Growing a good idea in the voluntary sector

1 Sep 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 1 Sep 2017

The Lord Mayor of Belfast visited CLARE last month
The Lord Mayor of Belfast visited CLARE last month

Community and voluntary work is done best at a local level. This makes scaling up a tricky prospect – but it is not impossible.

Scaling up community or voluntary organisations is difficult business.

Best practice for these groups now goes further than merely tailoring services to a given local community; things work best when that community is directly involved from the start, helping turn a concept into something tangible.

So, when trying to scale, the problem is not simply one of accounting for a few differences between one area and another. Instead, local people – including potential service users – need to help drive any new initiative from the beginning.

That sort of buy in needs engagement; this can be complicated, although helpful, when there are already existing services that complement what is being proposed. Replication is, of course, to be avoided; partnership working is better than private-sector style rivalry – but this is something the sector does well.

So, scaling is difficult. On the other hand, if you have a generally good idea, then you should share it.

CLARE (Creative Local Action, Responses & Engagement) is a successful voluntary organisation based in North Belfast.

CLARE enables older people and other vulnerable adults live in the community by helping them access existing services (such as attending health appointments, getting to the bank, but also engaging socially such as with lunch clubs), provides practical help in the home, and offers a befriending service. All of this helps people maintain their independence and reduces social isolation.

It does this using local people as volunteers – with these volunteers getting the opportunity to develop skills for themselves.

It started off in Mount Vernon and has since moved to cover more of the north of the city. Now it wants to roll out into areas of need across Belfast.

What and why

Scope spoke with CLARE’s Mandy Cowden about their plans to extend what their organisation does – and what this actually means.

“You need a clear idea of what exactly you are trying to scale up. We asked ‘what is the essence of CLARE, what is it that we are looking to grow?’ – and, for us, it is that relationship between social work and the community, using community assets, and working from the community upwards.”

The organisation believes in what it does, and that is why it is looking further afield. However, once you do that, it is natural – and necessary – to try and define what a successful scaling would look like.

However, this brings an extra complication. For the third sector, success is not always easy to pin down. Bottom lines are not reducible to a simple number.

“I’ve looked at what helps scaling in the private sector, and it doesn’t work simply for an organisation like ours, but even something that isn’t necessarily measured by profit, like a medical intervention, can be much more straightforward. You do all your clinical tests, prove something works, and then you can replicate it. Business is similar to that – take a model, look at profit margins by factoring in new costs, and then scale it.”


Taking all the above into account, it is clear that a huge amount of groundwork needs to be done before any voluntary organisation rolls its services out elsewhere.

To that end, CLARE has compiled a report based on discussions with potential partner organisations in West, South and East Belfast – measuring the enthusiasm about an expansion, asking about how CLARE could best complement existing services, as well as looking into possible obstacles, including replication.

The feedback has been positive.

“We don’t want people to think is a takeover bid, that we want to take over the whole of Belfast with replications of CLARE.

“We want to share our framework, share our model but also have it so that when it scales to West Belfast or South Belfast that it is reflective of the local community.”

These conversations are ongoing, and they do not stop there.

The nature of CLARE, particularly the fact that one of its primary services is assisting individuals who are in danger of becoming isolated to access existing services, means good collaboration is essential, both with other charities and also health trusts and other statutory agencies.

However, they consider their clients to be their primary partners.

“We have spoken with voluntary and community organisations, and we are now halfway through doing more one-to-one conversations with people who may want to use our services.

“In any given area we need to know not just that there should be a need for our services, but also the nature of that need.

“You need those people in the community to tell you what they need to stay healthy and happy and connected.”

Health and reform

CLARE is a not a health organisation, per se, but clearly a lot of its work falls under this remit. It works closely with the Belfast Trust and it helps its service users get to medical appointments, and also connects them with third sector health services, for example the Alzheimer’s Society or Hearing Dogs for Deaf People.

The work CLARE does also happens to fit precisely into the planned new structures for Health and Social Care – a system that will focus on prevention and early interventions, that will be based in the community, promote independence, and have the home as the main hub for care.

“The timing is perfect, when you look at Delivering Together, and all the opportunities and also challenges it brings. The community will be asked to deliver on both early interventions and prevention.”

But Ms Cowden is also clear that there should be support here for the third sector.

Health reform is not about cutting costs, it is about structural reform, and value for money from services – so therefore it really involves savings and reallocations.

Ms Cowden says there should definitely not be “asset stripping” of voluntary organisations, and they should receive extra support when extra burdens placed on them get good results for the trusts.

This support can then be used to expand or consolidate the sector, which is never flush with cash, and where issues such as recruitment of volunteers are vital.


A key part of the CLARE model, one that helps tie everything together, is their computer system, which tracks the needs of individual clients and results in a large amount of data that can be used both to analyse demand and also provide a record of all the work that has been done.

It records what is needed for each client – what needs they have, specific upcoming appointments, etc – and also keeps track of the interventions that have been provided to them.

This provides significant and obvious benefits by supporting frontline services, but it also shows the contributions from different sectors and organisations that provides a picture of how the whole system of community health and wellbeing support is working together.

As it happens, it is also a smaller scale version of what will eventually be necessary to make the reformed health system work.

This system is a crucial pillar of CLARE’s vision for what their roll out should be.

“We have a framework that is able to show how much community work is involved, how much social work is involved, and how many people they help get to appointments. By rolling this out, we will provide all this data that shows the system working, and how it is all working together.”

Ultimately Ms Cowden wants to share the CLARE model, and computer system, and to see it working independently in local areas.

“There will be a lot of organisations doing similar or related work. We don’t want to replicate that. What we are saying is that all that work needs to pull together, now more than ever, when there will be all these demands for significant interventions.

“Our vision is that, if we get the funding, we would set up individual CLAREs across Belfast. We would have program managers who would support them we would get their IT equipment.

“We want to step back. We have a model to share, we believe in that model because we have seen that it works, and we have a computer system that facilitates the work.”

Scaling is ambitious, and a difficult process, while community and voluntary organisations work best when they are local. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that good ideas cannot grow.

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