Clinks CEO Anne Fox spoke to Pat McArdle, CEO of Mayday Trust, about her experience of leading a radical change in Mayday Trust, not just in how they delivered support, but in how the entire organisation thought, acted and responded to make sure Mayday was person-led and that the focus of the work recognised that the problem was the system not the people.
Mayday Trust works alongside people going through some of the toughest life transitions, including people experiencing homelessness, leaving care, coming out of prison, or experiencing emotional distress. As an organisation, Mayday has undergone a transformation from being a conventional service provider in the social care sector to a pioneer in challenging the systems available to people experiencing tough times.
Pat spoke at our Annual Conference in June 2020. Watch her contribution and read her conversation with Anne below.
You say you have transformed Mayday from a traditional supported housing provider to a UK influencer for systemic change - how did that all start?
Well we certainly had no idea where we were going when we started out.
In 2011, Mayday Trust was a traditional supported housing charity. We had 70 staff, £4m turnover and provided 240 units of accommodation. I was brought in as CEO to look at mergers and acquisitions. The Board of Trustees saw that we were 100% state funded and things were going to change due to austerity. We used the phrase - this isn’t a rainy day, this is climate change. We came very close to a merger but at the last minute we took a look to see if we could do anything more mission focused. At the time, we estimated that 70% of the people living with us would not have a service in the future. While I would like to say that we started from a point of seeing that things were wrong, actually austerity was the driver. I’m glad to say that very soon the mission became the purpose.
In 2011 we did something that we hadn’t ever done before - we really listened to people. We had loads of conversations. We didn’t ask questions or have focus groups, we sat on the street, allowed people to tell us what they wanted to and then we reflected on those conversations. A number of key themes emerged and then over the last nine years, we transformed every aspect of the organisation as a result of what we heard.
So what did you hear?
What we heard was very powerful and we continue to use what we call our ‘wisdoms’, gained from deep listening to multiple conversations, to direct our work.
Back then two things stood out:
- When you become homeless the system is humiliating, embarrassing, intrusive and shaming. It is retraumatising at best and institutionalising at worst.
- The results supported housing organisations were getting weren’t good enough. Too few people move out of services to maintain happy lives.
We learned that many people are in supported housing because there isn’t any other way to get a roof over their head. The cost of supported housing is over £4 billion annually. But a lot of people coming out of prison told us that the high rent in supported housing stopped them getting on with life, prevented them getting a job, or to have contact with their family.
We also learned how people are pathologised and labelled with a mental health problem, when actually many are having a very understandable response to their situation. For an organisation, the mental health label can be a survival strategy – if I can show we work with people with mental health problems I might be able to cover my funding gap. But the impact on the person, as an extra label, can make it even harder both practically and psychologically to get out of the system.
People told us about the nature of the support – often not personalised but standardised to reach the lowest common denominator. We learned that many people were worn down by the system and had lost hope and motivation.
So how did you respond to what you’d heard and start the journey to where you are today?
The journey to delivering a person-led response has not been an easy one.
In 2012 we brought all the staff together. I can remember it well. It was a cold snowy February day. Everyone was there and presented our ideas for trying out a new way of working. We were going to go over all of our policies, procedures and operating guidelines and based on what people told us, we were going to respond differently. We didn’t expect everyone to be up for this, so we wanted to be honourable and we offered redundancy. 50% of the staff left. It was terrifying – and that was just the beginning.
The board made a decision that we would have two strategic aims: we would only work in areas where we could treat people as people and we would share what we had learned.
What this meant in reality was:
- We moved out of Warwickshire and Bedfordshire and we started our Personal Transitions Service (PTS) in Oxford and Westminster.
- We had to dispose of 50% of housing stock (120 units).
- Moving away from three major contracts, including one five year contract, which we had recently purchased a £1.5m property for, for people with mental ill health. Our new thinking was about not putting people with a label under one roof, so we had to sell it and give back the contract.
- 100% board turnover – we were becoming something different and although the existing board were supportive, they didn’t feel they were the right people.
- We moved away from service user involvement strategies - we didn’t want to collude with building people’s problem identity and trapping people in services.
- At a time when most organisations were batting down the hatches, we invested over £1m of our reserves to fund the cost of truly delivering people-led work. We also attracted an additional £3.5m funding without using pity stories.
How did the organisation change and the culture change?
We developed a new person-led, transitional, strength-based (PTS) response to tackling tough times. The PTS works with the belief that tough times should be a brief transition in a person’s life, not an identity and certainly not a life sentence.
To deliver the PTS, we had to:
- Change the language – no more othering and no more them and us, so we stopped using ‘client’, ‘customer’ or ‘service user’. We set up a Mayday group that kept endless debate going on about the language we use. The group soon dissolved and it became all our responsibility to continually debate the language we use.
- We moved from a performance culture to a focus on listen, learn, reflect, adapt. Meetings aren’t about funder outcomes but holistic reflections on the work; coaches have more autonomy; our website does not have pictures of people - we don’t fundraise using what we call ‘pity stories’; and board members carry much higher levels of risk. There isn’t one rock in the organisation that hasn’t been turned over and the only constant is change.
What are the key things you have learnt about systems over the last nine years?
We saw the damage that the system creates:
- The continual focus on weaknesses means people lose hope and motivation
- The repeated ‘fixing’ means people become disconnected from what they’re good at
- Segregation means that a person’s sense of identity and status is all within services, so it is a huge psychological leap to get out
- Labelling and pathologising means people in the system can’t find a vision of a better life – they only see their lifelong condition.
Over the past nine years we learnt there is a disconnect between what is needed and what is provided. Organisations focus on people’s individual problems, while systemic problems are ignored. We need to listen to people who are saying, “I’m not depressed - I’m poor, there is no work” or “I have not got bi-polar - I was raped” or “I haven’t got anger issues - I just need a flat, I’m frustrated”.
The dominant problem today isn’t the people with complex needs, the problem is a broken system. What we see is that the solution to homelessness, to many mental health problems and to successfully rehabilitating people from prison, cannot be found in Finland or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, but in walking in people’s shoes.
The person says, “If you gave me a decent home where I could see my daughter I might be tempted not to drink”. The system says, “If you stop drinking then you will be able to get out of this hostel”.
Systems don’t just need tweaking – we don’t just need health to talk to criminal justice, or homelessness to talk to mental health – we need to listen to the collective voice of people in the system and take our lead from there.
At Mayday Trust, we learnt not to assume that people need more, better or more efficient services. Services need us to listen and respond appropriately, allowing people to take more control over their life themselves.
This poem explains it best:
If the system could talk
When I manage and control your life, you become my risk.
When I manage and control your life, I need outcomes so I need you to comply with my idea of morality for you- you will not drink, you will work, you will sustain your accommodation, you will not use drugs,
When I manage and control your life, I cannot afford to give you choice or say
When I manage and control your life, I will determine what your problems are, I will not ask you and I am not interested in what you can manage yourself
When I manage and control your life, you will be rewarded when you comply and share your story widely with gratitude so you help me raise funds to manage and control the lives of others
When I manage and control your life, you will be owned by me and never leave
A note about Clinks' events and training programme
Clinks runs a varied events and training programme, which at the moment is being delivered online. Find out more here.
After much deliberation, we have decided not to run a second part of our annual conference. When we made the initial decision to change the theme and split it into two parts, we did not realise how much worse the Covid-19 situation would get, nor how long the unpredictable nature of working life would continue within the sector. It no longer feels appropriate to hold a second part, and we are just planning to hold our conference as usual sometime in the financial year 2021-22.
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