How would you feel if you were constantly defined as a problem? Pigeon-holed as a hard-to-reach unemployed man with mental health or addiction problems and offered a string of social care and health services that don’t seem to make things better. How would that affect your self-esteem and your confidence to parent?

Now imagine you are defined as a father. Asked by a friend to join a group of dads, hanging out with their kids one Saturday, building rockets in the park. Having fun, building relationships, doing something enjoyable with your children and other dads. How would that affect your self-esteem and your confidence? What might the knock-on effects be for your family and your health?

Chris Dabbs is Director of Innovation at Unlimited Potential, a social enterprise based in Salford. He says, ‘Our core business is what we call social innovation for happiness. We take issues that large organisations find difficult and use innovation techniques to address them through a focus on people and communities. Instead of defining communities in the usual negative, deficit-based way, around their needs, we always start with their strengths and their assets.’

Unlimited Potential (together with Inspiring Communities Together) was one of five partner sites in the Realising the Value programme. It contributed experience and learning on asset-based approaches to health and well-being.

Salford Dadz

One of Unlimited Potential’s programmes of work is called Dadly Does It. It began with a group in Salford, now called Salford Dadz – Little Hulton, and is being explored in two other locations in Greater Manchester. It aims to improve children’s and fathers’ health and wellbeing.

In most of Salford, preventable illnesses are more common than the English average and life expectancy is shorter. The first Dadly Does It group is in one of the 3% most-deprived areas in England, according to the 2015 indices of deprivation. Significant amounts of money and energy have been spent on services in the area with little change in health inequalities.

Unlimited Potential took a different approach to tackling these problems and began by listening to the community, looking for people or communities doing well, against the odds. Chris says, ‘We tried to identify what were the assets that nobody else was using. What became apparent was that the greatest asset that children’s services generally fail to engage is fathers. They are essentially mothers’ services and they’re not very welcoming, on the whole, to dads.’

The Salford Dadz activities ran in the area in conjunction with Unlimited Potential for two years, and continue as an independent group. They describe themselves as a group of dads and grandads helping each other to help their children. Unlimited Potential is gathering evidence and stories from this and the two other locations to build a picture of the impact of the approach, which centres on fun activities and sharing experience.

The teenage son of a father in the area told the group, ‘When I grow up and have kids of my own I’ll bring them to Salford Dadz. I know what my dad’s done for me. Everything he’s done for me I can pass on to my kids. Some kids are in really bad neighbourhoods where they don’t get anything like this.’

Positive outcomes

Although not yet published, the quantitative and qualitative data collected so far point to improvements in the health and wellbeing of children and young people, and of the fathers. In most cases, the parents were not together, but mothers also articulated benefits for them from the programme. As well as having a few hours a week break from childcare, mums described how the dynamics within the relationship shifted and the fathers were seen in a more positive light.

An analysis of the work done in the first locality in Salford found that every £1 invested through the project was equivalent to between £14-20 of social return for the community. £1 of public investment yielded at least £2.25 of savings in children’s services alone.

Chris says, ‘We’ve got people who have stopped drinking, who have stopped doing crime, who have gone back to work after many years of unemployment, so it’s not just a health impact – they take control of their lives.

‘Given that we have a large number of children living in poverty, and the resources within public services are inevitably going to reduce, we have to identify the assets and strengths within that group if we’re not going to allow another generation to risk failure. We think that the biggest untapped asset we have is fathers.’