Curious School of the Wild is a Community Interest Company (CIC). We are not the only nature or outdoor based organisation to adopt this structure in order to grow. This means that we are Third Sector Organisation (TSO) or as some refer to themselves, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO).
In recent years there has been an increase in freelancers or Sole Traders in the outdoor and environment sector registering as charities or social enterprises to reach more people, this includes those who are childcare, education or health based.
This blog explores the highs and lows of being a Third Sector Organisation. Much of the work being done by small TSO’s in the outdoor learning arena may be new and pioneering. We are searching for the balance between serving our communities well and finding ways to survive - so that we can continue to serve our communities well.
What is a TSO?
1. They are independent from the Government
This is a crucial element of being a TSO and is a part of their history and culture. TSO’s are able to help to inform and affect policy change through, often pioneering methods of operation, communication and activism. However, it doesn’t mean that government bodies are not ustilising TSO’s or that they do not work together. Often government bodies are not able to serve some communities in the way that a local TSO can and so it is becoming more common that delivery of vital services may be supported by organisations like ours, where government services are not able or not suitable. This can lead to challenges where the requirements of TSO’s are not the same as the requirements or standards of government bodies, or when the very success of a TSO in a community is due to it’s very separate operating procedures or requirements.
2. They are Non-Profit
No one who works for a TSO is getting rich. Profits are ploughed back into the organisation to keep it running to ensure they can continue to support communities. You can be sure that anyone who runs a TSO is doing it because they care and because they want to affect change and make lives better, often to the detriment of their own, (one disclaimer here is that some TGO’s may also have a related profit-making arm to their work-be sure to check!). Burn out is a risk for staff in TSO’s as the work is often challenging due to being in arenas that are overlooked by business and government. There is a constant threat of financial failure particularly for those who rely heavily on grants, funding and donations or work with communities who can not pay for the service.
3. They are Values driven
Third Sector Organisations exist to work towards specific values driven social goals. Ours is to support people to have ‘good outdoor lives’. We have a focus on financial barriers to access to the outdoors - pioneering ways to remove stigma and barriers for people in poverty and on low incomes. Sometimes working to one set of social goals opens up access for others and so we also have a ‘side quest’ to support neurodivergent communities to also access good outdoor lives.
What are the Highs and Lows of being a TSO?
As previously mentioned, staff burn out is a huge risk. TSO’s usually exist because there is an unmet need and this makes it hard for staff to overlook often overwhelming need in their communities and boundaries can be impossible to hold. Expectations are high, communities relying on TSO’s have sometimes been let down by other services or professionals. A TSO can find themselves in a situation where they might be a last resort and too much is pinned on the success of the relationship. The reality is that most TSO’s will have limited resources, staff, funds and time and that any support given is only achievable through creative solutions and enormous love, commitment and going the extra mile. After a catalogue of let downs, often from services legally bound to serve them, communities who eventually find support from a TSO can then find any boundary or limitation within the organisation hard to accept and manage. Your dedicated work can quickly turn to a tragic thankless task, even heartbreaking at times, when you can’t heal all traumas or meet all needs.
It is inevitable that as a successful TSO larger governmental organisations and others will want to use your services to access communities that they cannot - this is like walking on quicksand - you never know if it is solid ground or if their requirements will swallow you up! Most TSO’s work within a system of trust, this can take time and is hard won. Allowing outside organisations to work with your communities can very quickly damage the trust you have all worked hard to gain with each other. Often the systems of a government organisation are more difficult to overcome to be able to still effectively work with the unmet needs in a community. Nothing is for free in these relationships and it is the norm for those organisations who support you with offers of work or funds to require some evidence of impact or photographic evidence, which too often also breaks trust with your communities. Having strong boundaries with outside organisations keeps your relationship with your communities safe. As an aside, it can also be difficult to stomach all of the meetings that you are requested to attend or make by those who are: in comfortable salaried roles, in departments with more resources than you, using your hard work and expertise to achieve their own goals.
On a positive note, the relationships made and the trust earned are the absolute treasure in this work - these are the highs. Leaders and staff of TSO’s may thrive on finding solutions to local problems, working outside of governmental systems can give more freedom and scope for building targeted support in your communities. The benefits and impacts of this work are what propel you to keep going. Understanding that some communities have few options and that you fill a vital gap also keeps you going. Often leaders of TSO’s have lived experience of the social impact that they wish to see and affect and forming supportive communities is good for the well-being of everyone involved. Much good can come from those who have suffered but wish to prevent others from suffering as they have. In this case if you work from WITHIN a community it certainly trumps “doing to” a community, which rarely succeeds in any meaningful way. Employees of TSO’s are often from the community it serves which can guard against inappropriate or ineffective ‘top down’ solutions.
The opportunity to be flexible and responsive to need is a key benefit of a TSO. Changes can be made quickly and can be bespoke, with less bureaucracy to trudge through. A small team can be frustrating when you can’t find enough hours in the day for all of your work and the same few people do ALL of the tasks but it is suddenly a blessing when decisions need to be made quickly for immediate or even emergency action to take place.
I’d like to think that a TSO doesn’t believe in the term ‘hard to reach’ because it is close enough to instinctively understand that the community is underserved, unseen and unheard but NEVER hard to reach.