Interview with Andy Willis, Founder and Trustee of registered charity Banburyshire Citizen Project
Andy suffers from dyspraxia, a brain developmental disorder that affects motor skills and co-ordination and sometimes, cognitive skills.
Despite being undiagnosed until well into his adulthood, Andy successfully completed a Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) degree in Ecology at Westminster College, Oxford. As part of that degree, Andy also studied Art, Music and PHSE. Andy worked in education and the Civil Service but from 2006, Andy’s career has become a catalogue of selfless commitment to the voluntary sector.
Andy worked as Assistant Manager (Voluntary) of Banbury Benefit Advice Project (BBA) and then became a volunteer adviser in 2008 at Age UK, Oxfordshire. While there, he helped to establish the Banbury Contact the Elderly project, which is still going and was never more needed than during the Covid19 lockdown. He has been a Workers’ Education Association branch organiser/co-ordinator and has campaigned for large charities, such as MIND and Leonard Cheshire Disability. In 2013, Andy also wrote a book entitled ‘Funding Made Easy’ which was published as a PDF and distributed free of charge to charities. He has won a number of awards, most notably, perhaps, was the British Citizen Award in 2019 for outstanding charity work and services to education. But it is Andy’s work with the Banburyshire Citizen Project that we will focus on here.
What are the charity’s objects?
Broadly, the charity’s stated objects are to provide advice on welfare benefits, general advice, career counselling and education advice. However, the charity has developed a much more holistic, innovative approach to its work to help broaden its impact.
What is the charity’s story?
Andy enjoyed 8 years as a volunteer adviser at Age UK but in 2016, the advice centre was due to close its doors for the last time.
Andy identified that the loss of what had become a vital local resource providing welfare benefits advice could be devastating for the area, which had pockets of high social deprivation. This opinion was reinforced by the ‘Cherwell Vision’ publication – a review by the local District Council of services available and required in the area. In May 2016, with the help of others, Andy set up the Banburyshire Citizen Project charity. The new charity took over an office previously used by another charity.
What is the structure of the charity?
The charity has a solid structure, strategically managed by a board of 5 trustees. There are no paid staff but the charity has a committed, dedicated and passionate core group of 6 volunteers to provide advice and other support. The charity is also currently training 2 additional volunteers.
Obviously, welfare benefits advice, dealing with issues such as Universal Credit, Attendance Allowance and Council Tax benefit, is a hugely complex and almost ever-evolving subject area so training has to be thorough.
Where does the charity operate from?
Such has been the ‘success’ and need for the charity, it now operates out of 3 premises:
Phoenix Office - an advice centre on the ground floor with disabled access and disabled toilets in building. Disabled parking is located directly outside, with a public car park across the road. There are shops nearby.
Cherwell Business Village Office – there is no disabled access and the charity’s office is upstairs and there is no lift. There is free parking on site but no disabled parking outside the advice centre.
Hanwell Fields Community Centre – there is disabled parking, free parking, disabled toilet in the building and shops nearby.
Admin is completed when clients are not present. The charity’s sites enable the charity to conduct confidential 1 to 1 consultations.
What does the charity do?
The charity’s core business is providing welfare benefits advice. In 2019, through its advice and assistance on welfare benefits ranging from Personal Independence Payments (PIP) to Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) and Disability Living Allowance (DLA), the charity secured the staggering amount of almost £250,000 financial gain for its clients.
In addition to its core business though, the charity’s diverse offer now includes issuing foodbank vouchers, providing money/debt advice and also administering small grants for the provision of aids and adaptations for disabled or other vulnerable clients. The charity has also set up a support group for people with autism.
One of the other ways in which the charity helps its community is by the provision of career counselling. With its dedicated careers advice software, the charity can help with creating CVs, jobsearch skills, information about available education courses and funding options. To support this work, the charity has produced its free-to-access learning resource BWPLA (Banburyshire Workplace Learning Advocates) website to encourage learning and skill development.
What impact has the Covid19 pandemic had on the charity?
As with the economy and charity sector as a whole, Banburyshire Citizen Project’s specific activities that involved direct, face to face interaction with their beneficiaries had to cease. Although its service delivery centres had to close, the charity still provided benefits advice via telephone. To its credit, the charity also assisted clients with benefit claim form completion via telephone. This is such a painstaking task at the best of times so having to do this via telephone makes the charity’s efforts in this regard even more commendable.
The charity was also about to roll out its Mental Health Awareness training package and delivery to local businesses and the general public. This project would have involved training volunteers also in Mental Health Awareness but this project has now had to be put on hold. This should have been able to generate some income for the charity.
Another income generation opportunity that has been lost is the production and sale of wax gift cards and paintings that the charity produces. The charity also had a large community engagement and social event planned for this summer which obviously had to be postponed.
Preparing to get back to ‘business as usual’ will cost the charity around £400 - £500 in purchasing PPE equipment for its staff and to make its venues safe. This additional cost was obviously not budgeted for.
What are the plans for post-Covid19?
The recovery out of lockdown presents continuing challenges for the charity. Initially, there will have to be an assessment of the impact of the pandemic on the health and wellbeing of the charity’s volunteers and trustees and also monitoring the impact on the charity’s beneficiaries, both in terms of the practical help that they need but also the potential impact on their mental health.
Following that, the charity is looking to re-open its advice centres in September. Grants received by the charity are often time-limited and require set outcomes. Thankfully, the grants that the charity has received have been extended to help cope with what may be increased demand on the charity’s services once it resumes its full suite of services.
Notwithstanding that, the charity will clearly need to seek alternative funding and will embark on a fresh wave of funding applications shortly after it returns to business as usual. Until then, it may need to rely on donations.
The charity will also try to source assistance with its social media profile and community funding bids from students at Bristol University that have set up a ‘Coronaversity’ programme to help small charities and other organisations on a pro bono basis.
As a priority, the charity is keen to secure long-term sustainability funding and to re-establish and reinforce its strong and positive relationships with partner organisations, volunteers and local businesses so that it can continue to provide its services to beneficiaries and the wider community.
Good luck to Andy and all the team at Banburyshire Citizen Project!!