Charity trustee reflects on years of service after MBE award

Neil Dawson is one of a small number of people in Stoke-on-Trent to receive an award in the Queen’s birthday honours this week. He received an MBE for his services to the community, a journey he started in the 1990s.

Lisa Healings, CEO of charity VAST, said: “Massive congratulations to our Chair of Trustees, Neil Dawson, who was awarded an MBE for his services to the Community in the Queen’s birthday honours. Neil works tirelessly as a trustee for many charities locally, including VAST, Ford Green Hall, and Bradeley Community Centre, as well as being a Governor of The City Learning Trust. It is fantastic news that his dedication over many years has been recognised in this way.”

Neil spoke modestly of his pride in receiving such recognition.

He said: “Some things you don’t answer as an individual. Sometimes you receive something on behalf of the greater team. That’s the way I’d like to see it. That’s the way it is. Whether it be VAST or the other community sector organisations I’m involved with in Stoke, I feel proud that I’ve been selected to be the person to receive this.”

Referring to other awards he’s helped charities to achieve, he added that each gives a community an opportunity “to push their chest out a bit, saying that’s us, we’ve done that.” The celebration is for all involved.

Neil is proud to represent the voluntary and community sector in Stoke-on-Trent.

“I’m definitely a Potteries person,” he said. “I went to Staffs Uni. I’ve always stayed local. I love the area. I love the fact that we’ve got six towns. They’ve all got different identities, and they’re all proud of that identity.

“The heritage of Stoke on Trent, it’s phenomenal.

“I live in the Burslem area and we do an art exhibition, in conjunction with Keele. This last two years, it’s been a virtual one, but usually we get so many visitors wanting to come and see. And the first thing people remark is ‘Wow, the architecture!’ But so many of these buildings are empty. There’s real potential there. We’ve got to recognise that Stoke-on-Trent has got to turn around, it’s got to reinvent itself. Its heritage is an important aspect of that reinvention.”

Change will come about thanks to the work of people like Neil. Change happens when people, projects, and other stakeholders work together, he explained.

“It’s nice to celebrate things on your own, but it’s actually phenomenal to celebrate things collectively. No matter what it is, there’s an opportunity to work together. It’s that sharing aspect I’ve really enthused about,” he said.

Neil’s first substantial encounter with the voluntary sector started in the mid 1990s when he was serving as a Labour councillor in the city.

“At that time,” he recalled, “the council used to place councillors as representatives on the board of various organisations. I was put, along with Councillor John Beech, onto the board of Voluntary Action.

“At that time Voluntary Action (now VAST) was based in a tatty building down in Shelton. I walked past it three times and I thought it was closed. I thought it had been derelict for many years!

“It was just at the time when the Dudson family were looking to reuse one of their factory sites, in Hanley on Hope Street – and you’ve seen the consequence of that. It’s fabulous. The private sector was coming along to the voluntary sector and working in partnership. There’s been so much gain from that over the years. It’s been a prime way of getting sectors to work together. Everyone got real gain from it. It’s still there, in its strength now.”

The Dudson Centre.
The Dudson Centre. Photo: Jerome Whittingham @photomoments.

The Dudson Centre opened in 1999, and now provides modern office and meeting facilities for the voluntary and community sector in North Staffordshire.

Steering organisations to work together is one of Neil’s great skills. He believes that it’s in everyone’s interest to work together to find solutions.

“We all get angry because sometimes we don’t understand what limitations exist and how things operate,” he said.

Understanding the processes by which charities, councils, and authorities work is vital to Neil’s community development work.

“Everyone has a role to do, but put us together and we’re something special,” he said.

The charity sector has undergone great changes during the last 30 years, and Neil has followed them.

He explained: “I think the bigger organisations have got even bigger. They know that if they are in the decision-making process, they’ve got a better chance of survival, obtaining both clout and resources. I don’t blame them, they’ve got to do their best.

“We’ve now got to ensure those big players help to dissipate some of the powers to the smaller community groups and charities. And I think it’s just beginning to happen. It’s a process.

“I think the health sector has recognised this much earlier than the councils. They’ve picked this up as a really good way going forward because it’s empowering people.”

The charity sector has grown, often now delivering services that were once the responsibility of local and central government or even private enterprise. Neil cited the example of how social housing associations developed tenancy groups, who in turn set up community projects of their own, such as advice hubs and allotment groups. All these organisations need robust and reliable processes to succeed.

“The ‘voluntary sector’ implies everything is done for free,” said Neil. “A lot of things are, but how effective is that going to be if you don’t have the mechanisms and the skills to drive things forward? We must understand the processes.

“There is now, I would say, a significant number of people across our city who know how these processes work. Like the ‘Stoke-on-Trent Chief Officers Group’ that brings these people together. We must persuade these people to push the learning outwards, and I’m sure that they’re open-minded to do that,” he said.

Neil’s MBE award will not mark the end of his work, he’s excited to continue.

He concluded: “I can be a pusher and a moaner. I don’t mind moaning a bit if I can make a difference, but I prefer to celebrate.

“Let’s find solutions that make the moaning almost go away, so we can all celebrate.”

Website: VAST

By Jerome Whittingham for VAST, 17/06/2021