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Sunday 7 April 2013

Fair Wealth: Popup Talent's new ways to work

Channel Four’s Secret Millions ‘Popup Talent Shop’ episode offers some welcome respite from political debate on benefit payments. After a week that has seen the stakes raised following the Daily Mail’s provocative association of the Philpott tragedy with the Government’s claims against so-called ‘benefit scroungers’, Secret Millions has thankfully uncovered a more positive human story against the grain of stereotypes.

Parties on both sides will continue to argue about controlling benefits through ever more crude and complex systems of conditionality, particularly for those unemployed young people aged 16-25 from challenging homeless backgrounds who end up living in Foyers. But the answers to the issues in theri lives are unlikely to come from Westminster. Beveridge aside, Government attempts to bring about solutions have actually created more social problems over the past decades than they have ever fixed.  Universal Credit and ‘welfare reform’ are just another shaking of the precarious policy jelly. To steal a quote from Bill Ford, the CEO of General Electric, a growth equity company investing in enterprise in emerging global markets, ‘I hope the role of Government remains benign neglect’.  (See Chrystia’s Freeland’s ‘How to get rich from the eastward tilt’, International Herald Tribune, April 5, 2013). Benign neglect for Ford has meant that ‘poorer’ countries such as Pakistan, Turkey and Nigeria are now producing the latest Steve Jobs as entrepreneurs begin to thrive in the gaps left to tackle unmet social challenges.   These are the same gaps where charities once flourished as a source for innovation in the UK. But in more recent times, the role of charity has often been diminished through closer ties to state funding and the deficit-based thinking that has characterised much of its commissioning of services and subsequent cuts.  With current high rates of youth unemployment, there has never been a more urgent time to find ‘new ways to work’. Thankfully, Secret Millions suggests charities can still lead social change - using the power of young people’s talents, a little help from some friends, and a healthy dash of pioneering spirit.

The Foyer Federation is a case in point. It has long argued that the right investment in ‘something’ for a young person can lead to ‘something else’ that reaps huge personal and social gains.  In 2009, the Federation began to articulate this as an ‘Open Talent’ strategy, introducing a range of inspirational initiatives aimed at involving young people in finding, nurturing and promoting their talents – the majority of which have been funded by forward thinking organisations such as Virgin Unite, the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Monument Trust and Esmee Fairbairn. The focus on assets, not deficits, is where the Federation is breaking important ground.  Open Talent suggests that ‘support’ should not be about how to help someone cope with deficits; its sole purpose should be how to enable someone to build the assets required to thrive in life, to find and use their talents.  This is the approach of the entrepreneur: looking for, developing and investing in the advantages that will create sustainable solutions.  Not surprisingly, the Federation’s partners for Popup Talent include a social enterprise (GoodPeople), a youth leadership charity (Changemakers), and local community services like Braintree Foyer who are prepared to take a lead in doing things differently.  Together with the freedom of two years Lottery funding, this is a rich mix for transforming lives.

In the Popup Talent episode, we see young people freed to express their enterprising nature to find and make work;  to be part of their own solution.    Secret Millions shows us that it is not ‘hand outs’ that young people need to do this, but ‘hand ups’ – opportunities, guidance and encouragement to build and exploit the personal assets that we take for granted in our lives.  The Big Lottery funding awarded in Secret Millions will enable the Federation to do just that, by filling a gap in the benefit debate in which young people still fail to receive the emotional and social capital to invest in their future. 

Arguments about the size of the hand out needed for someone to live on are of course vitally important; but without any focus on the hand up that will build someone’s asset base, the arguments are lost in an endless ‘something-for-nothing’ debate of their own making. The real missing ‘something’ is not the commitment of young people, but whether or not they have the opportunity to develop and promote their assets to offer something back.  That ‘something’ must come from ‘somewhere’ if we are to help young people move on in their lives for the benefit of society, and it is sadly not coming from the majority of Government funded job centres and work programmes where the neglect in developing young people’s talents is not so much benign as wastefully ignorant.  If payment by results for job centres and work programmes was properly linked to nurturing talent, then the current system would be seen for what it is: hopelessly out of touch, no longer fit for purpose, in need of real innovation.

Secret Millions reminds us of The Big Lottery’s crucial role as an intelligent funder: to free up charities and the young people they work with to ‘thrive in the gaps’; to reveal and empower the hidden millions of people and ideas that are missed beneath the headlines and policy statements. Why not believe that young people from challenging backgrounds actually have talent and potential? Why not provide a job centre model and a work programme approach that tries to build those talents? Why not involve young people in devising and developing the content of how these centres and programmes might work?  Why not enable employers to develop more upstream relationships with the young people who could become part of their future talent pool?  Why not save taxpayers’ money by investing more intelligently in positive, flexible, personalised approaches, that are proven to work. Such questions won’t be found in the current arguments about benefits, but they badly need to be asked.

Popup Talent introduces a very different perspective to traditional concepts of welfare. I call it ‘fair wealth’, and it involves us all in how we think about and work with young people in a  more ‘advantaged thinking’ way than the current obsession with ‘disadvantage and need’.  It offers a simple three dimensional solution:  treat young people not as problems in the system but as potential assets for society; invest in what young people actually require to build their own thriving life, including the space to take risks, fail and be enterprising; and collaborate with young people to harness their experiences as part of a community of relationships able to create its own solutions, including future employment options.

‘Fair wealth’ is about being more measured, rational and just in how we invest in the development of our shared future capital - young people.  Ensuring each young person grows up as an asset to society is an aspiration and a responsibility none of us can afford to hide from too.  It is our ‘something’, our part of the deal. As Secret Millions shows, it’s also a much more exciting and engaging story to be involved in than arguments about welfare that have long since lost the plot.

If you want to be part of the Popup Talent revolution, you can find out more at www.foyer.net and www.popuptalent.org

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