• Driving Connections: The Vital Link between Community Transport and Voluntary Organisations

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    • Driving Connections: The Vital Link between Community Transport and Voluntary Organisations
    • by Josiah Deakin
      Policy and Research Officer

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    VAST, the VCSE and Community Transport  

    The bond between community transport and the broader voluntary sector represents a remarkable example of how partnership working can improve lives in communities nationwide, irrespective of whether the people reside in the heart of urban sprawl, rural landscapes, islands or along our picturesque coastlines. This article discusses the importance of the relationship between community transport and the wider Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise sector (VCSE), a union that acts as a lifeline for those in need, championing accessibility, compassion, and a shared commitment to the well-being of our communities. 

    Recently, I had the privilege of talking with Charlotte Bennett, a dedicated member of the team at VAST, an organisation deeply embedded in the voluntary sector of Stoke-on-Trent for over a century. Over a decade at VAST, Charlotte has played a pivotal role in managing an array of projects, including the noteworthy volunteer car scheme, Door2Door (D2D). With one foot firmly placed in both the Community Transport sector and the VCSE, Charlotte is uniquely positioned to appreciate the immense value of a robust relationship between community transport and the broader voluntary sector. 

    During our discussion, the compelling case for forging stronger connections between Community Transport and the VCSE sector became abundantly clear. Charlotte conveyed how voluntary organisations heavily rely on individuals being able to access and engage with the support VCSE organisations offer. Notably, transportation emerges as a prominent obstacle that VCSE organisations and their beneficiaries frequently confront, with Charlotte saying that “time and time again, people running VCSE groups and Social Prescribing Link Workers tell us that people just need a bit of support to help them to access social groups and support services”. 


    The Benefit of Community Transport Involvement 

    It is in situations that Charlotte mentions where community transport can and does step in, often going above and beyond what other forms of transportation services offer. In Stoke on Trent, VAST’s car scheme, Door 2 Door, operates like many car schemes, with a team of dedicated volunteer drivers picking people up using their own vehicles to enable essential journeys and unlock destinations. VAST is also partnered with Newcastle-under-Lyme Community Transport to ensure that those with more mobility-restricting conditions can also access the transport they need and deserve.  

    For Charlotte, who manages Door 2 Door, the key to community transport is not cost efficiency but “is that community transport goes over and above other modes, making sure people safely get to where they need to be then settled back home at the end of the journey”. It becomes evident that, in many instances, community transport is the sole means by which individuals facing transportation challenges can connect with their communities and tap into the invaluable services provided by voluntary organisations. In the context of VAST, a significant portion of people using Door 2 Door are doing so to access other voluntary services, with an impressive 38.5% of journeys facilitating access to social groups and activities.  

    The benefit of community transport journeys is clear; when VAST asked people who worked with those with transport support needs, 85% believed community transport reduced isolation and loneliness and helped people forge social and community connections. The CTA has seen similar benefits for passengers because of the work done by operators through the Tackling Loneliness pilot projects, with 93% of passengers noting that accessing community transport services led to a reduction of feelings of isolation or loneliness. 

    While these numbers paint the picture of the benefits of community transport and the links to the VCSE, it’s the experiences of people that tell the story. Charlotte shared with me the story of Ken. Ken has onset dementia and uses Door 2 Door to get to his social groups. The groups provide Ken with purpose and motivation. However, the benefit is wider than this. The role that Door 2 Door plays in connecting Ken in a caring and compassionate way gives Ken the confidence to travel and his family the peace of mind that he will get there and back safely and comfortably. It is for people like Ken that building relationships and connecting people to the activities of other organisations is so vital.   


    More To Do 

    Despite the huge amount of meaningful work already being undertaken, Charlotte aspires to do more in terms of improving the links between Community Transport and VCSE services and unlocking the full potential of these partnerships. She expressed that “we don’t make enough of that connection, and it is something that we would want to do more of”. The challenge in doing this often lies in identifying and capitalising on opportunities.  Awareness plays a big part in this. Many wider VSCE organisations may be unaware that community transport services are out there and what they do.   

    For Charlotte, the solutions can be found in establishing connections within the local voluntary sector through Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) infrastructure organisations like VAST. She says these VCS infrastructure organisations are “the key link” because “through those organisations is where you will find networking opportunities and regular events and forums which help you connect into the [VCSE] community.” VAST, for example, facilitates networking through services such as sharing Stoke-on-Trent VCSE news and organising events for their members, such as forums. You can find VCS infrastructure organisations like VAST in other parts of the country through the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action’s (NAVCA’s) website here. The networking opportunities created by these organisations serve as the lifeblood of partnerships, facilitating the discovery of opportunities that can benefit the organisations involved and, most importantly, the individuals they aim to serve. 

    Moreover, building these connections plays a pivotal role in creating awareness of community transport within voluntary organisations, prompting wider VCSE organisations to integrate transport needs into the initial planning stages of their projects and services. This proactive approach is something Charlotte and VAST have encouraged, saying that “One thing we [VAST] explore is supporting groups to think about transport at the funding stage so that they are building in an element of funding for that.” This approach would see community transport involvement being incorporated into funding bids, which could be mutually beneficial, supporting community transport to play their role of transporting passengers, and for the wider VCSE, it ensures people can attend their valuable sessions. Ultimately, this would benefit those people who want to access services but face challenges due to a transport barrier.  


    Key Learnings 

    As our conversation neared its conclusion, we discussed the key learnings Charlotte had taken in her work so far. From this, two key takeaways emerged. Firstly, the importance of building a volunteer base. For Charlotte, this process extends beyond just recruitment; it hinges on making volunteers feel valued within the organisation. VAST’s strategy of bringing volunteers together, irrespective of their roles, helps forge relationships and develop a sense of team spirit among volunteers. Their work in this space helps to secure long-term volunteer retention. 

    The second learning brought the conversation back to the core topic, the pivotal role of building awareness and gaining visibility among stakeholders. Charlotte reaffirmed that “it is key to engage local partners” and just how important it is that community transport ensures that organisations in the local areas are well-informed about the services they deliver and their benefits. Building this awareness is the linchpin for unlocking partnership working and other opportunities. 

    With this, our discussion concluded. There is a lot to draw out of what we talked about. But for me, what shone through was the profound value that can be achieved through strong relationships between community transport and the voluntary sector, which lies in the potential to enhance the quality of life for individuals across communities. The projects already existing show the power of partnership and the enormous potential for transformative change when we work together to support our communities. As we progress, the sector must remain committed to fostering connections, looking out for opportunities, and ensuring no one is left behind as we build a more connected future. 

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