Life as a Dot Dot Dot property guardian: Tom, east London

January 29, 2021

From east London Dot Dot Dot guardian, Tom

I’ve been a property guardian with Dot Dot Dot for nearly four years. I’ve lived in my current home in Tower Hamlets since January 2020. 

Years of private renting meant rarely picking up a paintbrush, or delving into any DIY. Tight rental rules on decorating, and deposits, means properties have to remain how they are. As a guardian, I have helped paint rooms, put up shelves and hang pictures. It is enormously liberating to know I can try new things without the restrictions normally found in renting. My knowledge of plumbing has also improved as guardians are encouraged to find fixes for small issues themselves before calling assistance. I’m far from a handyman, but I feel I’m getting better all the time.  

Dot Dot Dot’s focus on volunteering has led to opportunities that could have otherwise passed me by. Life can be fast-paced and even with the best intentions, volunteering time can be choked by other commitments. The obligation to do 16 hours a month as part of my licence agreement makes volunteering part of my weekly routine, and never an “extra” thing that gets squeezed in (or squeezed out). I’ve given time to many organisations and causes close to my heart such as male suicide prevention, community sport and local regeneration. I’ve made terrific memories and met lots of new people through my volunteering. I’m currently a listening volunteer at Samaritans 

Guardianship has also given me peace of mind. Dot Dot Dot’s warm, approachable relationship with their guardians is hugely reassuring, especially during a pandemic. I’ve only had one experience of being given notice but I was soon offered another in the same part of London. I knew this wasn’t a guarantee so I was grateful for Dot Dot Dot’s efforts. Staying in the same area means remaining a short walk from my office (when I’m allowed there!) – saving time and money that could be otherwise lost to a commute. Communication from Dot Dot Dot is excellent – it feels very clear what I can expect, and what’s expected of me – which only adds to a sense of stability and clarity.  

A good home for less-than-market-rate cost made my 2019 career change easier. After ten years in one industry I began in another I was more keen to develop in. This meant an inevitable pay cut and the inevitable internal questions. Among everything else I had to think about, I felt fortunate to need not worry about affording my licence fee and could focus on managing the transition. 

Becoming a guardian has introduced me to an unfamiliar area of London and one I now love. Living in modern developments in Finsbury Park and Stratford, I had never spent meaningful time in the Custom House / Canning Town / Poplar corridor, just north of the Thames. I try to visit the river everyday if I can. The beautiful Thames Barrier Park is perfect for exercise and the peaceful Thames path is great for disconnecting from the world. I’ve become a regular open-water swimmer (and a volunteer) at Royal Victoria Dock, completing the 10K Dock2Dock in September and have volunteered with several community events. 

I never shy away from recommending property guardianship with Dot Dot Dot to others. Its’ differences to renting means it usually requires a bit of explaining but I’m happy to take the time. Being a guardian has given me the freedom to pursue my goals, develop skills I didn’t know I had and live in an area of London I love. I’m very grateful to all those who have helped give me this opportunity.  

Read more from our Founder Katharine Hibbert, as she explores what change has meant for our current guardians, and how our model has helped them through periods of transition in their lives.

Be the change – how Dot Dot Dot’s model helps people going through transitions

January 22, 2021

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert 

Change is always hard, whether it’s change you chose yourself or change you didn’t want but have to deal with anyway.  We know this first hand at Dot Dot Dot, because change is central to our work – for the buildings we manage, for the people living in them, and for the neighbourhoods living locally.  We regularly discuss how our work fits in with property owners’ transformation plans and how it smooths the regeneration process for local communities, so this blog focuses on the ways in which our work helps guardians who are going through changes themselves.

The most obvious way that we help guardians through times of change is by providing well-managed homes in convenient locations, costing a fraction of local market rents.  With some financial pressure off, guardians who want to retrain for a new job or start a project of their own are sometimes able to cut down on paid work to ease the transition.  For example, our guardian Rachel, a dancer, was able to set up her own business whilst still affording a home in London by living in one of our buildings.

On the other hand, some guardians need this breathing space for reasons they didn’t want.  When a relationship ends, it can be difficult for both partners to afford homes of their own when previously they were only paying for one.  We find that the housing we offer can help people to avoid adding financial stress to an emotionally fraught time.  Similarly, we hear from current guardians that the fact that they were already paying less for their housing has helped them to deal with a downturn in earning caused by the pandemic.

