Providing Opportunity Not Charity

Podcast Episode 33. One day soon people with additional needs will be valued as contributors to society and not just as passive recipients of social care, that is the vision that Matt and Steve from bemix (formerly Skillnet Group) share in this episode.

bemix support people with additional needs into employment and they do this by creating projects to develop work-related skills and through providing supported internships with employers. Matt is the Chief Executive of bemix and Steve is a former client, who is now a Non-Executive Director and acts as a mentor to the young people on internships with employers. As Steve explains he also spends a lot of his time educating employers as to why people with additional needs make great employees.

Steve talks about his journey where his initial involvement with bemix was through attending courses they put on; something he quickly decided wasn’t for him. He explains how he believed his strengths and interests lay in talking to others and helping to change their attitudes among employers. He speaks passionately about the need and desire that many people feel to live a life free of depending on benefits and handouts, instead earning their own money, and being empowered as a result of doing so. He also talked about how important it is to feel part of a community.

Matt explains that a key part of the operational structure of bemix is that they are not a charity, they are a social enterprise. While Matt acknowledges there are many charities, across varied sectors, that do excellent work, he believes that charities can often reinforce an imbalance of a power. bemix operate very much as a business and identify themselves as a social business – not a charity. They sell service and operate as a supportive and nurturing employment agency.

The future objectives of bemix include continuing to change perceptions about people with additional needs in the workplace. Matt sees a future where all employers will come to realize the real business benefits to their organization of employing young people with additional needs.

Show Full Transcript
Podcast Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to episode 33 of the Journey Skills podcast where I’m talking to Steve and Matt from Skillnet Group which is based in the UK and provides, among other things, employment opportunities for people with learning difficulties. Matt is the Chief Executive of Skillnet Group and Steve is a former client who is now on the board, and as well as that he’s mentor for young people who are on internships with employers. He also goes out and educates employers on why people with additional needs make better employees and as you hear on the podcast, he’s a pretty convincing salesman.

Steve starts off by talking about Valuing People White Paper that came out in 2001 in the UK. I put a link in the show notes not because I expect you to read the entire 149 pages of a report published 17 years ago, but because I think it’s a reminder of how far we’ve come and far we still have to go. If you do have a quick look, check out the executive summary and the kinds of issues that we’ve put forward to be addressed. They include poor planning for young disabled people at the point of transition into adulthood, people with learning disabilities often having little choice or control over many aspects of their lives, housing choice being limited and limited opportunities for employment. Of course, in some areas, these have gotten better but to be honest, we wouldn’t even thought about starting Journey Skills if all these things were sorted already. Having said that, Steve talks about how much of White Paper did actually change people’s lives in, at least, acknowledging that they were serious issues that needed to be addressed.

Steve also talks about his journey within Skillnet from being client to being a valued member of the team. I think it’d be a bit condescending if I was to talk about him being inspiring because actually what he is, is just a good example of someone who would never have given an opportunity to with both hands.

Matt talks about the business model of Skillnet Group, which is one of a social enterprise not a charity. It talks about the importance of running it like a business and if you’re a regular listener, that’s the theme we’ve talked about before. What Matt reiterate to me was that we need to move from just helping people through charity to empowering them to help themselves; providing them with what they need to make the choices themselves.

I don’t think any of us thinks of our children as in need of charity but as Matt and Steve talked quite a bit about changing perceptions and I think that’s really what Skillnet Group are doing. And both of these guys seem pretty intent on making a big difference out there.

DEBRA: This week I’m talking to Matt and Steve from Skillnet. Welcome, Matt. Welcome, Steve!

Matt and Steve: Hello. Thank you very much.

DEBRA: Can you tell us a little bit about Skillnet, where it came from, what it does, your roles within the organization?

Steve: So, I’m Steven. I’m a Non-Executive Director for the Skillnet Group. I was on my support in many projects in Skillnet. Skillnet started in 2001 when Valuing People came out and that was a green paper where, I think that was the first time when people with learning disability was being heard. And the way I started was I went to a speak group in Skillnet so that’s where I was taught about Valuing People with learning difficulties. So that’s where I started.

DEBRA: So, what kind of things did you do when you first came to Skillnet?

STEVE: Well when I first started, I took a course so that was just giving and doing basics, really and after a while, I thought this is not for me. I can’t just sit around doing courses, I’d rather just go out there talk about me really. Can I do something where I can talk to people and change people’s attitudes?

DEBRA: What do you do now in Skillnet?

