite you to Team up for Good, a free online event taking place Good on Tuesday the 28th of November, 11-12.30pm. We will be bringing together three incredible organisations, representing each of the Directory categories; Work with People, Community Development and Strategic Support. Each organisation will provide an honest reflection of their work; the wins, the barriers and hopes for the future.

This is an event entirely focused on being inspired, connecting with others and learning. We want to celebrate the good stuff, explore what’s tough and see what’s possible for the future. We can’t wait to see you there.