On top of this, the flexibility of the housing we provide is often useful to guardians going through a time of change.  It’s a fact of life for property guardians that their homes are only temporary.  They are placed in them as licensees to take care of them on behalf of owners, and may have to move out at 28 days’ notice if the owner wants them back.  While this lack of security is a down-side of guardianship for some, this flexibility works both ways.  Guardians are not locked into six- or 12-month contracts, and can time their move-out to suit themselves rather than to fit in with a tenancy duration.  This is useful for people who are finding their feet in a new city.  It also enabled some of our guardians to move out of our properties and back to their home towns at short notice when they realised that they wouldn’t need to go to the office for the foreseeable future.  Although we were sorry to see them go, this also created space for us to house new people who had to reconsider their housing situation due to the pandemic.

Our emphasis on volunteering is important for its own sake, but it also helps guardians when they’re going through transitions.  Giving time to good causes is a way to learn new skills and try new things, as our guardian Elizabeth describes here, and can lead to results that look good on a CV and support career changes.  Just as importantly, it often leads to working alongside people you’d never normally have met – whether charitable beneficiaries or fellow volunteers.  A survey by the British Heart Foundation found that four out of five of its volunteers had met new people through volunteering, and more than half felt less lonely as a result.  This mixing is also a way to see the world through a different lens and consider different value systems, which can lead to new ideas and open the door to fresh opportunities. 

Finally, we hear from guardians that our emphasis on neighbourliness and community is a support through times of change.  Leaving the familiar and working towards the new can be isolating – whether that’s arriving in a new place or moving on from a job or relationship, and whether or not that change was deliberate.  Having friendly faces around, and knowing that help will be available if you need it, can make a big difference.  Even though much of this mutual support has had to move online during lockdowns, just exchanging a ‘hello’ and a few words in passing with familiar people who live nearby can go a long way, as The Samaritans emphasise in their ‘Small Talk Saves Lives’ campaign, and as The Economist discussed in a recent issue. 

So, while we can’t take away the difficulty of change altogether, we’re glad that through our work we’re able to make it a bit easier for some of our guardians, and we’re looking forward to doing as much as we can to help people through the uncertainty to come in 2021.

Find out more about our commitment to providing great housing to property guardians and raising standards in our industry here. Over the next three months, you can hear more on our Instagram from our guardians about how we are helping them through periods of change or to achieve a long-term goal. Follow us to keep up to date here.

The law has spoken – property guardianship and business rates

January 15, 2021

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert

Until recently, the situation on business rates for buildings lived in by property guardians was clear – the buildings were exempt from the business rates which would normally be due on empty buildings, and liable for Council Tax instead.  The conclusion last month of a long-running court case has changed that.  This blog by our Founder Katharine Hibbert, explains the situation now, and gives Dot Dot Dot’s response.

What happened?

Back in 2017, London Borough of Southwark challenged the decision that a building on London’s South Bank, Ludgate House, should be exempt from business rates due to its occupation by guardians.  The first round Valuation Tribunal for England agreed with LB Southwark that rates were due.

Ludgate House’s owners appealed this decision in the Upper Tribunal, and in 2019 were successful in overturning it, returning the situation to what was the norm elsewhere i.e. that the building was not liable for business rates, and council tax was payable instead. 

However, LB Southwark appealed again, and last month the case was heard in the Court of Appeal.  We blogged about the case back in November, before the court had heard it, and you can find our previous take on the matter here.

When the case was heard in December, LB Southwark were successful, and the Court of Appeal decided that business rates rather than Council Tax are due.  This is now the final word on the case, and sets a precedent for all similar arrangements, so is significant to the property guardian sector.

The full judgement is available here, and Giles Peaker, a housing lawyer who is an expert on property guardianship, has provided an in-depth discussion of the legal reasoning behind this judgement on his blog, here

The central issue which shaped the judges’ view was the fact that the owners of Ludgate House retained very significant control over the building and guardians’ use of it. This meant that although guardians were using it as their home, the purpose of their being there was of direct benefit to the building’s owners.  Therefore, the judges decided that the building’s owners hadn’t given up control of it to a sufficient degree to enable it to be removed from business rates.   

What didn’t happen?

Because the judges’ decision was based on fundamental points of property law, they did not consider the point made by LB Southwark’s lawyers that the property guardian scheme in question was unlawful in any case because the property guardian provider (VPS) did not have a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) licence in place even though the building needed it.  As the judges said: “it is unwise to deliver judgments on points that do not have to be decided”.

Whilst no doubt the judges made a wise decision here, Dot Dot Dot would have welcomed examination of this issue at high level.  Existing law makes it very clear that buildings lived in by property guardians need HMO licences if they are HMOs, and Dot Dot Dot always secures such licences or others required by local authorities where relevant.  Not all property guardian companies do so, which puts property owners, property guardians and the reputation of the property guardian sector at risk – not to mention the fact that it enables property guardians to claim back fees they have paid to live in a property which should be licenced and is not.   

It was also not relevant to the judgement that the building was lived in only by a few guardians. Even if more guardians had been present, the property owners would have retained overall control of the building, meaning that rates would have been due.

