Voluntary Action North Somerset was established in 1997 as a Local Volunteer Development Agency and was known as – The Volunteer Agency. It was established in response to a clear demand from the community and community organisations. A partnership bid between the local community Group forum, Progress (a voluntary sector training provider) and North Somerset Council successfully secured funding from the Department of Heritage “Make a Difference” programme and the Agency was established in 1997.
In July 2002, the Agency moved to Weston super Mare, while still serving the whole North Somerset Area. This marked the securing of substantial funding from the Community Fund which enabled the expansion of the team and the range of services offered.
The absence of an affiliated and fully functioning CVS in North Somerset meant that voluntary and community sector services had developed in an ad hoc way. In addition, The Volunteer Agency had become increasingly active in strategic activities through membership of the North Somerset Partnership and from chairing the Compact Steering Group.
During 2004 VANS was asked to consider developing its role further by becoming a local infrastructure organisation to meet this identified gap in service provision. Following consultation with key partners this was recommended to and accepted by members at the AGM of that year. At this time, the organisation became formally known as Voluntary Action North Somerset (VANS).
Between 2012–2013, VANS was the lead partner for the Transform North Somerset project. This was made possible by significant funding from the Transforming Local Infrastructure Fund from the Cabinet Office.
The outcomes of this project were:
- Too ensure radically improved access for local CS groups, the North Somerset partnership will provide a menu of general and specialist infrastructure services, implement a single point of access via an e-portal and single telephone line and introduce an individual group case management system to reduce service duplication and monitor improvement.
- The project fundamentally changes the scope of volunteering through a programme of awareness raising, training for volunteer managers, establishing networks/forums, implementing outreach and on-line services to increase the number of volunteers in front line groups and improve the quality of volunteers’ experience.
- The partnership creates and brokers new opportunities for VCS groups to engage with the public and business sectors in North Somerset to explore and exchange operational methodologies, new ways of accessing resources and raising capital, consider adapting to a social enterprise and offering services on a commercial basis.
- The members of the partnership develop their own procedures and practices to work together collaboratively, resulting in an effective and credible service that will represent frontline organisations with the statutory and business sectors and a legacy of a strong and sustainable partnership that frontline organisations themselves will wish to commission.
Despite the closure of one of the partner organisations during the project all the outcomes were successfully delivered.
Once the project had ended it was anticipated that many of the benefits would be sustainable. However, the ending of the project meant a substantial drop in income for VANS. Without this funding fewer services were available for member organisations. In addition, the Transform North Somerset programme had increased the profile of VANS locally and organisations had far higher and broader expectations of the services that they could access, free at the point of delivery.
Since the end of the project (September 2013), VANS has been working with partners to identify alternative sources of funding. This has resulted in a varied range of work being undertaken, some of which has varied from VANS traditional raison d’etre. In 2014, VANS went through a staff restructure process as a result of the reduction in funding and recruited a new CEO.
VANS undertook a range of additional projects, some of which have been short-term. Examples are:
- Supporting the development of the Haywood Village Residents Association
- Developing a pilot project to support people with Fibromyalgia
- Supporting the development of Local Commissioning Networks following the end of council funded youth services
- Providing funding training and surgeries for voluntary sector organisations
- Supporting the Big Worle Partnership towards becoming a formally constituted organisation
Other projects have been more closely aligned to volunteering and have become an integral part of VANS:
- Running the volunteering service on behalf of North Somerset Children’s Centres
- Running the volunteering service on behalf of North Somerset Community Partnership
- Running a Volunteer Buddy Scheme for vulnerable tenants on behalf of the Support Alliance
- Running SAVVY, a preparation to volunteering course for vulnerable people on behalf of the Support Alliance and North Somerset Council Community Learning.
Since the end of the Transform North Somerset project funding the part of the organisation that has suffered the most is the Volunteer Centre. Local authority funding decreases year on year and no statutory funding is currently available for the Volunteer Centre service. VANS was fortunate to secure the support of Alliance Homes in the form of affordable office space when they acquired Weston Court in 2015.
During this time, the reduced staff team at VANS embarked on a programme of work and consultation to identify ways to secure the sustainable future of VANS, specifically the Volunteer Centre service. Big Assist funding was helpful in supporting visits to equivalent organisations that have experienced similar journeys to VANS and have found ways forward to generate income. VANS worked with a business consultant, funded by Big Assist to address the two areas identified through the Big Assist diagnostic process:
- Innovation – identifying and developing new ways of delivering a volunteering service, new products, new services, and new ways of workingSuggested outcomes:
- The quality of the volunteering service is improved
- The volunteering service better reflects what’s needed
- The new model is more financially sustainable in the longer term
- Better evidence/understanding of what members/beneficiaries most need
- VANS have a better understanding of the market for services/products
- The quality of member services is improved
- Services/products better reflect what’s needed
- Roles and responsibilities within VANs better reflect the services delivered
In 2016 VANS launched a bespoke website matching potential volunteers to opportunities. Funding for the website was gained from The Quartet Community Foundation and this service enabled VANS to improve its volunteering offer and retain its National Volunteer Centre Accreditation status. However, this funding did not cover the costs associated with staff involved in maintaining and developing the service to its full potential.
In early 2017, VANS secured funding through the North Somerset Community Partnership to lead on the delivery of a vision and action plan aiming to increase charitable giving in North Somerset and to set out volunteer involving initiatives that can be instigated to Empower people to contribute to their local community and for communities to provide their own solutions. This allowed VANS to create 1.5 one-year posts to assist in the delivery of this work. There is a duel focus on contributing to the on-going work of maintaining and promoting the current offer whilst also developing it into new areas i.e. employer supported volunteering, preparation for retirement, realising the benefits of partnership members working more closely etc.
In September 2017, VANS once again had a change of CEO. The focus between 2017 and 2019 was around refreshing the membership offer to the sector, realising the potential of the NHS Sustainable Transformation Plan work and securing the future of current contracts that are due for retendering.
In 2019, VANS undertook a review of its business’s practices leading to a restructure of services to reflect the changing market demand. Since then, a new CEO (a previous trustee), has completed a yearlong secondment at VANS to now take up the role permanently. The main projects of focus for 2020/21 concentrate on:
- A reprioritisation of the strategic infrastructure deliverables to meet a changing demand within the sector
- Rebrand and development of a new website to modernise our online presence
- A focus on projects that support an Asset Based Community Development type approach delivering positive outcomes for local communities
- Facilitated Volunteer Initiatives which further integrate volunteers into the third sector across North Somerset
- Asset holding for projects and programmes delivering significant outcomes for people and communities, requiring specialist support to help then develop and diversify