Aspired Futures

The National Lottery Community Fund

This is the story of a charity choosing to close. Aspired Futures ran from 2010 to 2021, offering long-term support to vulnerable children and young people in Blackpool.

With the impact of the pandemic on both services and funding, the trustees took the decision to wind up Aspired Futures. They wanted to close in a managed, controlled way that would allow them to support the young people, and staff and volunteers, through the transition.

Knowledge and Learning Manager Zoë Anderson hears from Maggie Cornall, Chair of the Board of Trustees, Finance Officer Helen Atkinson, and Head of Services Suzanne Williams about why this was the right outcome.

An intensive service model

Aspired Futures’ approach was intensive, to match the challenges its young people faced. Many were on the child protection register. Most had poor mental health and disruptive home environments, with issues such as addiction, domestic violence, and poor life or social skills. Ages ranged from five to 18.

“Staff were willing to roll their sleeves up, and take on almost a parental role,” Helen explains. To teach young people cleanliness and how to look after themselves, they set up a wellbeing room, “almost a salon – doing it in a way that was very nurturing, very compassionate”.

The service included transport to and from after-school sessions. That journey was part of the session: it meant having trained staff on the doorstep, “to perhaps negotiate on behalf of the child or young person, who could have been living in a chaotic home”.

Working this way was expensive, with high ratios of staff to children – but without it, many of the young people wouldn’t have attended sessions. And it built trust, Helen says. “Sometimes Aspired Futures was that one constant a child would know: it’s Tuesday, Suzanne will be here at half past four.”

A change in the funding landscape

Maggie Cornall Aspired Futures
Maggie Cornall

Covid-19 played an important part in the decision to close. During lockdown, Aspired Futures switched to online support, and stopped taking new referrals.

In 2018, they had 67 children on roll. By December 2020, this had dropped to around 40 – yet the organisation still cost a quarter of a million pounds a year to run. “We’d always been expensive,” Helen says, “but we were getting more expensive by the day.”

The project’s National Lottery grant of £411,240 was due to end in June 2021. In normal times, the team would have started work on a new grant application in summer 2020. But during the pandemic, the Fund – like most of the sector – prioritised Covid crisis funding. Aspired Futures prepared applications to other funders, but found programmes were closing faster than they could get the applications in. “We knew that opportunities out there were shrinking,” Helen says. “Less money available, and more people chasing it.”

By late 2020, Maggie says, “we were getting increasingly nervous”. They recognised that, even when applications reopened for normal funding, they couldn’t be sure of getting another grant – and time was ticking on. Their National Lottery Funding Officer was supportive, “but obviously she couldn’t make any guarantees," Maggie explains. "We were really mindful that if we didn’t start making decisions about the future of the organisation, we’d end up just running out of money.”

We knew there was a three-month window to handhold the children, map services, and make sure the outcome was as positive as it could be
Helen Atkinson, Aspired Futures

A moral decision

Helen Atkinson Aspired Futures
Helen Atkinson

Their greatest fear was an unplanned, chaotic closure. “We could probably have run for another six months after the Lottery grant had expired,” Helen says – but for Aspired Futures, that wouldn’t be a long time. “A number of children had been with us for more than five years. It was very much our principle that we would commit to the children as long as they were engaging, as long as they were committed to their own progress.”

Among the children they supported, “the common thread was poor mental health, poor emotional wellbeing – quite often, they had been let down by others”. Staff and trustees didn’t want to give these children more broken promises, by offering long-term support and then closing at short notice.

Having reached this point, the trustees consulted staff in January, looking for alternatives to closing. They considered changing the ratio of staff to children, or joining forces with other organisations. Everyone felt this would mean “diluting” the intensive service Aspired Futures offered.

If they did close, Helen explains, “we knew there was a three-month window to handhold the children, map services, and make sure the outcome was as positive as it could be”.

“If we were going to make that decision, we needed to do it in as ethical a way as possible,” Maggie says. If Aspired Futures had to close, she was determined to do it properly, with support for the young people and proper redundancy packages for staff.

“For all the trustees, it was a heartbreaking decision to have to take – because it was a beautiful organisation. The nurturing feel, just as you walk through the door, was amazing.” And they wanted the closure to reflect those standards.

Quite quickly, there was a turn to the positive
Suzanne Williams, Aspired Futures

Working with staff

Suzanne Williams Aspired Futures
Suzanne Williams

“Communication was key, between all of us,” says Suzanne. “Everyone was kept involved, every step of the way.” The trustees started with one-to-one meetings with all staff, explaining plans for the organisation and for individuals, including plans for redundancy packages. “We made a commitment to each member of staff,” Maggie says, “that we would do what we could for their future employment.”