STEVE: I’m a supporter for different projects around the Skillnet Group. I’m a supporter on the supported internships so I go tell my life talking about my inkling history when actually this is ‘This is where I started, now, this is where I am.’ So, people believing in me and saying actually ‘You can do this’.

DEBRA: When you say that, do you talk to the employers as well as the people that you’re supporting?

STEVE: Both.

DEBRA: What do you say then to the employers? What do you say to them to change their perception?

STEVE: They’re better employees that take less sick days and they really want to do work so just give them a chance to prove themselves, really.

DEBRA: Have you had any feedback from the employers?

STEVE: Actually, it’s quite good to employ people with learning difficulty because they can have different mix of people, really.
DEBRA: What about the people that are doing their internships, what’s their feedback then?

STEVE: They feel better now, they’re not living on benefit, they’re earning their own money so they’re being seen in community, they’re part of the community so they’re feeling better doing that, really, not just sitting around the house.

DEBRA: How important is the community side of being part of the community to people?
STEVE: It’s quite important really. So you’re not scared, we are part of the community so again it’s just showing our faces and saying actually we’ve got a learning difficulty but we’re a lot cured because we all want to work at the end of the day and we want to be a part of a community so they want to be, again, when they get paid work then they can go in the evenings, to the pub. Some people might leave them.

DEBRA: What do you think have changed?

STEVE: I suppose, it’s mostly people being seen in a community more, really.

DEBRA: Do you think that was something that happened in the past, people just stayed away and didn’t go out to the pub?

STEVE: Yes. It’s just that if they got care man: so, this is what your options, let’s not go out in the evenings. Or when it’s daytime they get picked up by the minibus, dropped off by the day center then get dropped off at in the evening. So sometimes that was the only option, really.

DEBRA: Matt, can you tell us a little bit, I suppose, about the structure of Skillnet, how it works and important things like funding, what’s the aim of the organization overall?

MATT: The roots go back around 15 years with a small group of people who had experienced Day Services, we call them in the UK, for adults with learning disabilities. And we’re really in despair about how people did not develop, grow, and progress in those places. Too often we’re just be sitting there all day, watching daytime TV or coloring things. And a small bunch of people broke away from all of that and said “We want to put choice and control.” In the hands of people themselves and asked what did they want to do. And so that’s been the guiding principle ever since.

Steve has been talking about the kind of initiatives that have grown from that, developing work skills and engaging employers to develop real, high-quality, paid jobs, not just volunteering or a semi-paid job with shopping vouchers. It’s about real work and so genuinely valuing people with learning difficulties and autism as contributors to society not just passive recipients of social care. So that’s the really the background.

We are a social enterprise so we’re a non-profit organization but we’re not a charity. So again, in UK terms, we’re in deciding not be a charity. We’re not the kind of organization that goes around saying to donors “We want your money please to help people with learning difficulties” because that has too often reinforced the imbalance of power and we’re interested in equal power, equal voice, equal influence and status for people with learning difficulty.

So, we deliberately not into fundraising like that, we’re a social business not a charity. So that means we have to be business-like in the way we operate. Very serious about quality, efficiency, investment in our services as well not just expecting donations and grants to come falling into our lap. So, we sell a service to the State here which wants to find opportunities for people. We sell our services in support for people. We sell our service to other parts of the State that are interested in overcoming barriers to work. So, we are a supported employment agency and we have very skilled job coaches and employment engagement specialists who provide that service to enable people to reduce their dependency on State handouts and welfare. Instead, become independent and get a job, get paid for it, and have their own earnings as well which is less of a burden on the State in terms of funding, support for them, and much much better for them as well as independent, contributing people instead of social care beneficiaries.

DEBRA: Can I just explore that charity a bit because that’s an interesting idea. Do you think that with charities, it becomes that the people that are being supported are a charity in inverted commas?

MATT: Look, we wouldn’t want to paint all charities with the same color. There are some very progressive charities that are enable people to become independent, to develop skills, and have an equal place. But too often, in the history of charities’ culture, people with learning difficulty have been presented as being in need of the resources, the generosity of independent, well-resourced people so it reinforces this imbalance of power.

And our observation is that very often charities are appealing to those motives and donors in order to maximize donations. So that can de-value the way that people are presented. We just want to put clear blue water between that culture and the way that we work alongside people as equals and not as people that we give our service to but as people that we journey with us as equals and get as much gain for both of ourselves from working alongside as we hope to give people as well.
DEBRA: So as a social enterprise then with not getting charitable donations, where’s your funding come from?

