Vote of confidence

As Phoenix Futures launches its new strategy, with the strapline ‘The charity that is confident about recovery’, DDN hears about the ideas behind it from chief executive Karen Biggs.

One of the key tenets of Phoenix Futures’ new strategy, which will define the organisation’s direction from now until 2020, is that it’s time for both the charity and the sector as a whole to have the confidence to speak up, especially when it comes to issues like stigma.

‘We were coming to the end of our last strategy and about a year ago we started to have a conversation within the senior management team about things like identity,’ says Karen Biggs, and particularly the perceived differences between ‘charities’ and ‘providers’. ‘We kept coming back to that.’

In the year that followed she consulted with staff via a weekly email, and began exploring ideas. ‘Last year was a mad year for the sector, and over the course of it the sense of people in Phoenix identifying us much more as a charity than as a provider of government contracts was very real,’ she says.

This went hand in hand with a feeling that far from stigma becoming less of an issue, it was actually on the increase. ‘We’re not a lobbying or a campaigning organisation in the slightest, but what my staff were telling me was that stigma is now impacting people’s ability to move through treatment and achieve the life they want,’ she says. ‘So while we’re seeing a reduction in stigma in mental health, what we’re seeing in addiction is almost a re-stigmatisation of our client group. It’s hampering our ability to do our best for our service users.’

So why is this happening now? ‘I think when local communities have difficult decisions to make about where they spend their money, it becomes easier to identify groups that might not necessarily be thought as deserving as others,’ she says. ‘That feels like an awful thing to say about our society, but people are facing really difficult decisions and I don’t think localism has helped because we’ve introduced that element of local politics into the process.’

The fact that substance misuse is a relatively small sector compared to other areas of social care means it hasn’t been able to ‘carve out that space that some of our colleagues have’, she states, while some of the mechanisms that were intended to address those ‘deserving/undeserving’ issues and make sure that the needs of all groups were looked after in local decision-making haven’t necessarily worked out for the sector’s client group. ‘I don’t really see that the health and wellbeing boards offer any protection for addiction services, for example.’

As a result, the new strategy will have a focus on talking about addiction and stigma in a much more public, high profile way. The field has sometimes been accused of insularity and having conversations with itself – does she feel this is something it’s shied away from in the past? ‘When you look at other social care sectors like mental health or housing, we’re relatively small and still relatively new. I think that newness makes that sense of confidence a bit more difficult to achieve, but I definitely think there’s more we can do.

‘Maybe there wasn’t a need to do it before, but the sector has grown and more money has come into it. But you really test your mettle when things start to become a bit more difficult and you have to fight and evidence the values that your services are bringing to the wider community, rather than a particular group.’

Given that Phoenix started out as a grassroots organisation, how important has that voluntary ethos been over the years? ‘Phoenix has a really strong connection with its history, and that sense of where we came from is really important to us,’ she says. ‘It’s recognised in the importance of peers supporting each other in their recovery, it’s really important to me, and it resonates with the staff – it’s a real motivator.’

The new strategy is also about maximising resources – whether statutory funding or voluntary support – to widen and improve the services on offer. ‘The important things in that new strapline are the confidence bit and the charity bit,’ she states. ‘There’s a palpable sense in this sector of decline and marginalisation, and when funding’s being cut across all those health and social care sectors, identifying as a provider of government contracts can at times challenge your values.

‘It can be hard to see how you can deliver your organisational purpose, but if you switch how you think about yourselves and reconnect with that charitable purpose, you can see how a charity that’s dedicated to supporting people affected by substance misuse fits in the world. You see how you can deliver your purpose in a much more meaningful way, regardless of what’s going on with contracts and funding.’

This then creates a ‘much more credible fundraising offer’, she stresses – ‘targeted and focused approaches to projects that complement the strategy’, which means the organisation is now on the lookout for funders with similar values. ‘It’s the whole gamut – people can support us by working in partnership, there’s different grants and trusts, there’s business and private sector organisations looking to deliver their social purpose.

‘There are people out there who are looking for good, credible charities who they can see operate with integrity, and they want to support them. It becomes a virtuous circle because it gives you much more confidence in yourself as a charity. Charities don’t necessarily have the greatest PR, but that’s what we are, and what motivates us to get out of bed in the morning is doing our very best for the people who need our services.’

There will also be an emphasis on making the whole idea of treatment less intimidating – being more open and helping to reduce the fear of the unknown. Does the field do enough to demystify treatment, or is this another area where it may have fallen down in the past? ‘I think it’s difficult with the level of stigma and this increasing sense of deserving and undeserving in our local communities,’ she says.

‘But different organisations and groups have come together over the last few years to see what we can do about stigma, and maybe now’s the time when there’s a sense of need and coming together. I do sense a real increase in goodwill in the sector amongst providers, and maybe that comes from difficult times.’

The strategy also addresses the thorny issue of well-meaning policies that can have unintended negative consequences, whether that’s benefit or commissioning decisions, or even treatment criteria. She cites the example of Grace House, the London-based service for women with complex needs opened by Phoenix in 2015.

‘Lots of people might have thought that was quite a strange thing to do – in the midst of so many residential services closing why would you open a new one, especially when it’s for some of the most marginalised and excluded women in our community? It was because there was a need – we were delivering lots of different services that sometimes just didn’t meet the needs of women with the most complex needs.’

This applies across the sector, she states. ‘Sometimes exclusions or criteria or the hoops that people are asked to jump through to demonstrate their motivation are absolute brick walls for the women we’re trying to help at Grace House.

‘What we’ve demonstrated is that if you open it up and you set out that you’re there to support the women everybody else thinks are too risky or tricky, or whatever they think – if you make sure you deliver services to meet their needs rather than what you might deliver elsewhere, you can get really good outcomes,’ she continues.

‘When you look at the devastation that has impacted those women’s lives – offending, domestic violence, sexual abuse, involvement in prostitution – those are the kinds of needs we’re there to support, and we have a 67 per cent completion rate. For any residential service – or any service – that’s really, really good.’

The ‘real heart of it’, she says, is that even though the commitment to support people with substance problems has been central to the sector for a long time ‘we’re still making it really difficult for some people to get the help that they want, when they need it’.

While the strategy’s focus is inevitably on Phoenix as an organisation, she hopes it might eventually help to increase confidence in the rest of the field. ‘But if everyone involved in Phoenix can feel empowered to be able to speak with confidence about the importance of treatment, and the potential of recovery, then it will have done its job.’