Expert Eye: Nugent
Shortly after the Second World War Lord Beveridge set out the vision of a British welfare state where people would be supported and cared for “from the cradle to the grave”.
However, while Britain did lead the way in establishing a system to protect its most vulnerable, fast forward to 2022 and we find it is creaking at the seams. And it is the voluntary, or third sector, which is increasingly having to fill the gaps.
It was in the 19th century that Father James Nugent opened schools and care facilities for the poverty-stricken children of Liverpool. His work eventually evolved into what is today simply known as Nugent, one of the biggest and most dynamic providers of services to the vulnerable in Liverpool city region.
In an echo of Beveridge’s pledge, Nugent chief executive Normandie Wragg says the charity’s mission is to provide services “from the beginning of life to the end of life”. And it does so seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year.
Employing more than 500 people, backed up by a team of volunteers, Nugent provides a network of specialist facilities. These include schools for children with complex needs, care homes and centres for children, young people, homeless those with disabilities and for the elderly. It also provides a number of supported living homes
It carries out extensive work in the wider community including providing food banks and providing groups for deaf people, those who are hard of hearing and people with learning. disabilities. It also supports families through the adoption process. And it is the lead sponsor for Syrian refugee families in Merseyside.
Although not part of the Catholic Church Nugent retains strong links with the archdiocese and has tried to stay true to Father Nugent’s original mission. Normandie says one of the major learnings to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic was just how much the third sector fills the gaps left by shortfalls in state provision.
“The pressure on our sector is huge, it always has been,” she said. “COVID was a big challenge but the gift it offered was to highlight just how much of a difference the third sector makes and what the true cost of social care and education really is.
“Look at how health and social care is being paid for. Liverpool is one of the hardest hit places in the country and pays some of the lowest fees for social care.”
Because Nugent works across several strands of social care it is able to offer a comprehensive snapshot of how the social fabric is holding up after a decade of austerity, a two-year pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis.
Normandie added: “Just a few years ago when we talked about the rise in the use of food banks were often referred to working families being the main group affected. However, there has been a shift and we are now seeing people working at a managerial level, on a higher level of income, who are also struggling to make ends meet.”
In common with the rest of society, Nugent had to pivot quickly in early 2020 when the pandemic struck. However, a catastrophic event in 2019 ended up giving Normandie and her team an advantage when the world suddenly changed.
She explained: “One of our values here is that we always try to find the ‘gift’ in any challenge. In 2019 we fell victim to a cyber attack. We didn’t lose all of our info but it was scrambled and, for a time, we could not access any of it.
“This prompted new investment in technology. We moved to a cloud-based system and we started using a task management app. It means that when COVID struck we were already prepared for staff that could work remotely to take their laptops home and continue working.
“Investing in technology has transformed how we work and significantly increased our levels of productivity. We found efficiencies through cutting out duplication and producing better quality of data. Rather than updating people in meetings, we were able to communicate more directly.”
Many charities suffered from a sharp downturn in donations and fundraising activity during the pandemic but only around 5% of Nugent’s annual income of around £17m comes from direct donations. 95% of its income is via contracts with local authorities, health agencies or the NHS.
Nevertheless, Normandie says that in recent years the organisation has taken steps to ensure it takes a more “prudent” approach to how it spends its money. She explained: “We are a charity; we don’t make a profit and we are here to serve the community.
“But at the same time, we want to make sure we use that money well and that we ensure that we make the best use of the resources that we have.”
In the last couple of years Nugent has launched and refreshed its ‘Being Outstanding’’ strategic plan which, in Normandie’s words, “aims to ensure that everything we do is outstanding”.
She added: “We have to strive to be outstanding because the people who work here and the people we serve deserve nothing less. And that has to be part of everything we do from painting the walls to how we welcome people when they come through the door. If you tweak everything by just 1% it makes a huge difference across the board.”
When an organisation looks to change both processes and culture, buy-in from its team is critical to the success of that change. And Normandie says Nugent’s staff and volunteers are fully on board with how the charity has evolved.
In fact she describes the staff as the “heroes” of Nugent. She said: “We cover a whole range of areas and I depend on a team of managers who are absolutely the experts in their fields. They know their sectors inside-out and that experience and expertise is invaluable.
“During the pandemic all of our staff went above and beyond to ensure we maintained a high level of service. Adapting to the constantly changing rules and protocols during COVID was a challenge for most organisations.
“For us it was an even bigger challenge because we had different rules for each of our service areas. And we met that challenge. All of our services are now rated as good or outstanding.”
However, also in common with many other employees, staff recruitment and retention is becoming an increasing challenge for Nugent. Normandie explained: “We have staff who also have to survive in the cost-of-living crisis. They need to be properly paid and we make sure we do that.
“But there are still staff who will leave to earn more money working for agencies. That presents a circular challenge. We struggle to recruit skilled individuals and then we end up having to hire the same people through agencies.
“Along with keeping close control of expenditure due to rising energy costs, making sure we offer the right pay and culture to recruit and retain the right staff is one of our big priorities in the coming months.
“Added to that we also need to make sure we retain a good dialogue with both local and central government and make sure they understand the true cost of social care.”