MATT: The substance of our funding does come from the government because there is a political interest in supporting people to progress and to achieve and that comes from really the policies that Steve has been talking about, Valuing People, which is much more about independence, choice, and control for people as supposed to just care and support. So, government funding for what we do but in addition to that, we set up small social businesses within our umbrella company, Skillnet.

So, for example, we have a recycling workshop and that project produces all sorts of creative items out of waste materials mainly wood. Well they do commissions for people for example big wooden planters for gardens, bar tables, those sorts of things. They go out to fairs, go to shops, and market those items. That’s all intended to give people a sense of being part of something that’s business-like, that’s profitable, and has real value to people in what they produce. We have a catering enterprise as well. There’s a group that meet to cook but also go out to events and provide catering. So that’s the sort of things that we’re really into. Just trying to find ways to enable people to be seen, to be heard, to be visible, and contributing.

DEBRA: Have you got examples of people that have moved on and used the skills they’ve learned and moved on to other things?

MATT: There’s a young man, for example, who started with us very shy, quite socially anxious and he became a customer service person in our cafe. Through that project, he was supported just to build his confidence; serving people, serving customers actually being the meter-and-greeter or the smiling face at the door when they first come in. And he spent about a year and a half with us, just developing his skills, his confidence. And he then moved on from that project and went into catering environment himself and it’s a paid work. I’m not in touch with him anymore now but certainly at that point that was the real stepping stone for him into sustained work.

DEBRA: The guys that come to you, how did they find Skillnet?

STEVE: Some come from care manual, some come from word of mouth from parents that might heard about us and again they want to build the confidence in their sons or daughters so they come to taste to see if they’d like it, and if they like it then they’d come along so they can do courses. If there were some people who don’t want courses so they just come along to do music.

DEBRA: Do you have a whitelist?

STEVE: Some projects have but some projects, there’s still status. So…

DEBRA: So, depending on what it is. You said you have cafe. Do you have people cooking?

STEVE: People learn how to make coffees and take money.

DEBRA: The money that they make, that goes back to Skillnet, I assume?

MATT: It does, yes. Wherever possible, we create our own paid work as well so in some of those projects, they’re profitable enough for us pass small amounts of paid work to the people who are developing skills. We do that where we can but that does more limited scope to do that then we’d ideally like. We kind of break even as a company and we’re not passing any profits to shareholders or private owners but nevertheless, we’ve got to operate as a business and generate enough surplus to continue developing and growing.

DEBRA: What are the plans for the future? And you can tell me yours as well, Steve.

MATT: Broadly speaking, as an organization, we want to get a lot more effective at communicating and influencing because we believe passionately in our values of seeing people with learning difficulty and autism as genuine equals and as people who are necessary to society contributors and difference-makers.

We see very little of those values in wider society. Despite a lot of progress, particularly in the last half of the 20th century. So, we want to be more influential, we want to go our values out there join with others who believe the same things and really try to influence many more people to change their perceptions and their attitudes. So, we’re putting a lot of our surplus into developing communications, getting better at social media, getting better at engaging the press and how we talk about who we are and what we do as well.

The other big area that we want to develop in is supported employment because it wasn’t what we started doing so it’s a more recent development in the last 4 years so we’ve come on leaps and bounds in our skills with supporting people into work and engaging employers. But again, and again, when we get to know people who join us for the first time, they’re saying to us “I’d love to have my own money, my own independence, my own place to live. I’d love to have a job. What is there out there for me? Why can’t I get support to do that?” So, we want to do much more of that because that’s in response to what people have said they want to do.

Funding that is often difficult. It has to be funded by the State. Employers will begin to put money into that when they see the real business benefits to them as employers, but in order to do that, you’ve got to really make the case first and give people the opportunity to show what they can do and that has to be funded so it has to come from the state and we have keep looking for opportunities to do that as best we can.

DEBRA: And your future, Steve?

STEVE: I suppose in the future; I hope there won’t be a Skillnet. I would like to be in the future, everybody with learning difficulty be part of the community. There won’t be those groups like Skillnet but I can’t see what it’s going to be in the future but one good thing about Skillnet, we all move in with the time.

DEBRA: But to be fair, I think the fact that you go out to schools is going to make a pretty make difference anyway. Just talking to other people about just being part of the community. Thank you, Matt. Thank you, Steve.

DEBRA: Key takeaways? People with additional needs want opportunities not charity. Perceptions are changing or be it slowly as more people with additional needs push us to change our expectations of them.

Bemix (formerly Skillnet Group)
Valuing People White Paper

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