Top Tips For Making Breakthrough Organisations And Projects More Sustainable (Especially In Rural Areas)

As part of Youth Music’s Music Inclusion programme, B Sharp was supported by Soundstorm and Dorset Community Foundation to undertake some action research to look at how breakthrough organisations/practitioners can become more robust and sustainable, and look at potential methods of developing sustainable music projects in small towns and predominantly rural areas. This blog gives our top tips.

Soundstorm and the Dorset Community Foundation recently supported B Sharp to research and develop strategic partnerships, in order to continue, expand and sustain our music programme for Children and Young People (CYP) across rural West Dorset and East Devon.

We were asked by Soundstorm to share our thoughts about sustainability and give tips for new organisations starting projects in small towns and rural areas. Drawing on our own experiences through a long association with Youth Music (thank you!) and conversations with partners over the years, in addition to those that have taken place supported by Soundstorm’s and Dorset Community Foundation’s investment, we have identified the following considerations:

A dream of an everlasting benefactor that will fund work forever is unlikely to become a reality. Sustainability has no magic bullet. It involves constant work to plan, deliver and inform about good outcomes, so that stakeholders grow their support for you. The following tips are about process. Combining them will help new organisations and practitioners go a long way.

1. Identify a clear need for your services, do your research (especially and directly with young people) and communicate it well. Personal testimonies, published research and data about your locality and service users contribute towards the evidence of need.

2. Talk to people.

  • Work with partners to share resources, expertise and service users. It is difficult to work in isolation.
  • Identify and develop relationships with key local activists, champions and gatekeepers who influence local opinion, connect with stakeholders and make things happen. This includes your funders and potential funders.
  • Create focus groups.
  • Plan how to address the need, built on consultations with service users – be open and give them ownership.
  • Different partners have their own professional language. Get to know it and ensure you understand each other well. Understand their priorities and timetables - especially when they set their budgets if you want them to contribute money. A long lead-in with planning helps with this. Take your time to get your partnership right - don't rush things because there is an immediate funding opportunity. Be flexible when the project is live - circumstances often change. Adapt, keeping your agreed outcomes in mind. Great advice about working with partners who are not music specialists can be found on Bristol's 'Sound Splash' Approaching Commissioners document.

3. Work with the right people who share your ethos and approach. This is perhaps the most important recommendation we can give. Support them to grow and help you grow. See Youth Music’s Quality Framework for guidance on good practice.

  • Identify, recruit and support a good team to deliver a project, ensuring quality and engagement.
  • Develop mechanisms for reflective practice and ensure your delivery team checks in for support and evaluation purposes; observe practice.
  • Build a diverse and rounded workforce. Mix artists, musicians and youth workers that are signed up to an inclusive approach. Invest in a local grass roots workforce by building skills and confidence through practice based learning, mentoring, skills sharing and CPD.
  • There are many aspects of good leadership. See B Sharp’s blog: What Does A Leader Look Like?
  • Bring in outside guest professionals/musicians (especially when showcasing) to lift the quality of experience, inspire and excite participants and the workforce, adding value and diversity.
  • Build in pastoral support for young people. We believe in supporting and developing the whole person. Youth workers are important in this area.
  • Develop singing/ensemble groups of mixed age, ability and experience so that a musical, personal and social skill cascade can be developed between peers and the delivery team.
  • Create a balance and pathways between grassroots informal work and more specialist ‘high end’ work and expertise that drives excellence – high aspiration balanced with engagement – master classes or large-scale productions lead on from grassroots groundwork.

4. Evidence based evaluation and reflective practice enables continual improvement. Guidance on collecting information to inform iterative planning and  ‘what’s next?’ can be found on Youth Music’s Evaluation Builder. Other useful resources for this are Outcomes Frameworks: a guide for providers and commissioners of youth services and The Code of Good Impact Practice.

