Thursday, June 29th, 2023

Sohail Ali – Editor

AskingBristol – The Realities of the Third Sector

“The Academic and Corporate Leaders in Your Society Can Do More”.

Sohail Ali, Editor

“A lifetime for justice” were the words echoed around the walls of the Wills Memorial Building by the recently-instated Vice Chancellor at the University of Bristol, Professor Evelyn Welch. Various cornerstones of the legal and criminal justice system gathered on a brisk November evening to demonstrate their commitment to civic engagement responsibilities, organised by the High Sheriff’s fund. One unmistakable point put forth was considering how the university can become “part of the fabric of the Bristol community”, to which, I believe, such a question can [and ought to] be posed more broadly. There is an unshakable sense within the third sector to address the oligopolistic nature of what ‘civic engagement’ truthfully looks like – whereby a small number of philanthropists donate their annual sums to a somewhat ‘closed-circle’ of nationally-recognised charities, leaving a behind a plethora of forgotten community causes in the wake of the status quo (and not to mention, the ensuing cost-of-living crisis).

The gaps and divisions in our communities grow deeper and more glaringly apparent as said financial crisis proceeds day-by-day. Foodbank dependency is at unprecedented usage in recent times, and the smallest echelons in the pockets of our Bristolian towns grow further disillusioned/forgotten with every funding withdrawal decision taken by local and central government. As easy as it is to pin the continual collapse of community cohesion and funding on the folks at Westminster and beyond, solutions must be provided from somewhere if we are to begin repairing the damage that has been inflicted. Yet, it seems the third sector is not ready to change its approach.

Picture: Donation facilitated by AskingBristol

Picture a scene: Twenty chairs for an elderly social group that helps provide a warm, weekly safe meeting space. Musical instruments for infants and children to participate in developing their cognitive and cultural appreciation of the arts. A space – any space – long enough per week to host a rehabilitative dance programme that allows at-risk teens to channel their troubles into an escape that is tangibly fun. There are unnoticed, silent heroes that organise and run such projects, the majority of them doing alongside full-time jobs, but many of them unsure where to turn when the seemingly simplest of ask cannot be fulfilled in order to allow their community causes to continue.

Far too often, large companies seek to tick their third sector duties by granting large, unspecific donations of money to a single charity. AskingBristol wants to revolutionize the operations of third sector action by flipping the process on its head.; a platform where any charity or community-based organisation – however remote – could publish their specific asks on a database that matches their request with a company, business, trust fund, or local philanthropist capable of fulfilling their needs. Herein lies the essence of what could help support so many people by diversifying donation streams; MultiVarious Giving.

When large, unspecific donations are made to the third sector, the small, local charity seldom receives the support it actually needs. AskingBristol, a project spearheaded by John Manley (former High Sheriff of Bristol and University of Bristol alumnus) seeks to empower communities to put forth their asks and grow connections amongst businesses who are ready and willing to support the cause. The aim – creating HyperConnectivity in a city rooted in controversial history and financial divide by bringing together groups that would ordinarily never cross paths. Where the experiences of a Bristol university student are [often] limited to Tyndall’s Park, Cotham, and Clifton, it is easy for Bristol’s extortionate academic population to never become aware of the deprivation that exists across the region, but also the honest community-based work essential to locations like Lockleaze, Lawrence Weston, Barton Hill, and Southmead. It further begs the question as to what students, who invest thousands in their decision to reside and study in Bristol, are getting from their degrees that can count as comprising real-world engagement. The harsh reality of the graduate market is that the ‘hallowed’ 2:1 classification is often no longer satisfactory as a standalone feature on a CV, and one can argue the university’s curricula philosophy limits students in their capacity to genuinely employ their talents and skills as part of their modules. Academia aside, the AskingBristol train has gathered serious momentum in recent months, capturing the imagination of high-profile Bristolian institutions, including legal leaders Burges Salmon. There is a recognition that an AskService platform (that essentially ‘levels-up’ the third sector) can come to the substantial benefit of all involved parties.

