Words of wisdom from NACCOM founder Dave Smith, as he retires from the charity

NACCOM founder and Network Development Worker Dave Smith is retiring from the charity, 13 years after he started the network as an informal coalition of projects in 2006. NACCOM now has a network of 110 member projects all across the UK, which last year accommodated 3,211 people and provided an incredible 410,323 nights of accommodation.

Dave has been instrumental in the development of NACCOM, and his experience, compassion and dedication to the cause have been invaluable to so many people and projects in the network and elsewhere.

Read more about NACCOM’s history here

Before his departure, Dave shares some of his top tips for NACCOM members and others who work in charities supporting destitute people seeking asylum and refugees.

Everyone at NACCOM wishes Dave well as he embarks upon the next chapter in his remarkable career. We hope his words of wisdom and optimism, based on decades of experience in the sector, will inspire people across the network and beyond.

“The great thing about being old is that you can look back and reflect with a degree of authority on the things that you have learned. Often those things are a result of having tried and failed, then finding a better way. Sometimes they are simply the result of seeing what someone does better than you, and just, very occasionally, they are the result of some inspiration.

So here are my tips for NACCOM members, distilled from twenty years of working in the refugee sector, first with a homeless charity called the Mustard Tree, then the Boaz Trust, Manchester City of Sanctuary and NACCOM. I have condensed them into five principles, though actually there could be dozens more.

1, Share, Learn, Network This is really the essence of NACCOM. When we held our first exploratory meeting of projects in 2006, no one could say they were experts. Everyone was a learner. We were all keen to find accommodation for refused asylum seekers, but really didn’t know how to do it. Sharing what little knowledge we had was crucial to growth. That’s still a guiding principle, and the reason why people come away from our conferences and hubs with renewed hope, enthusiasm and determination.

And to those who say “I haven’t got time to network, I am so busy with our day-to-day activities”, I simply say, “Actually, you haven’t got time not to network!” Of course, you need to choose carefully what you go to – some meetings (not ours!) are just hot air, and some aren’t relevant to what you are doing, but networking works – so build it into your calendar!

2, Keep Your Focus  Don’t forget what you are about. That will differ for members: NACCOM has a very broad membership. Some members major on accommodation, while others have a huge range of services and activities – but whatever your remit, stick to it and don’t get distracted. Distractions can come in all sorts of guises: a pot of funding that would help the finances but drag you away from your core mission; an opportunity that is very enticing but would stretch your capacity to breaking point; perhaps even a very talented person whose aims don’t match those of your project.

In early NACCOM trustee meetings we spent more time debating the details of who are the ultimate beneficiaries of what we do – people seeking asylum? Refugees? Destitute refugees and asylum seekers? Migrants? Migrants with NRPF? – and why we do it, before anything else. Why? Because if you are clear about who and why, then you can get on with the how – and you will do it better!

3, Be Flexible and Prepared to Innovate  At first sight that may seem to contradict the previous principle, but the truth is that circumstances change, new opportunities arise, different ways of working become available, and if your organisation isn’t able to respond to these, then you will never grow. Your core principles may remain the same, but how you reach your objective should never be fixed.

If you are going somewhere and your current bus takes an hour to get there, you would be mad not to get on a new service that gets you there in 30 minutes! It should be the same for your project – sometimes there are better, more efficient and more empowering ways of reaching your goal than your current way of working.

4, Be passionate but not precious  There are many social action projects that were started by a visionary with drive and passion, but have gone stagnant or hit difficulties because the one who started it won’t let go. I am a starter, an ideas person, but I am utterly rubbish at managing a project. No one in their right mind would recruit me to manage anything – I find it hard enough to manage myself! So those who are starters need to ask themselves, “What are my strengths and weaknesses? What am I good at and not-so-good at?”

Almost from the start you need to be looking for people who can do things better than you, and when you find them, as long as they have your passion and heart for the project, begin to give them responsibility and encourage them to develop their skills and talents. That may even mean handing over the reins: that will not only be good for your project – it will be good for you, as you can begin to do what you do best, not what you feel constrained to do because there is no one else to do it.

That’s why I can leave employment at NACCOM with no worries – the team there are excellent, passionate people with the right skills for the jobs they are doing! The same is true for the Boaz Trust – it runs perfectly well without me (some may say it’s better!)

5, Unless you have achieved what you set out to do, why give up?  Are there still destitute, vulnerable refugees in your town or city? Then the need has not gone away! Not everyone is called to stay in the same job for life, but all our projects need people who won’t give up! Just remember that, for every refugee or person seeking asylum you accommodate, support or befriend, it is a life that has been made more bearable, and sometimes a life that has been transformed.

For me, it helps hugely to know that I don’t have to do that in my own strength. Having a faith in a good God who cares more than me about those who are vulnerable is a huge bonus – but wherever you get your strength from, don’t give up!”

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