As Head of Services, Suzanne then followed up with each staff member. “My role was the wellbeing side,” she says. “Any questions regarding the process would go back to trustees, but it was making sure that everyone, as a team, was okay.”

After the first shock, “because there was so much support in place, everybody understood and was on board with it," Suzanne explains. "Quite quickly, there was a turn to the positive: ‘Let’s look to see what we can do’.”

Staff were offered professional guidance, either from the trustees themselves or from a pool of trusted advisors. A trainer/therapist was available for anyone who needed emotional support or employment guidance. Staff could consult a finance management advisor, and take new or updated training to help them find work.

“We did offer more generous redundancy packages than the standard,” Maggie says, “so that gave staff more breathing space.” Most had found new work by the time they received their exit packages. “They had really good, marketable skills that other organisations would welcome.”

Handholding through change

Aspired Futures had always partnered with other organisations in the area. “We wanted to work with children and young people until they could be independent,” Helen explains. When they were ready for the next step, they would often move to a less intensive service. With the decision to close, Aspired Futures looked for ways to continue more in-depth support.

They found it at Boathouse Youth. When he heard about the closure, Boathouse Chief Executive Laurance Hancock got in touch, asking how he could help. He recognised that Aspired Futures had offered a unique service in Blackpool, and that it would leave a big gap.

Laurance suggested developing a new service – “not identical to Aspired, but similar” – within Boathouse Youth. He adopted Aspired Futures’ transport offer, a key part of its intensive service. He also took on some of the staff and volunteers. This made the transition “much smoother for the children and young people, because they would still be seeing the same faces”.

As a larger organisation, Boathouse Youth could share overheads more easily. “You didn’t need to expand the back office to take on this new service,” Maggie explains. This removed some of the financial strain.

The new service has been designed to work as a pathway, with children gradually moving into Boathouse Youth’s mainstream service – and with more encouragement to progress. Children can see their next potential step, which Maggie sees as “increasing their aspiration” to move forwards.

As part of its managed closure, Aspired Futures was able to give Boathouse some financial support, giving Laurance time to fundraise for the new service. “He was confident that if we gave him that breathing space, he would be able to sustain the service into the future” – keeping the long-term promise made to the young people. For Maggie, it’s a solution that has “allowed the legacy of Aspired Futures, if not the actual service, to continue.”

Most of the children moved to Boathouse Youth, but some were matched with other services. “We would go to the new service with the children,” says Suzanne, “go with them for a few weeks, introduce their team, talk to the parents, make sure that there was a seamless support package for them.” They also had the option of accessing Boathouse Youth, on top of their new service.

Think about your beneficiaries, rather than your organisation
Helen Atkinson, Aspired Futures

Leaving a legacy, moving forward

As Aspired Futures wound up, it made sure that its resources were put to good use. Because it had healthy reserves, and plenty of equipment, it could offer financial or practical support to others.

The team contacted other Blackpool organisations who worked with children, giving away office, kitchen, and games equipment. Healthy eating had been an important focus for Aspired Futures: groups would prepare and eat meals together, with children taking part in the cooking. Some items went to the children themselves, Helen adds, “because we knew they’d got favourite things, or things they needed at home”.

They worked carefully with children and families to spend the money left over from other sources, such as a Covid-19 grant from a local trust. After consultation with families, they were able to provide school clothes or shoes, underwear or bedding, a new bed or other furniture.

This wasn’t something Aspired Futures had done before. Like the organisation’s core work, it helped to build self-esteem, reminding the children that “they deserve those things," Helen explains. "Having clean uniform and shoes that have soles is not a privilege, it’s something they are entitled to.”

Over the final three months, work with the children focused on celebration. “It was a perfect transition,” Suzanne says. “We’d had some time to reminisce, to go back over the memories and celebrate Aspired Futures’ time, then move on to the next part of their journey.”

The organisation had always marked and rewarded achievements: every child had a folder, documenting their steps forward and reinforcing confidence. As part of the closure, each child received a farewell gift box, which included their certificates and a trophy.

“It was keeping the good memories alive,” Helen explains, “but also making sure that the children were completely focused on what they had achieved, how successful they had been.” It was a tangible reminder that leaving Aspired Futures meant taking a new step – but one they had worked towards. It told the young people, “You’re capable of doing this, you will be able to do this without us.”

It was a beautiful organisation. The nurturing feel, just as you walk through the door, was amazing
Maggie Cornall, Aspired Futures

Maggie Cornall, Helen Atkinson and Suzanne Williams spoke to Zoë Anderson on 5 July 2021. This page was last updated: 08 September 2021.