“One of the greatest values of AskingBristol is exposing the many asks of all types of charity and other group in the city. The majority of these asks would never have been exposed.
These asks are a raw material that allows tens of other organisations in the city to ingest them and provide things/time/expertise to every charity and voluntary/community group in the city regardless of size, location, or focus… creating a fabric of asks through which thousands of players build a hyperconnected City to the long-lasting benefit of all its citizens.”

John Manley, CCO, AskingBristol

Recapitulation: The History of AskingBristol:

Within the past two years, two experiments were conducted to test the operational viability of such an ambitious scheme. The short and sweet – people across Greater Bristol understood the principle of the project and appreciated the support provided during the pandemic in a time of significant pressure [particularly on staffing/funding in charities].

Running a charity can be very lonely – even more so in a period of uncertainty – so having someone offer [assistance] with no other agenda than straightforwardly wanting to listen, understand, and help is really valuable”. ­

John Manley, CCO, AskingBristol

In a nutshell, Manley and his team developed a system whereby ‘AskAuthors (volunteers) extracted and specified requests from various charities that were disseminated by ‘SuperConnectors, (intermediary services) who subsequently matched the charity’s request with a ‘Giver’ capable of fulfilling the request. Volunteers were drawn partially from the University of Bristol, demonstrating a shifting tide in academic temperament of elite universities to provide enriching, civic engagement experiences for students seeking to instigate real change in areas of the county they would usually never see.

Manley’s vision is that of a simple, streamlined platform, where complexity is the antagonist. The purpose of AskingBristol is to provide an AskService platform via a Cloud network that volunteers receive digitally on an intuitive interface. Simplicity, in this context, equates to making the donation process easy for askers and givers – far too often, third sector responsibilities are regarded in the corporate world as burdensome by compounding upon existing work-related duties. A giver would, for example, specify a donation grant (and any other logistical constraints) and AskingBristol would oversee the remainder of the process. Strength lies in the scope of the untapped resource pool – ‘giving’ is not limited to donations of objects, spaces, and money, but includes expertise (where a charity requires assistance assessing insurance policies, for example). The potential for ‘giving’ is grand but remains misdirected in the current socio-economic climate.

The Present, Franchising the Future, and Beyond:

“We are a community”, was the mantra reiterated by the incumbent High Sheriff at Wills Memorial Building. It goes without saying – the success of a project like AskingBristol hinges on the beneficence of its key players; the organisation has targeted both Bristol universities as possible sources of giving and connectivity potential. Bristol’s university figures stand at over 50,000 enrollees between them, and the Higher Education institutions show little sign of stagnating in their exertion throughout the city; work began on the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus in 2022, with the expected completion date roughly three years from now.

Video Credit: University of Bristol (Temple Quarter Enterprise Project)

In a city centre dominated by the student population, it is of great perplexity why the scope for putting students to use in the community has been forever so limited. The connection between the student population and the fabric of the city cannot afford to grow further apart. Instead of students struggling to find meaningful work experience of standout relevance to put on their CVs, a platform, or some kind of operation, that matches expertise, skills and potential with voluntary groups would sufficiently tick many boxes – for many parties. Perhaps the Lifetime for Justice event at Wills Memorial Building in the passing winter is indicative that the academic powers-that-be are finally acknowledging that times are changing. Speaking to locals, one can derive a sense of frustration towards Bristol University and its failure to engage with the surrounding area; academic excellence alone is scarcely a reassuring factor for the city wrestling with a student housing crisis that only threatens to worsen going forward. Add this to the university’s ‘symbolically posh’ reputation and affinity with Georgian terraces and eye-wateringly extortionate rentals/living costs, there is little to endear the average working Bristolian towards their flagship education establishment. Whether the recently opened Barton Hill micro-campus has had the intended effect of bridging the socio-metaphorical distance between Tyndall’s Park and its poorer counterparts (Barton Hill, Hartcliffe, Lawrence Weston), remains to be seen – it is worth remembering that a relationship between the university and the Barton Hill community has been non-existent for nearly 50 years.

A move to become a civic university must be birthed from a place of honest recognition that the Bristolian villages, towns, and localities deserve sincere support in the most challenging of economic environments.”