5. Develop a mixed income portfolio to sustain future work:

  • Breakthrough work is usually initially grant funded so that financial participation barriers are removed from participants and organisations. Grants give time to build the engagement of CYP, especially Children in Challenging Circumstances (CCC) and partners confidence that value and desired outcomes can be achieved, creating leverage for financial contributions later.
  • Grants are stepping stone tools to establish relationships and new work. Funders generally don’t want support work forever. However, in our experience, when targeting CCC who are unable to contribute significantly to costs, it is unrealistic to work without grant support of some kind - either from charitable trusts or commissioners.
  • We need to make efforts to lessen the risk of grinding to a halt if funding applications fail, by diversifying income.
  • Ensure partners understand from the beginning that they will be expected to contribute to the costs of future work.
  • Introduce a sliding scale of fees that are based on trust and the ability to pay. Many CCC may not be financially challenged and need support in different ways. Ensure participants, parents and carers understand that they don’t have to pay if it is difficult for them, removing financial barriers. Make sure they know the person to talk to in confidence and that, without being intrusive, you are informed as much as you can be about their circumstances so that you can also offer/find appropriate support.
  • Many stakeholders are happy to pay or contribute in kind. Don’t be afraid to ask.

6. Where possible targeted CCC work should provide pathways into more open access work so they are integrated into wider society and their CYP peers e.g. share different programme strands at a community festival or showcase, perhaps bring in skateboard ramps or 'free runners' (risk assessed of course) at events so that audiences with different interests become included. Talk to CYP; incorporate their ideas, which may not be about music.

7. Working with schools is a good way to reach new CYP, build trust with their families and develop pathways into wider programmes, potentially creating a whole new local culture of music making in your area.

  • Schools gather CYP from a wide rural area. Working with them at school can solve a lot of transport challenges.
  • Taster sessions in schools for projects taking place in other settings is a good way to reach and engage a lot of CYP in one go. 
  • Starting with children in Early Years and primaries gives a foundation to re – engage and progress them in their musical, personal and social journeys with subsequent project work in secondary schools and beyond.
  • Parents often attend Early Years sessions where they observe and participate in your work. It is a good way to get to know families, gain their confidence and work with them again as their children grow up.

8. Make sure people know the difference you are making. Telling your story, the positive outcomes and the difference you make increases good will and the likelihood of financial/in kind support by families, partners, local authorities, funders, commissioners, businesses, volunteers and the community at large.

Capture group and personal stories on video so that you can share testimonies of service users (with their permission) with funders and the wider community. They are your ambassadors.

Frequent press releases in local papers, social media posts etc. keeps you in the community's mind, especially local town and district councillors who can support you if you make grant applications to them - worth doing. Local authorities have agendas about things like 'healthy communities', employment and training, so your stories should show how you impact on these sorts of issues - building a workforce with your training, practice based learning, CPD sessions; engaging CYP in positive activities where they feel valued and included in the community and can contribute to its well being as citizens.

The key to sustainability is the depth of your investment in long-term relationships with all your stakeholders. If you are in it for the long haul, invest well.

Youth Music also have a good blog about rural isolation and ways projects can sustainably overcome them: Rural-proofing: overcoming isolation through music-making.

Since we started in 2007, B Sharp has learnt a lot. We are still learning. The Youth Music community has a wealth of experience and I'm sure others can give good advise to those starting out. There is no need to re-invent the wheel. Feel free to comment and add tips.

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Lyndall Rosewarne's picture

Great blog Ayvin! I agree with your approach wholeheartedly, although we often find ourselves dealing with less than perfect combinations in both town and rural settings. The dilemma becomes whether to carry on with a project you know is slightly flaky hoping that it will become more robust. Then sometimes things you cant predict affect the life of a project:I remember one setting where the community centre committee had agreed to us using their premises but the person on the door had locked out the young participants because 'young people cause trouble' and their usual rule was to keep them out- it was resolved in the end but several young people who had walked over for their first session with a supportive youth worker never returned.
Another project did some amazing work but the project fell apart because the host organisation lost a contract (nothing to do with the music project) and found itself having to make most of its staff redundant-including the staff we had worked with.
In my experience having one person who really gets it and can champion the work between steering groups is key. The experience of going through a bid process can also be an eye opener for small organisations (and big ones!) who havent done this before-suddenly they understand why you have been chasing them for statistics and case studies.
There is no doubt that this work is intensive and needs to be done longterm-even once projects or organisations can fly on their own, they sometimes need advice or just someone to say 'wow! well done!'

Ayvin Rogers's picture

Hi Lyndall. I grinned and cringed at the 'young people lockout' because "they are trouble"! This stereotype and fear of young people is a familiar challenge. The repetitive bad press young people used to receive in Lyme Regis was one of the reasons B Sharp started - we wanted to counteract it, give young people a voice, offer something creative that they could own and direct, and change the culture of fear and prejudice held by so many in the older generations.