Dot Dot Dot’s response

At Dot Dot Dot, we are disappointed that buildings lived in by property guardians will now be eligible for business rates and not Council Tax under current legal arrangements.  The previous situation created an extra incentive for property owners to work with property guardian companies by creating tax savings, meaning that more buildings were brought into use as homes instead of being left empty. 

It is not even likely that this judgement will create significant additional tax revenue – a wide range of other rates mitigation schemes are available, most of which have no socially positive effects but which cut revenues to the government.  For example, leasing a building to a newly created company set up purely for rates mitigation purposes, which is then liquidated, is a legitimate way to avoid the tax which benefits no one except property owners and scheme providers. 

However, rates mitigation was never a major selling point for Dot Dot Dot – most of our clients work with us because they are looking for reliable, flexible, cost-effective property security and an opportunity to make a positive difference to society.  And, in fact, the majority of buildings we manage were not eligible for rates in the first place, because they are residential or properties like halls of residence or sheltered accommodation. We have already discussed the changes with the minority of our property-owning clients who it will affect, and are working with them to find ways forward.    

The most positive part of this judgement is that it reinforces guardians’ status as licensees. Licensees have permission to live in the building in order to take care of it on behalf of the building’s owner, rather than tenants who have a right to exclusive occupation.  This distinction has always been clear, but understanding of it is growing as property guardianship becomes more common and widespread, so every further reiteration of the point – especially in the highest courts – is helpful in reducing the potential for confusion.   As Peaker says in his blog: “This judgment does, however, mean that there are greater hurdles to climb in any possession defence by guardians alleging a tenancy.”

More widely, we at Dot Dot Dot agree with those calling for wholesale reform of business rates – including, last month, the Financial Times and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.  Taxes shape decisions for individuals, businesses and local authorities, so we hope that any future update to the business rates regime will encourage socially worthwhile uses of buildings that would otherwise be empty. 

Update 26th January 2021:
We understand that the owners of Ludgate House are challenging the Court of Appeal’s decision in the Supreme Court, so the verdict discussed here may not be the final word on how buildings lived in by property guardians should be taxed. We will provide updates as the case moves forward.

To talk to us about how Dot Dot Dot’s brilliant property guardians could be part of your regeneration strategies, please do get in touch at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.
You can also find out more about our commitment to raising standards in our industry here.

 

Why is Dot Dot Dot a member of the Property Ombudsman scheme?

January 15, 2021

Dot Dot Dot has been a member of the The Property Ombudsman scheme for a few years now, and you might have spotted the Ombudsman’s membership logo on some of our communications. Our Chief Executive Peter Brown explains why Dot Dot Dot a member and why we think it’s important.

Whilst Dot Dot Dot is not an estate agent, there are similarities between our day-to-day property management activities and the activities that you’d see any letting agent carrying out:

  •       making sure property is safe and ready to be lived in,
  •       advertising property and explaining the options,
  •       being clear and transparent on pricing and costs,
  •       marketing properties,
  •       vetting applicants fairly to find the most suitable occupant, and
  •       moving them in so they can make their chosen building their home. 

Several of our long-held company values and the way that our team always strive to do things – holding ourselves to high standards, treating everyone fairly and in a straightforward way – are reflected in the Property Ombudsman’s codes and its instructions to all members. So one of the appealing things for me about joining the Property Ombudsman scheme was that it gave us a considered framework for treating customers fairly. 

We’ve found that it’s been useful to reflect the Ombudsman’s requirements in our own processes because this gives us an additional way of making sure our values translate into action, and therefore shapes how our customers experience working with us.

We also think it’s a positive thing to be a part of a scheme that is improving standards across the lettings industry, even if the way we need to do things as a property guardian social enterprise is sometimes different from agents in the mainstream lettings industry. We’ve consistently championed over a number of years why we want all guardian properties to be safe, enjoyable and comfortable homes that meet all required legal standards. It’s important to us that we help drive up standards across the property guardian sector because we believe this benefits everyone involved. We see our Ombudsman membership as complementary to our approach in this important area.

We believe we are the only major property guardian provider to have signed up to the Ombudsman scheme. We hope that being a member of the Ombudsman scheme and what this signals is reassuring to everyone that is considering doing business with Dot Dot Dot – whether a property owner or someone looking for housing as a property guardian. 

Over the years that I’ve led Dot Dot Dot, we’ve seen increasing regulation and higher standards in many aspects of the property rental sector (electrical safety, property licensing) alongside a suite of stronger consumer standards (restrictions on the fees that can be charged, capping of deposits). These represent improvements to the private rented sector and provide a set of important minimum standards that give customers confidence, especially to those who are housed regardless of tenure type. 

