Reasons to believe

The day’s final session heard from Tim Sampey of Build on Belief on the importance of self-determination

Tim SampeyService user involvement is something I’ve been doing for ten years and something I believe in very strongly,’ Tim Sampey of Build on Belief (BoB) told the conference. His organisation had been built up exclusively by service users, without professional involvement, he stressed.

Recovery should be enjoyable, he said, which was why one of the key elements of BoB was a social club. ‘I realised early on that there’s something about getting together and having fun, and I’m a service user so I say what service user involvement is. But you have to negotiate. I ended up sitting on the DAAT and I didn’t understand it, but we learned to negotiate.’

It was also vital not to be afraid to try something new, he stated. ‘Amateurs built the ark but professionals built the Titanic. Work as a team – control freaks kill. Some of the best things to have come out of BoB were done by other people.’

Services and commissioners were obliged to engage with service users, he told the conference. ‘What I didn’t realise for years and years and years was that they need us more than we need them. They have to have service user involvement – it’s written into their contracts. We hold all the cards.’

He had set up BoB because he was ‘tired of talking’, he said. ‘I didn’t want to be identified as an ex-addict. I wanted to be identified as a human being, and to do that you have to get back into the community. You need to give people a place to belong, friends around them and fun. BoB means getting yourself a life, and I’d die by that statement. My recovery belongs to me – I own it. If I mess it up I mess it up, but you may not tell me how to live.’

The vital thing was to ‘do it yourself’ and learn to take risks, he said. Anyone could access BoB, with 80-90 per cent of the organisation’s volunteers in recovery and the rest from the local community. ‘We built a family for ourselves. It wasn’t easy – it was hard, hard work. You need to get used to people getting in your face, to people not liking you. One of the weaknesses we sometimes have as a community is an attitude of “gimme, gimme, gimme”, so there’s something about just going away and doing it yourself, showing what you can do.

‘Stick with what you’re good at, stick with your strengths, and stick to your own principles,’ he urged. ‘The world is moving really fast, and the money in the treatment system is going down, but I believe you guys are the future. We’re the people who are going to do it, who are going to set up our own services. Raise your own money – it impresses people. We shouldn’t rely on handouts. And finally, stick to your own recovery – define it for yourselves. You can’t go around defining other people’s, and it won’t work if you do.’

Following on from his rousing speech at Make it Happen, Tim Sampey shares invaluable learning points from running an independent service user organisation.

BOB crewIn January ‘Build on Belief’ (BoB) officially launched our charity from the House of Lords. It was the culmination of a little over nine years hard work by more than 500 volunteers, who had designed, implemented and run their own independent service user organisation since 2005. BoB runs socially based weekend services and, lately, recovery cafés across West London, enabling a seven-day-a-week service provision in those boroughs.

A month later I was asked to speak at the DDN National Service User Conference on some of the things we had learned over the years about building and running an independent service user charity. I was delighted to be asked because I believe that service user involvement has changed the treatment system for the better and that peer-run projects are the future. So with that in mind, here are some of the things we’ve learned.

Independence: Although difficult to do, independence from service providers or the local authority is important. It allows the freedom to experiment, makes it easier to avoid being unduly influenced by the agenda of another organisation, and most importantly by far, empowers people to take control of their own service and their own lives.

No specific model of addiction or recovery: BoB does not differentiate between drugs and alcohol, and neither does it advocate any particular model of addiction or recovery. We believe that recovery is a profoundly personal viewpoint and therefore journey, and by taking a particular stance, you risk excluding those who do not agree with it. Therefore all models are valid, because, in essence, we see recovery quite simply as reintegration into society without dependence on a mind-altering substance. This did cause some interesting discussions between those of us who believe in total abstinence and those who do not, but we learned that we can work together far more effectively by agreeing to distinguish between our personal needs and beliefs and the greater journey we were collectively taking, which was the rebuilding of our lives to the point where we were happy and not controlled by our addiction.

