Lois Nolasco, one of Home-Start’s valued trustees, who retired earlier this year from her role, tells us about her Home-Start journey.
So grab yourself a cuppa and 20 minutes to read this interesting story of Lois’ journey. It provides some wonderful history and background about our charity that we are pleased to be able to share with you…
A bumpy journey but well worth it!
In 2006 I was asked to serve as a trustee for Home-Start Royston and South Cambridgeshire (HSRSC). I wasn’t sure. Recently retired, I had plans and other charitable interests and didn’t really need new commitments. While I had relevant experience, my previous focus had been in the field of education, and I was conscious that I knew little about families in need, the associated agencies, or Home-Start and its services.
Was I right for the role? Curiosity took me to interview and ultimate appointment, and here 15 years later I have just retired from the role. It’s been a most fascinating, engaging, challenging and enlightening experience that has provided me with at least as many rewards, as I hope I have made contributions. So how and why did I become hooked?
2006-2007: A learning curve and a property search
I spent much of this period listening, learning, getting to know colleagues, attending Home-Start UK (HSUK) training, and understanding the charity’s objectives, protocols, services, sources of funding and challenges. Rapidly I became impressed by the dedication, professionalism, care, compassion and team spirit demonstrated by all involved, whether Volunteers, Trustees or Staff. I saw exemplary standards of management and governance, and at the first AGM I attended, the real impact of HSRSC’s services was movingly brought home to me by the testimony of a family in receipt of a volunteer.
Having a regular income from statutory sources in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, tight management and very committed staff and trustees, the charity was comfortable. The only real problem was the office – a tiny room in Royston Health Centre. Its ability to accommodate 3 or 4 desks, storage for many bits of equipment and a welcoming atmosphere for visitors was extraordinary. However, miraculously managed and stoically tolerated by staff though it was, it was simply too small. There was an absence of crucial confidential meeting space, and it severely limited the charity’s development potential. Finding new premises at suitably low cost within the catchment area was a priority and a big challenge for the Trustees, and it took some time to solve.
2008-2011: A hammer blow
HSRSC finally moved to its current office in Meldreth in 2008. Albeit on a turkey farm, it provided the much-needed space for development. This boosted morale at a time when more demanding referrals were appearing. It was also a time of change with new staff, trustees and significantly, a new Chair who brought much relevant experience to the role. HSRSC attained 100% in HSUK’s Quality Assurance inspection, challenges seemed manageable and the outlook was good.
Then a hammer blow struck. Government Austerity provoked changes in local government funding. Suddenly statutory funding from Cambridgeshire, which had been allocated automatically annually, had to be tendered for. The process was majorly stressful and time-consuming for staff and trustees, and the ensuing unexpected failure of our tender, resulting in half our annual funding disappearing overnight, was a seismic shock. It was also abundantly clear that Hertfordshire’s funding would be similarly withdrawn before long.
The Trustees were faced with a huge new challenge – how to raise £50k annually to replace the Cambridgeshire funding, and ultimately over £100k annually when Hertfordshire followed suit. Although costs were well controlled we now needed a more draconian approach to ensure HSRSC’s future, so with huge regret, the thriving Family Group in Cambourne had to close. Demands on staff and trustees increased significantly as everyone pulled together to save money, whilst maintaining standards. Fundraising, previously a peripheral volunteer-led activity raising around £2k a year for small ‘treats’ for HSRSC families, such as a pantomime trip, suddenly became central to the charity’s survival, and we had virtually no expertise to address the scale of it. The Trustees formed a Funding Development Group and, with the help of a new Scheme Manager and the many skills amongst the Trustees, it embarked on a demanding new learning curve.
2012-2014: Closing the gap
Fortunately, Hertfordshire continued its funding for a while, and we had reserves to fall back on, which helped us take stock and plan new ways of working. Until then service delivery at a level afforded by the statutory funding had been the overriding primary focus. Now service delivery had to sit alongside a completely new skill area – a more business-like approach to raising income. One could not exist without the other.
As always the team pulled together; professional advice was sought, training was undertaken, and gradually business management skills developed in new areas aimed at raising money such as:
- bid writing to Trusts and Foundations,
- diversification of income streams,
- running higher income-generating events,
- establishing partnerships with local companies,
- seeking help from the community,
- increasing donations and GiftAid and more.
Slowly the efforts began to bear fruit and the funding gap began to close.
2015-2016: Standing alone
Hertfordshire funding was eventually withdrawn in 2015, by which time it was clear that financial pressures were affecting HS Schemes across the country. Encouraged by HSUK many Schemes, including those in Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire began to explore mergers to save costs. HSRSC participated fully and open-mindedly in the ensuing consultations in both counties, but in the end, it was the unanimous view of the Trustees and Staff that families in our catchment area, the SG8 postcode area spanning the Cambridgeshire-Hertfordshire border, would be significantly disadvantaged by its peripheral position in relation to both merged Schemes. It was a brave and bold decision to continue to stand alone amid HS mergers across the country, but one that the Trustees, Staff and Volunteers did not live to regret.
The challenges posed by standing alone galvanised the team to plan for a more sustainable future, to further improve the fundraising strategy, to set challenging targets, and to invest in additional staff and more up-to-date technology to support greater efficiency, and more extensive engagement with the community, and with referrers. We took a decision to expand service delivery into Buntingford, which had been left somewhat isolated as a result of the Hertfordshire Schemes’ merger.
Under the leadership of a new Scheme Manager, a second Family Group was set up there. Gradually new families were referred, new volunteers were recruited and trained, the local councils recognised the value of the service, and our Scheme name was changed to Home-Start Royston, Buntingford and South Cambridgeshire (HSRBSC).
The Scheme was growing and developing. The decision to stand alone had been justified, and addressing the challenges involved led to an even more tightly-knit and mutually supportive team. Gradually the investment in better technology, a presence on social media, and the appointment of staff dedicated to aspects of fundraising was achieved. There were glitches, fears and disappointments along the way, but the determination and the team spirit to ensure HSRBSC survived always triumphed, and increasing successes led to a slicker more business-orientated operation without ever compromising service delivery.
2020-2021: Just another little challenge!
The confidence gained from facing so much change and challenge with success, allowed the team to slide apparently seamlessly into coping with the unprecedented bombshell of a pandemic. The mainstay of HS volunteer support for families, namely face-to-face contact, was swept away at a stroke, as were many of the tried and tested ways of raising money. However, the well-practised astute management and adaptability of the team, coupled with the familiar creativity and determination in the face of challenge, brought not only survival but the best fundraising year ever, and a team ready and waiting to serve the inevitable and steadily increasing post-pandemic referrals with the same indomitable professionalism and energy as ever.
And so ended my service as a trustee. Fifteen years of contributing to a great team with rich and varied skills and knowledge, that has overseen the development and modernisation of an unquestionably valuable local charity, often in the face of unsettling stresses and threats. It’s been a privilege to contribute, and hopefully, I have helped, but it has by no means been a one-way street. I too have grown and developed, gaining new knowledge and skills, having fun in taking on fundraising challenges that I might never have otherwise done and meeting interesting new people with whom it has been a pleasure to work and share ideas.
Have you got what it takes to be a Home-Start trustee?
If you are thinking of becoming a trustee or a family volunteer, go for it! It’s a challenge. It requires a few hours of your time each week. Sometimes there are bumps in the road. But it’s also richly rewarding. You will gain at least as much as you give, and you’ll be helping to secure the future of a vital local charity to be proud of.