Dot Dot Dot has always taken the approach that these standards apply to what we do – certainly we have seen ourselves following the legal requirements more willingly compared to some property managers. We welcome anything that helps to improve health and safety of the buildings which people call home, and we see that improved standards give guardians and property owners confidence in the property guardian sector.

It’s also a legal requirement for all property agents to be a member of a redress scheme, so, should it ever be needed, the Ombudsman’s high quality and independent service is available to our customers in the rare event a complaint could not be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

If you’d like to find out more about how we work, you can sign up to our monthly newsletter, Meanwhile Thoughts, here.

Working with Peabody for the future of Thamesmead

January 13, 2021

Built in the 1960s and deemed ‘the town of tomorrow’, Thamesmead’s distinctive brutalist architecture has been the backdrop to several culturally significant works of film and TV throughout the last 60 years, from A Clockwork Orange to Harry Potter. More recently, with the help of Peabody’s community investment, it has become a hub for culture and the arts and is home to Thamesmead festival and myriad community projects.

Since 2015, Dot Dot Dot have collaborated with Peabody to house property guardians in 120 properties in Thamesmead over the course of the housing association’s 10-year regeneration of the area. Over the last five years, we have housed almost 300 guardians in buildings that would otherwise be empty, and those guardians have contributed over 45,000 hours to worthwhile causes.

We take pride in our ability to be sensitive and responsive to our clients’ specific needs. We have the resources to conduct market research for our clients to gather both qualitative and quantitative data from our guardians. This valuable service gives our clients insight into who we house, where they volunteer their time and their contributions to their local economy and community.

After some discussions in the autumn about how to bring more value to the partnership, we conducted a survey to give Peabody a greater insight into the economic and social contribution of our guardians. 

Bringing economic regeneration to Thamesmead

Peabody are particularly interested in boosting Thamesmead’s local economy, not only for the inhabitants of post-regeneration Thamesmead but also for its current residents. Property guardianship can be an effective way to bring footfall and boost economic development in an area. 

We conducted phone interviews alongside the online survey to gather both qualitative and quantitative data from the 38 guardians (75% of resident guardians) that took part . A third of our guardians in Thamesmead run their own businesses, and, of those, 77% were based in Thamesmead. These businesses covered a multitude of areas, including dance teaching, project management, hairdressing, beauty, handywork, painting/decorating, media services, art production, young people and education, and poetry. Not only is it testament to how guardians can boost their local economy, but also to the sheer diversity of skill sets amongst the people we house.

Creating and sustaining a sense of community in Thamesmead

We have endeavoured throughout our partnership with Peabody to explore how we can best benefit the Thamesmead community. As we ask each of our guardians to volunteer 16 hours a month to a good cause of their choice, we have an invaluable resource that can be directed to local community projects and voluntary efforts. For example, Peabody are particularly aware of the need to help Thamesmead’s most vulnerable residents with grocery and prescription collections during the Covid-19 crisis, and asked us whether our guardians could support their efforts locally. The survey provided a good opportunity to ask guardians if they were interested in local Covid-19 volunteering and Mutual Aid groups, and we were able to direct the relevant people back to Peabody.

Due to a shared interest in social value, Dot Dot Dot and Peabody have a strong alignment of values. We also used the survey as a chance to gauge attitudes towards Thamesmead, and placed particular emphasis on whether guardians would stay in the area after their guardianship ended. Of those asked, 87% said they liked living in Thamesmead and 79% said they would consider living in Thamesmead after their guardianship had ended, making them potential future residents of the newly-renovated estate. In combining property guardianship with social value, we have helped Peabody to create and sustain a sense of community in Thamesmead which will last beyond our meanwhile partnership with them.

Through our sustainable approach to this long-term meanwhile project, Dot Dot Dot has contributed not only to Peabody’s meanwhile objectives for economic and community development in the area, but to their future vision too. To find out more about the history and future of Thamesmead, you can visit: https://www.thamesmeadnow.org.uk. 

 

If you’d like to find out more about how we collaborate with our clients, you can sign up to our newsletter here or get in touch with us at partnerships@dotdotdotproperty.com.

On the ground: Guardianship that meets your needs

December 18, 2020

From our Director of Services, Mark Ackroyd

In the first of our ‘On the ground’ series, we explore some of the details of how our service works. In future articles, we’ll look in more detail at how we set up, operate and demobilise our service in different settings. In this article, we describe how Dot Dot Dot creates the right division of property management responsibilities for each client.

How to prepare a property for safe occupation can often seem like the most important question. It’s a critical step (both practically and financially), and we will be exploring the setup phase in future articles. But it is important to think more widely about how property management will function across the lifetime of a guardian contract; in many projects, this is the critical factor that helps guardianship deliver the maximum benefit to property owners. From my experience, this is one of the most pressing questions for clients who have to juggle existing property management budgets and pressures.