Board of trustees: Don’t use your friends – it’s the road to hell! A good board of trustees (and BoB is blessed with a beauty!) have skills, experience, knowledge and contacts that you do not, enabling the organisation to grow and develop. They are there to guide, support and if necessary challenge you, not be your mates. The clue is in the name ‘trustee’. Trust in them to trust in you and work collectively for the greater good, not personal ambition.

Partnership working: Commissioners and service providers are not the enemy. We can achieve more through negotiation and partnership working than through conflict. Ultimately, we are all working for the same end – it helps to bear that in mind.

Volunteers: The people that volunteer for BoB are the life-blood of the organisation, and we have learned to look after them. Travel expenses and something to eat are a given, but there is more that can be done. For six years we have held award ceremonies in the local town hall, inviting volunteers, their partners, commissioners and local service professionals to see the incredible effort our volunteers not only put into their own recovery, but also into helping others.

Training: Not only is training necessary if you are to run your own services safely, it is also important never to underestimate people’s desire to learn. We believe in writing and delivering our own training, both to meet the needs of our charity and ensure that our volunteers take an active part in the process of supporting each other and learning together. It can be easy to access some of the professional training in your local area, but it often does not meet the needs of a service user organisation. When in doubt, develop your own!

Ethos: I cannot overstate the importance of developing your own organisational ethos. Be clear about what you believe in, why you work the way you do, and stick to it. Examples? BoB does not pay minimum wage, we consider it unethical. We pay well or not at all. BoB does not advocate any specific model of recovery, believing that all are equally valid. We will not change this, even if it loses us funding or contracts. BoB believes we are all equal. Anyone can volunteer with BoB providing they are not dependent on drugs and alcohol and not a risk to themselves or anyone else. Everyone has a place with us if they want one. Cherry picking is for farmers.

Support: With a few exceptions, we are all in recovery and we must never forget this. Peer-to-peer supervision, which includes support around personal issues as well as day-to-day problems, is crucial if an organisation is to flourish and its volunteers feel valued. With 80 to 100 volunteers problems are bound to arise, including internal conflicts, lapses and relapses, family problems and so on. Having a means to address this and look after your volunteers is vital.

Ambition: Everyone has a reason for volunteering. For many it is the idea of ‘giving something back’, or a desire to work in the drugs and alcohol field. For others it is a chance to build a safe support network as a part of their recovery, or simply to get out of the house. However, it is important to give everyone a chance to challenge themselves and move up through the organisation. With that in mind, BoB has a range of roles from team leader, to supervisor, group facilitator and service manager.

Use the skills of your peers: Many of the best ideas that allowed BoB to grow and develop were not mine, but came from the volunteer team. I didn’t start the music workshop; I can only play two chords and have no sense of timing! My role was to empower those musicians in the team to develop their own project, and to ensure it was safe, fun and open to all.

Employment: Everyone wants to earn a living. BoB has four full-time and two part-time members of staff, and all of them were recruited from the volunteer team. If you are good enough to volunteer, you are certainly good enough to get paid for what you do! It is a part of our ethos to employ from within our own volunteer team and only to advertise outside the organisation if we cannot fill the post internally. A word of advice though – while it’s fine to write your own job descriptions and interview questions, it’s best to get an independent panel to undertake the interviews. This avoids any accusations of playing favourites, and has the added advantage of getting an external opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of your own volunteer team.

Trust your instincts: Don’t be talked out of doing what you think is right and meets the needs of your service user organisation. Five years ago there was a perceived wisdom in some quarters that what we did was not service user involvement because it did not meet the ‘standard definition’ of said service user involvement. Of course it didn’t… we were breaking new ground. These days we are flag-bearers, not only for recovery in the community, but for peer-run organisations and partnership working between service providers and service user groups. As one of my personal heroes, Gandhi, said: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’ I think that might be the motto for all of us seeking to build our own organisations. It’s certainly one of mine.

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