Sohail Ali – Editor

It must be stressed, however, that the university ought not to engage with its communities for the sole purpose of restoring its liberal reputation. It must become a vehicle and machinery for genuine, charitable social practice without ulterior motives. A move to become a civic university must be birthed from a place of honest recognition that the Bristolian villages, towns, and localities deserve sincere support in the most challenging of economic environments – for right now, the lines of communication between wealthier and poorer communities appears utterly broken.

And so, the task begins on repairing the damage. Competition for asks by different service providers would result in a complete revolution of the attitude to third sector engagement. Speaking in November 2022 to Naseem Talukdar, founder of Bristol Curry Club, there are wider issues at play – see: the impact of modernisation and gentrification on communities such as Bristol’s restaurant groups. It is a symptom of modern times where online food service apps dominate the food sector. As such, it is imperative to ask the following question: how do we create genuine inclusivity at the asker level (and not wind up repeating the same problems that already exist)? Much like companies in the financial sector, where an organisation develops to grow wide-ranging influence and power, it must reconcile its power with a number of sociolegal responsibilities for reasons of fair practice. Perhaps it is time to consider universities under this umbrella; these institutions occupy vast territories in their respective regions, receiving millions in tuition fees each year. It seems logical that a university the size of Bristol’s ought to be a steward for local communities. This approach need not be complex, nor expensive, but simply provide the means for connecting students with real, working people. It seems amiss that students are largely limited to a singular postcode during their studies when they invest so much to relocate to this city; it seems strikingly wrong that the university is so vast in size yet so seemingly disconnected with the people of its region.

Inferences From the Legal Sector:

An element of AskingBristol’s work is to expand the way in which voluntary needs are viewed. Legal organisations, (firms, chambers, the Bristol Legal Sector Community Engagement Group) have a longstanding history of pro bono work that is limited to large, specific projects where the lines of liability insurance are drawn clearly. Yet there are countless voluntary groups that need help drafting their insurance policies, balancing the books, and devising financial plans for the future. Incentivising smaller pro bono work that goes unnoticed is important in helping unregistered charities, with a view to encouraging inputs from a variety of disciplines. Large firms are often structured via departments for business efficiency methods, such as HR, Marketing, Media, Accounting, Risk, Legal, so forth. One can see a fair amount of talent on the table available to be utilised in meaningful ways. Despite this, a careful assessment is required of how liability would operate for these non-legal departments, as are ‘entry points’ for practicing professionals looking to participate with smaller voluntary groups – how is the pool of work disseminated and communicated amongst the experts who are able to help?

Burges Salmon are an example of a firm carrying the mantle towards a fairer, more inclusive third sector. Their Charity Committee has recently pledged a sizeable sum of money to be put towards the alleviation of food poverty, improvement of food education food infrastructures in minority communities around Bristol – all via AskingBristol’s platform.

On the matter of civic engagement from universities and quantifying social impact: discussions around the relationships between large institutions and the third sector have been ongoing for a number of years. Whilst it may feel some time ago now, the COVID-19 pandemic has had lasting ramifications on nearly every walk of life in the UK and beyond. There seems, however, promising potential for a project like AskingBristol. The Epigram, Bristol’s leading student newspaper, recently published a sit-down interview with newly appointed Vice Chancellor, Professor Evelyn Welch, who iterated her desire to see a transitional shift in the university’s attitudes to its surroundings. This view is no doubt supported by the sheer scope of potential student involvement within a scheme like AskingBristol (and its ability to bring about mutually beneficial, enriching relationships). There is also the consideration of what the two ‘Avon’ universities have to offer in comparison to each other (i.e., traditionally academic courses compared to vocational courses at UWE). Professor Martin Parker’s recent academic publication, entitled Social Infrastructure Platforms, is indicative of growing academic intrigue into the social machinery proposed by AskingBristol. On all fronts, there appears to be a hyperawareness of the issue but little action, and few ways of being able to quantify social impacts currently. At the same time, there is a decreasing social tolerance for inaction. Institutions have the means to do more and must take simple yet brave steps going forward.

Sohail Ali – Editor

'Social Infrastructure Platforms' - Professor Martin Parker's (University of Bristol) Academic Publication on AskingBristol is Live.