 

Matching contract responsibilities to client needs

At Dot Dot Dot, we think it is critical to understand not just the properties, but also the needs and operating environments of our clients. The following examples of issues or pressures are likely to be familiar to all property owners, but we find that each client has a unique set of priorities:

  • Mitigating fixed costs (e.g. council tax, utilities, maintenance contracts)
  • Protection against unauthorised occupants or vandalism
  • Removing day-to-day property management demands (e.g. access, security, repairs)
  • Handling core FM functions such as managing a planned maintenance programme
  • Buffering against occasional costs (e.g. roof repairs, flytipping)
  • Controlling long-term dilapidation and disrepair 
  • Reputational or political pressure around property use

Our goal with any client is to offer contract options that are a good match for their specific needs. We can customise and adjust this very finely, but below are some examples of common approaches.

 

Example 1: Like a lease, but not a lease

Under this model, clients hand over properties at a basic standard, and Dot Dot Dot takes on all of the in-life compliance, repair and management responsibilities. This includes the costs, repairs and maintenance that would normally fall to a leaseholder. Property owners or asset managers retain responsibility for block level maintenance (though we can often assist).

This structure has similarities with a leaseholder arrangement, but there is no lease required. Clients can end our service contract with 30 days’ notice. This model works well in many residential settings, and is particularly useful during ongoing decants with an uncertain pipeline of void properties.

 

Example 2: Shared management 

In larger buildings (commercial or residential), many clients wish to retain their own PPM and compliance regimes. One solution is to share the ongoing management with Dot Dot Dot. We can take on the on-site operations and daily FM responsibilities at the property, including responsive repairs. In major assets, this might include establishing suites of operating procedures and monitoring regimes.

By working with existing safety systems and regimes, we can simplify the cost structure and workload of our client. This leaves them free to focus on predictable upkeep, and on securing the next phase of the building’s life. This is a collaborative approach for hands-on clients. It can be a great solution for complex assets where owners or asset managers want to solve security or FM problems, but need close control of financial and operational risks. 

 

Example 3: Turnkey property management

One of the simplest contract options is for Dot Dot Dot to take on the full breadth of property management. We’ll develop a full management and occupation plan, allowing us to take care of all compliance, maintenance and management in line with the client’s needs.

Clients may choose to take an arm’s length approach and to rely on our reporting and reviews to keep in touch with their property. Others might remain closely involved in monitoring and decision-making. Armed with a detailed understanding of our client’s needs and of the property, Dot Dot Dot can often help clients to navigate uncertain development or sales timelines by assisting with medium-term asset management decisions or projects such as minor works.

This is a good option for clients with multiple competing priorities. It allows owners and asset managers to put assets ‘on hold’, while being reassured properties are secure, managed and maintained until needed.

 

Picking the right approach

Owners and asset managers with experience of guardianship may have a clear view of the service they require, but they do not need to decide in advance which approach will best support them. 

By sharing their priorities and needs, clients enable Dot Dot Dot to identify the right structure. Although guardianship is always at the heart of our service, we recognise that a “one size fits all” approach will limit the value we can offer. Instead, we believe in matching our service to the circumstances and needs of each client.

 

Next in ‘On the ground’ – How we mobilise in large and complex properties.

Spotlight on: Tom – what it’s like to volunteer for Samaritans

December 18, 2020

Writer for The Economist by day and volunteer with Samaritans by night, east Londoner, Tom, has been a Dot Dot Dot guardian for three years. Writing from his 2-bed flat, Tom describes the reality of his eye-opening role as a listening volunteer, and how being part of an army of like-minded people looking to make a positive difference is an extremely rewarding venture.

It’s 10.30pm on a Monday and I’m one of hundreds of Samaritans volunteers on duty tonight. I cycle from Poplar along the Thames path and under the Greenwich Foot Tunnel to my local branch in Lewisham. The river is peaceful and the path quiet. It’ll be silent when I return just after 3.

Becoming a listening volunteer begins with an information evening and a short selection process. Training normally involves several sessions which mix theory and role-play. These are usually in person but have been virtual during the pandemic. New volunteers are then assigned a mentor and you work together to develop your practice until you’re ready to take calls independently. However, you’re never “flying solo” – there’s always at least two on duty in a branch at any one time plus a leader on call. Training is stimulating and eye-opening. I was part of collaborative and close-knit group and many of us have stayed in contact. “This is not work experience” we are told early on. And it’s a really important point. Volunteers are discouraged from seeing training at Samaritans as just a stepping stone to a career in counselling. To train as a listening volunteer is to share the mission of the organisation and commit to regular duties in the long-term.