In rural areas you'll often find that people are members of several committees, are usually retired and sometimes don't 'get' or are not interested in young people's culture. The options for rural workshop venues are very limited and if the people who fear 'hanging about' and ‘trouble’ control all the venues, I'd imagine you have some work in front of you to get started! A few people can lead a culture that thinks children and young people are either cute or not to be trusted, with little in between. As you showed by resolving the issue, if you build a good team around a positive idea, you will be able to bring others on board and overcome these hurdles, and perhaps even change the culture. I think to some extent, we have in Lyme.

You are right about finding the champion who really gets it. They can make all the difference between being shut out of an organisation and getting a foot in the door. In spite of an increasing acceptance of equal opportunity principles, it is still true that much of life is still about whom you know and not what you know. One has to be careful to make sure that you are getting support because of an idea and not through cronyism. Once you are in and start work, it usually doesn't take long to overcome the resistance and start changing attitudes - young people generally respond well to trust, opportunity and things they enjoy. The doubters just need to observe a good project – perhaps take them to one you are running elsewhere first.

Having said that, I failed miserably after I challenged a youth organisation 12 years ago. I was invited to join the committee and put my efforts where my mouth was. I then chaired it and tried to revitalise it by bringing in qualified youth workers in partnership with the youth service. I left for personal reasons after a year. It was so resistant to trying serious partnerships and new approaches that it folded a few of years later. In 2011 they were going to put their building up for auction and it would have been lost to the community forever.

The silver lining and lesson in not giving up is this. B Sharp had formed in response to youth disaffection and the closure of the youth club and we led a campaign to successfully save it, (thanks to an agreement between Lyme Regis Development Trust, the Woodroffe School and the county Youth Service); a new Town Council was elected at the same time, with a mandate to support it, which they did with £50,000 for a new roof and £10,000 revenue p.a. for at least 3 years; We won £60,000 from the Jubilee People’s Millions lottery competition to renovate it with better access for all. We got damn close to winning £100,000 for green energy systems too. It is now The Hub, a thriving youth facility and home to B Sharp. Yeah! Another example of good partnerships and sustainability.

There are also setbacks that are beyond our control. They may stop a project but hopefully won't close down an organisation. In spite of the attitudes of some, there is an overall good will towards young people, especially from the public sector and charities. However, in this time of cutbacks, resources and options for partnerships are declining, and in rural areas they are already thin on the ground. Youth services are not a statutory obligation and county councils are cutting them back, if not cutting them out altogether. The need hasn't changed, and if the partnerships that are good for our work are going, we should make a case to our funders that we contract on a freelance basis the professions that were part of previous partnerships. It is not ideal - people have less stability in their employment because of the project-by-project nature, and it is more administration and responsibility for us, but the work needs doing, even if the traditional institutions that used to do it are going.

B Sharp already employs freelance youth workers but we also work well with our county youth service. We would miss their expertise and larger resources if they were to go. Regrettably, there is an increasing expectation that charities should take up the role of front line services through a commissioning process. While I don't like the politics of it, it is an opportunity for organisations like us. It is a different way of working and a little daunting, but we feel we need to position ourselves so that we can respond if an appropriate opportunity arises.

Applying for grants is a challenge, especially for those new to it. Funders want to invest in worthwhile projects with a low risk of failure. The questions are searching and designed to see how well you've researched, planned and can manage the project; evidencing minimal risk and maximum reward. They really make you think! We've done quite a few and understand what is required a lot more now, but we’re not always successful and we ask a critical friend or experienced trustees to check our most valuable ones. A small team's input can make a big difference to the way a proposal is presented.

For those new to grant applications, there is help out there! My learning started with brilliant support from our District Council arts & leisure officer when I organised the local carnival's golden jubilee celebrations in 1998 and I was pretty pleased as a beginner to get a couple of large scale Millennium projects funded in a small town like Lyme. This would never have happened without her help. County councils/unitary authorities also have officers who help community organisations find their feet - and funding, and may go over applications with you. Organisations like Dorset Community Action (similar exist elsewhere) and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations have resources and courses to help. No doubt, commissioning will take us on another learning journey!