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Jubilee Money Advice Service, Oswestry

Jubilee Money Advice Service (JMAS) is a free debt advice service in Oswestry and District. The project began three years ago when the recession was beginning to strike hard and the television was full of news of the effect of growing debt on different aspects of lives. Then a man from the area killed his wife and child because of an extravagant lifestyle and insurmountable debts. Confirmation for me that I had to try and do something came when I was out on the street giving drinks and biscuits to people who were homeless and others who were just wanting to chat. A gentleman who stopped for a drink was talking about ‘how bad things were getting’ and said that the majority of people living in the same road where he was a resident, were in debt. This affirmed to me that my increasing thoughts of doing something about this problem were not stupid or pie in the sky, but somehow a possibility.

Getting started

Once I had made up my mind to find out more about what I felt God was saying to me, I went to a wise Church leader and shared with him. He pointed me in the direction of a vicar who ran ‘the Haven’ on the Market on a Wednesday and who had the same idea of helping those in debt. I quickly found this man and he then sent me to do lots of groundwork to check out the necessity for this service and that we would not be treading on other people’s toes. In this period which took about nine months or more, I approached Churches Together in Oswestry and District (CTOD) and also formed a group of like-minded people which initially we called the Committee. I started speaking at different churches, firstly the Quakers and then others followed. This groundwork was all completely new to me. I had never spoken in public before and certainly could not set up a workable Debt Advice Service. BUT..... It started to happen: investigating what organisation to join, writing reports on them to ensure the end decision was true and correct. Meetings of the committee started to take place. Members of CTOD voted to accept us under their umbrella. My direction from day one has been completely directed by God. Thankfully, if I got in a muddle, you could guarantee something or someone would come and point me back on track.

Activities

After a long journey, we opened to clients at the beginning of November 2010. To date, we are working and learning. The local council accepted us very quickly as an organisation that cares for its community. I have already been invited to two council-run meetings representing JMAS. When there was a drugs death recently, I was invited to go in with community police, substance misuse team, council and other agencies to sit under a gazebo in the housing area where drugs are rife. I gave out JMAS leaflets and was able to talk with residents. I pray that these activities may increase as we are invited to join in with community work which is so important in helping to make a difference.

In certain circumstances, we will help the client in their own home. This was not planned, but came about because the council referred a client who has agoraphobia to us. We have now introduced a risk assessment and form for advisers to fill in prior to doing home visits.

JMAS is evolving slowly. I like it that way. I want to see changes for the better and more clients coming along, but I don’t look for numbers. My initial plans and expectations for the organisation have already changed. We have trained advisers. They have brought ideas and suggestions that I would have never thought of which have already changed many of our working practices. As we are gaining experience, we are making JMAS much better. I really wonder just how much more we will evolve in the next year. The principle of helping people to become debt free, to educate and advise will always be there, but it will be good if we can introduce changes to make what we do for the clients even better.

The organisation

We are paid up members of Community Money Advice (CMA)[1] and Advice UK. We have registered with the Office of Fair Trading as required by CMA, drawn up our constitution, obtained charitable status and got trustees on board, taken out Professional Indemnity and put the necessary policies and procedures in place, including CRB checks.

I am Manager, a trustee, the treasurer and also an adviser. Having so many hats has been necessary up until now, but I am praying that people will come along with different gifts and that one day I can let go of some work and pass it to others. Making a firm foundation for the future is my drive at the moment. It can be difficult to find suitable advisers but I continue to interview and enrol more people, and I hope for someone to come along that can help release me from some duties so that I can network and deal with funding and other things which are very important if we are going to find our own premises in the near future.

The main leadership has been myself so far. I am thankful now to have the trustees so that decisions do not have to be just mine anymore. One has started to work with me on funding. I have asked two of the advisers to be supervisors, but neither wants the responsibility. So I will wait for newly trained advisers to arrive and hope in time I can find my supervisors. I am aware that enlarging the team is good and this will happen as soon as possible. Although it is hard, I think we are doing well because we are only nine months down the road.

Resources

To be able to get started we required computers, a printer and enough money to rent office space and a room to interview clients. Thankfully this (£5,000) was given to us by CUF. Without the generosity of this gift, we could not have opened last November. One of the vicars who is a trustee knew about the CUF and it was through his approach to them that we were successful. I thank God for them and their belief in something that was not yet up and running and in people they did not know. This was definitely of God, because they put their trust in us. As far as premises were concerned, the URC Minister who is also a trustee allowed us a very small space in their vestry for the computer at a cost of £60 per month for one morning and one afternoon per week. Next door to the vestry is a building called The Kingswell Centre, we hired a room for one morning and one afternoon per week at a cost of £160 per month.

With the increase in client numbers and additional advisers, the time has come to look for our own premises with office space. Advisers can no longer work in peace to input data and write to creditors, files have to be put on chairs beside us and when more than two advisors are in the office at the same time, concentration is difficult. Also The Kingswell Centre is under threat so we might be forced to move. For the sake of the our clients and advisers, and for JMAS to grow and move forward, funding must be our next priority.