Contrary to perception, and despite being founded by a vicar, Samaritans is not a Christian organisation. The Rev Dr Chad Varah described its beginnings as “a man willing to listen, with a base and an emergency telephone.” The Daily Mirror called Chad the “telephone good Samaritan” and the name stuck. Now, over 20,000 volunteers in over 200 branches provide emotional support over the telephone, via email and by letter. There’s currently a pilot project trialling instant messaging too.

When people find out I volunteer at Samaritans, they usually have lots of questions. Our strict confidentiality policy – everything said in a contact remains within Samaritans – means volunteers do not share what’s been said in a call, even with those closest to them. There’s lots of support within the organisation. Common questions asked, that can be answered, include how often do you do it (I volunteer once a week) and do you always do nights (no, you can generally choose your hours but you are expected to contribute to the night shifts).

Volunteering for Samaritans is extremely rewarding: after each shift you know you have helped a number of people. You sense you’ve made a difference at the most basic level – you have been there for someone. You feel part of an army of like-minded people with similar motivations. Although the charity is vast, each branch has its own ways of doing things and each is its own unique community. As a guardian, my regular duties enable me to fulfil my 16 hours and often more.

There are lots of development opportunities within Samaritans. Each branch relies on volunteers taking on additional roles: from management, to mentoring to fundraising. Volunteers are supported to develop their skills and follow their interests. Two years into my Samaritans journey, I’m now helping my first mentee begin theirs.

You can donate to help Samaritans maintain their listening service at www.samaritans.org/donate-now. Whatever you’re going through, you can call Samaritans any time, from any phone for free on 116 123. You can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org. For more, visit www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan.

Read more of our guardians’ volunteering stories over at our guardian spotlight

Volunteering: Once you pop, you can’t stop

December 2, 2020

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert 

“Thank you for the diligent chivvying”

Perhaps it’s a surprising thank-you note to feel particularly good about, but one of the most cheering emails I’ve had from a Dot Dot Dot guardian was to let us know that his experience with us had changed his mind about volunteering.

He had moved into one of our homes prepared to volunteer for a good cause because he understood that it was part of our model, but he wasn’t very enthusiastic about it.   He had chosen to become a property guardian with us because we had nice flats at a good price in the right place for him, and because of our reputation for fairness and thoroughness.  He didn’t mind volunteering for the 16 hours a month we expected, but he wasn’t particularly excited about our vision of a society where people have the time and energy to give back to causes they care about.

But by the time he moved on from our housing, volunteering had become part of his life, and he carried on after he left – so he emailed me to say thanks for the accountability we’d created for him while he got going.

A survey to make us smile

This man’s email was unusual, but his journey wasn’t.  We recently surveyed our guardians, and of the nearly 100 people who replied, 98% of them said they plan to carry on volunteering after they leave our housing, even though nearly half didn’t volunteer before they joined us.  These responses are encouraging, since enabling people to get involved in good causes and supporting them to become lifelong volunteers is central to our purpose.

Two thirds of the guardians said they plan to carry on doing the same amount of volunteering or more than they have done while living with us, which means continuing to give at least half a day a week to a good cause, a significant commitment.  And two thirds of them volunteered within the borough where they live, meaning that our work has a directly positive effect on the local areas where we operate.

Of the 55% of guardians who volunteered before they joined us, more than half now do more volunteering than before.  Only 4% of guardians surveyed volunteer less than they did before they were housed with us.

A majority also replied that they experienced no down-sides to volunteering – although three in ten said they found it difficult to make time for it.  Covid-19 has also forced four in every five of our guardians to update their approach to volunteering – 11% now volunteer with a different organisation, 13% have moved their volunteering online and, for 21%, the venue in which they used to volunteer is currently closed.  Around a quarter are currently volunteering for less time than they did before the lockdown, while 10% are volunteering more.

When we asked guardians what benefits they experienced from their volunteering, the most frequent responses included the feeling of making a difference, appreciating the roots it gave them in their communities, the fact that it gives them more empathy with people in need, and their own improved mental health and wellbeing.

Giving a helping hand…to form a lifelong habit

These results – and feedback like that quoted above – are very important to us at Dot Dot Dot.  We are not here to press-gang people into doing something they would prefer to avoid.  We aim to attract and house people who want to volunteer and who would like a solution like ours to lower the barriers to doing so, and perhaps a bit of encouragement to actually crack on and do it.

We’re very clear with applicants for our housing that if they’d prefer not to volunteer, they’ll be better off with one of the other property guardian companies in the market – and in this respect it’s fortunate that the other providers don’t expect their guardians to help good causes.  We understand that not everyone has the time and inclination to volunteer, and that’s totally fine – it’s just that we exist for those who do.  So it’s great to see that our guardians are committed enough to their volunteering to continue beyond their time with us.

