Care in the community

24/04/2015 - 07:24
Hertfordshire Community Meals has gone from two cars, a few staff and a turnover of £31,000 to 63 vehicles, 180 staff and a turnover of £1.3 million in seven years. Chief executive Sarah Wren tells Siobhan O’Neill how a small social enterprise has become an award-winning model for social care.

When chief executive of Hertfordshire Community Meals (HCM) Sarah Wren says she’s always had a very clear vision for the social enterprise, you don’t doubt her.

“We know we want to provide a service that keeps people living independently in their homes at really good value for them and for the public purse, and we want to do that while doing charitable and social good. That’s the aspiration, and we will do it; failure is not an option,” she says, laughing at how the remark makes her “sound strident”.

But the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating: she now heads a social care and supported employment business that serves 2,000 meals a day.

Wren was chair on the board of the business but stepped in on a voluntary basis in 2009 when the chief executive unexpectedly died. A former business management lecturer, she quickly learnt to put theory into practice as she realised the organisation was not in the best of financial shape.

Originating in 2007, HCM began as the result of a county-wide feasibility study as district councils sought cuts and wondered why they were funding a meals service that should have been the responsibility of the county.

The study recommended setting up a social enterprise to deliver the service, and over the intervening years, it grew district by -district, TUPE-ing staff over, until it covered the whole of Hertfordshire as it does now.

Its continuing growth bucks a national trend that has seen community meals services steadily reduced elsewhere, and much of this must be down to Wren – who has championed the business at every opportunity – and what she says is her dedicated team, who work hard to “push the boundaries of what the service can achieve”.

Immediately after she took charge, she changed the structure of the enterprise by making it a charity, eliminating the need to pay corporation tax and reducing its business rates. She also wasted no time raising the profile of the service with former colleagues in the council.

She believes, though, that by being open with council officers about the company’s ability to do more with less, she won approval and respect.

“We’ve been completely honest about the way we do business, so when we’ve created a saving we’ve returned that back to the county,” says Wren. “We’ve gone back and said ‘This year, we can do it for this much less’. I think that is a very different way of working, so we’ve become a trusted partner. We’ve been extremely creative; we’re always thinking of new ways of doing things.

“We have seen this as a wonderful preventative service, and rather than doing what we were originally commissioned to do, we’ve constantly pushed at the boundaries, and said we need to do more and we need to do it differently, and that’s been very respected.”

Named Social Enterprise of the Year in 2014 at the National Business Awards, the service has become an admired model throughout the country because, with two charitable aims, its remit isn’t simply to provide community meals to vulnerable people: it also relieves unemployment among people facing barriers to work. “That’s really crucial for us,” says Wren, “because the model itself is doing good.”

As such, she has partnered with local organisations to provide opportunities for ex-offenders, the long-term unemployed, people with learning disabilities and people with mental health problems. She also works with local colleges and the University of Hertfordshire helping students with studies, internships and apprenticeships.

The approach has meant the management team members are deeply committed and strong advocates for this way of operating, keen to champion the role of social enterprises nationally.
“We think it’s the way forward,” says Katherine Marwood, head of service development and human resources. “With this model, you can contribute to the community and run a really good business.”

“A social enterprise reinvesting back into the community it serves makes a lot of sense,” agrees head of independent living operations Mike Thompson. “It’s a lot more relevant to today’s needs when there’s been this backlash against big companies making money but doing nothing with it in the communities where they’re based.”

Not making money from the client group is a central pillar of the business model. The management team see it as morally wrong, though not doing so has not obviously harmed the business.
There is a small charge to clients and the county subsidises some of the service, charitable status means that Wren and her team are free to fundraise, and broad eligibility criteria have brought them more customers and, with them, economies of scale.

There’s good reason to think this has benefitted the social care budget, with a recent survey of clients finding that more than 50% of them believed they would be in care if it weren’t for the community meals they receive. That’s a meal subsidy cost to the council of just £10 a week per person against the £500-a-week price of putting them in care.

With Wren constantly driving the development of the service, HCM is about to embark on the next step of its journey as it becomes Hertfordshire Independent Living Service (HILS). “We’ve outgrown the name,” she says.

Keen to maximise the facilities beyond meal delivery and with demand from its clients for additional services that can enable them to stay in their homes, the team has developed a wish list for the coming years that includes: friendship services, for which there will be no charge; transport; gardening and handyman services; shopping and even health services delivered in the home by partner organisations. Unusually, the team has employed a dietitian and plans to screen all clients for malnutrition.

This is all in addition to the current extra services the team provides, such as lunch clubs, dementia clubs, welfare bags, tea and breakfast packs, and security alarms to clients.

Wren says: “Staff and volunteers are deeply committed to going the extra mile, and we have many stories of them going above and beyond the call of duty to help people who need it.”

She said that although the team was excited about the future and the planned expansion of services, there was still a frustration that they couldn’t do enough.

“We could run a dementia club every day of the week our waiting list is so long,” says Thompson. “When you consider the families who get peace of mind or the carers who get a little respite, we can have an impact on 20,000–30,000 people.”

Wren adds: “We’re a quarter of 1% of the community services budget; it’s a tiny investment when you think of the saving elsewhere. What frustrates me is this is not being recognised on a national level.

“We’ve got to invest in prevention as an imperative because there’s no money to do anything else and we know this works and it’s what people want. The frustration is that we want to do so much more. It’s seeing the need and not being able to meet it.”

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