When setting up JMAS, I felt we should not use a Church environment to advise clients. I still believe this. Many may not want to come to a Church building for help. We can take God to the clients just the same. I have used the vestry to interview clients and have brought a trainer from CMA to another Church on other occasions to train advisers. We do not hide the fact that we are a Christian organisation, but we want to ensure all clients are comfortable with the environment.

In addition to the initial grant from CUF, we have three regular monthly donations and a number of small organisations have also given gifts of money. Two new grant applications have recently been sent off, but we have not heard back from either one to date. The local churches still don’t contribute financially, but part of this is my fault for not pushing this avenue of provision as yet. I still have to learn how to approach Churches for help financially. Writing to the leaders has not brought forth the skills and resources needed. We have had some secular donations since opening and I hope to approach other organisations in the coming months.

I think we probably have more chance of grants from local funding committees than from national bodies. The support or help we need is for premises. If we could find someone who would offer us somewhere to rent at a reasonable cost, this would be a huge answer to JMAS future. The work load, the clients, everything is going well – to have finance stand in the way of helping people would be unthinkable, but the worry is still there.

Volunteers

We have had 17 clients so far and many of these are continuing to have ongoing help – they will have follow ups for as long as the client wishes to continue with help or ongoing advice. We might see each client five times or more depending on the complexity of their debts, during the course of dealing with their financial problems and with the interviews, letter writing and dealing with the whole package, I would estimate each adviser spends an average of 25 hours per client. On the basis of the minimum wage rate at £6 per hour, this would work out at £150 per client. There are four volunteers working regularly at present (with two others in the pipeline) so the probable cost since opening would work out at about £2,550. In addition, some have acted as observers in many interviews to give support, probably amounting to a further 27 hours making the total financial value of volunteer time based on 17 clients over a period of 9 months an estimated £2,712. This does not include the time given by trustees.

Links with other organisations

By being part of CTOD has introduced me to the leaders of at least ten Churches within Oswestry and District, but the reason I applied to be part of it was my hope to see more and more churches working together, so that much more could be done. I wrote newsletters and emailed attachments to each church. I was encouraged by how positive many of the ministers were about a debt advice centre, but there is less evident interest from the congregations. We have advisers from three different churches, but it would be good to enrol more people from other Churches in due time. However, there are signs of the churches working together more and I would like to think JMAS is playing a very small role in this.

CMA gives us amazing support via emails, a free telephone help line, visits from the area manager, the online web site, training and much more. We are also linked with Advice UK, a membership network for organisations that give debt advice.

Outcomes

Nine months on, we are still up and running! Seventeen clients does not amount to being inundated and, knowing how bad things are for so many people, I am surprised we haven’t had more so far. I have found that people are using online debt advice agencies; for example, I met one person who is paying £50 a month for his finances to be managed online. There are TV advertisements for the National Debt line which is free. Maybe many people like the anonymity of phone services but there is room for all agencies that help people. I believe we are strengthening our organisation and our pace is right for us at this time. I feel we are doing what we set out to do, but through development, we are changing and I think this will continue to happen. Every client we help, each one who reaches the offer stage and commences manageable payments, is a success. We have a contract for each client. Two people sadly broke the contract. Terminating our help to them was necessary but still leaves feelings of failure. We lost two more clients who have far too many other problems for us to help them at this time, but they know our doors are open to them in the future.

Success factors

· The three years of preparation and setting up the project prior to opening our doors to clients.
· Having a group of trustees that are supportive – we have prayer breakfasts and all believe in the power of prayer.
· Having like-minded Christian advisers who go the extra mile for the clients, and work together as a team and believe that God is the instigator and guide in this project.
· Being accepted by the Council and other agencies.

Barriers

In the beginning we had some opposition, there were people who came along initially who had their own agenda and I had some hurts, but overcoming these hurdles has made me more determined and stronger and also maybe I earned a little respect from the people that really mattered.

Finances are our main problem at this time because of our desperate need for premises and a working environment that is in one place. The amount of time that advisers can give is also difficult when there is a lot to do. That barrier would be lifted if we found our own premises. Then we would allocate different days for different advisers. We could see more people if we were open 4 or 5 days a week, and then it would actually give the advisors a rota so they would not feel they had to work too much.

One difficulty is that most trustees are all priests and so they are extremely busy. When things need doing quickly, I guess my idea of ‘quickly’ is a little different from theirs.

Challenges and opportunities

The challenges for the future are to:

· reach more people with debt issues.
· increase our finances to enable us to grow.
· afford more training for advisers.
· form more links with other agencies and to work together to help our community.
· find more members as required under our constitution.
· find regular monthly donors so that we could have some additional financial stability.

I believe that, when the time is right, God will provide the opportunities. I don’t know what those will be until they come about but, because I have seen miracles already, I am really excited about those future opportunities.


Lizzie Evans
http://www.jubileemoneyadviceservice.org.uk


[1] CMA is a Christian charity that is driven by the desire to help people whose lives are being blighted by debt and money problems. It helps churches and other locally based organisations establish high quality, free, face-to-face money advice services.