Our experience is that once people get involved with charities and projects that they care about, and once they are using their skills effectively alongside people they’ve got to know and like, the satisfaction and benefits of volunteering create their own momentum.  So even if getting involved is a bit of a chore at the beginning, it quickly becomes worthwhile in its own right. And those who didn’t volunteer previously are much more likely to report that volunteering has given them new skills they can use professionally and greater satisfaction. We’re glad this means that we’re helping our guardians to improve their own lives, as well as encouraging them to help others.

We’ve thought hard about the ways in which we can help to make volunteering as rewarding as possible for the guardians themselves, as well as impactful for the charities they help.  At its simplest, we aim to help people to find more time to volunteer by lowering their cost of living and providing homes in areas they couldn’t otherwise afford.  Many of those locked in the private rented sector have to work for longer or commute further than they ideally would, and the pressure saps their energy and enthusiasm for giving back.  Reducing the burden of housing costs frees them up to do things they would like to do but previously couldn’t.

On top of this, we find that by creating an environment where being a good neighbour and giving time to good causes is the norm, getting involved feels natural.  And the fact that we send round volunteering opportunities and check how all our guardians’ volunteering is going every month creates accountability.

We think of this aspect of our work as being similar to the role of a personal trainer in a gym.  Even if you know that exercising is good for you, getting started can be hard work and you may need a bit of outside help to get you to actually do it.  It’s not that the personal trainer forces you to do anything you don’t want to, they just reduce the amount of willpower you need to exert to get it done.  We hope that our contact with guardians about their volunteering does a similar job for them, in encouraging them to do something they would like to do anyway.

So while we’re very glad we’re able to support our guardians to collectively give thousands of hours to good causes every month, credit for the effort should go to the guardians themselves – they’ve found the charities they want to help and the roles they want to do, and they’re going to continue into the future.  We’re happy we’ve been able to provide some help along that journey.

You can see more of our guardians’ volunteering stories here. Or to find out more about how we are supporting our guardians to volunteer for good causes, why not read How volunteering helps everyone – not just the beneficiaries.

How volunteering helps everyone – not just the beneficiaries

October 29, 2020

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert

Supporting volunteering has always been central to Dot Dot Dot’s work – and our focus on it is something we are never asked to justify.   No one needs an academic paper to tell them that it’s worthwhile to support people who’d like to do good for others. And it’s easy to see that volunteers keep a huge range of worthwhile organisations going, from household names like the Samaritans and the St John’s Ambulance through to small local food banks and sports clubs.

But the indirect benefits to society as a whole of volunteering, neighbourliness and civic engagement go way beyond the benefits to individuals in need who receive help from volunteers, or to the volunteers themselves who get satisfaction from doing it.  People living in societies with more volunteering, more social connections and higher trust tend to be happier and wealthier, so participation deserves to be measured, celebrated and promoted for these reasons too.

Most current discussion of the benefit of living in a community where people are engaged – either by volunteering formally, getting involved in neighbourhood groups or helping others informally – traces back to Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, published in 2000.  In it, he argued that social capital is essential to a well-functioning democracy, and defined it as “connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them”. 

He also drew a clear link between the frequency with which people get involved in third-sector activities and organisations, and higher levels of trust and social capital.  As he put it, ‘‘civic engagement and trust are mutually reinforcing’’ and ‘‘the causal arrows among civic involvement…and social trust are as tangled as well-tossed spaghetti’’. 

While it usually takes a certain amount of trust and positivity to start volunteering or to get involved with a club or society in the first place, Putnam’s point is that doing so creates a virtuous spiral – the more you participate, the more positive you feel about others because you have more good experiences and you benefit from more reciprocity.  And this in turn makes you more likely to believe that most people are basically trustworthy, which encourages you to participate more.

This is good for individuals. Sociological research repeatedly shows that higher social trust is correlated with higher levels of happiness, life satisfaction and subjective wellbeing, and we frequently hear from our guardians that their volunteering is positive for them as well as helpful to the causes they give their time to.  

But it’s also good for society as a whole.  Work by Marta Portela and others in the journal, Social Indicators Research, shows that the higher the level of social capital a country has on average, the more likely individuals in that country are to be happy and satisfied with their lives.  And these benefits occur even for those who don’t participate regularly – if you live around others who get involved and have a good opinion of their fellow citizens, your life is probably better too. 

It also makes us all richer.  A country’s average levels of social trust predicts its economic growth more accurately than its average skill levels, according to Dr David Halpern, the Chief Executive of the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team.  As he puts it, “Low trust implies a society where you have to keep an eye over your shoulder; where deals need lawyers instead of hand-shakes; where you don’t see the point of paying your tax or recycling your rubbish (since you doubt your neighbour will do so); and where you employ your cousin or your brother-in-law to work for you rather than a stranger who would probably be much better at the job.”  All of that makes life less enjoyable – but it also makes it more expensive and holds back innovation and entrepreneurship, making countries who lack social trust poorer too.

So even though most people who get involved in formal or informal volunteering do it because they want to help a specific cause and because they enjoy it, by doing so they are also making everyone a bit more likely to be happy and wealthy.  We support volunteering because of its positive impacts on good causes and on the volunteers themselves, but by doing so we hope we are also making a small contribution to building a more positive, happier and richer society as a whole.

You can find out more about our commitment to supporting the volunteering efforts of our guardians here, and read more of our guardian stories here.

Spotlight on: Stuart – Changing Horizons

September 11, 2020

The 10th September 2020 marked World Suicide Prevention Day, an important time to reflect that in the absence of face-to-face interactions, keeping human connections alive wherever we can is more important than ever. Today we are sharing Dot Dot Dot guardian Stuart’s story, in which he speaks frankly about his own mental health challenges, and how this eventually led to setting up his charity, Changing Horizons. Read Stuart’s story below to discover how he has been able to help thousands of people access the help and support they need to improve their mental health – himself included.

 

Did you know that the leading cause of death men under the age of 50 is suicide? That the same is true of women under the age of 35? Suicide is word that makes people feel uncomfortable. It’s steeped in stigma, myth and misunderstanding. One if five people in the UK will experience suicidal thoughts at some point in their life. It’s highly likely that one of your family members, friendship circle or colleagues are wrestling with these thoughts right now. Sadly, most of us experiencing these thoughts will suffer in silence; too afraid or too ashamed to speak out and ask for support. Tragically, the act of suicide becomes a reality for far too many with one in fifteen making an attempt on their life. It’s terrifyingly common with the devastation of a single act of suicide felt far and wide.

It’s not as though I wanted to die when I attempted suicide. I was lost in a sea of desperation, burdened with feelings of hopelessness, sadness and loneliness with no end in sight. I had been struggling with for over ten years with depression, a common illness where rates among people in the UK have doubled during the coronavirus pandemic, with one in five adults struggling with symptoms. Suicide wasn’t new to me having lost my best friend to suicide at the age of 21. It came as a complete shock. I had no idea he was struggling at the time which wasn’t unsurprising given that I had never revealed my struggles with depression, self-harm or suicidal thoughts. We’d shared our hopes and dreams together, but clearly kept our woes and worries to ourselves.

Unlike Mark, I survived my suicide attempt but I still felt like I had nothing to live for. Depression had robbed me of my career, my relationship and all the plans I had envisaged for a happy future.

I became embittered by the reality that mental health was very much a taboo subject in a society where talking about physical health is almost part of our daily ritual. It felt like most people dealt with mental health by not acknowledging its existence at all. It seemed so unfair and so unjust. Why should we have to hide how we feel? Due to the stigma of mental health, many of us choose not to speak out. When we do open up to those that are around us, so many are afraid of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing that they just do nothing. Wanting to find a reason to live, I decided to make it my life’s mission to normalise conversations about mental health. I’d achieve that by setting up a charity that provided courses to equip participants with the knowledge to recognise symptoms of mental ill health and install them with the confidence to start a conversations about mental health.

Armed only with an idea, I applied for funding from the National Lottery in 2011 to train as a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and run a pilot project training people in Mental Health First Aid. Remarkably, my bid was successful and my organisation ‘Changing Horizons’ was granted charity status. I’ve never looked back. Through my charity, I’ve gone on to train thousands of people on how to start conversations about mental health. I’ve had participants find solace in the courses I provide and finally access the help and support they need for their own mental health. It fills me with pride knowing that participants have used the knowledge they’ve learnt to start conversations about suicide and ultimately, save a life. Being a Dot Dot Dot property guardian and the inexpensive housing it affords has allowed me to run a lot more fully funded courses and deliver life-saving courses to a greater number of people. It’s why I find being a property guardian such a privilege and am grateful to Dot Dot Dot for that.

Life is really tough for many of us at the moment. Myself included. The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on my mental health. I’m finding life a challenge, but my life is very different now. I’ve built a network of support so that I don’t have to suffer in silence anymore. I speak to counselor on a weekly basis. I take medication to help me manage my mental health which provide stability so I can meet life’s challenges head on. I’ve got friends and a partner I can be open and honest about my mental health with. I still have suicidal thoughts but I now know how to beat them. It is okay not to be okay. However, it’s not okay to suffer in silence like I did. A conversation can be enough to start someone on a journey to recovery. If you see someone struggling with their mental health, stop and have a chat. You could help save a life.

If you need someone to talk to then you can call the Samaritans on 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org 24/7. Check out more of our guardians fantastic volunteering stories here.

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