A lot of people have been asking us why we’re making changes to our community transport service. We hope this article will help with your questions.

VASA’s community transport service has been in operation since 1979 in the Stratford on Avon District. It’s been highly successful in delivering over 25 000 medically related journeys in recent years but, more recently, we’ve felt it necessary to implement a few changes to help the service continue along it’s already successful path.

Doing the review of community transport

Like any other business, a charity has an obligation to it’s beneficiaries as well as to it’s volunteers and staff.  With this in mind, we undertook a review of our community transport service in July 2016.

What the review told us was a bit of a shock! The service was in deficit. When we analysed why this had happened, it was simple. Our outgoings far exceeded our incoming funds. Not a good position for any organisation and certainly not for a charitable organisation.

The principle reason for this was that we were depending on paid staff to deliver the service instead of continuing with the original plan which is that the service was, and should always be, a volunteer led service with management. Staff salaries and overheads such as office rents, high telephone bills, an awful lot of hours on paperwork and admin fee collection coupled with the lack of a computerised booking system were the main culprits!

Looking at ways to save money

We started looking at ways we could save money and still offer strong delivery of the service.

Reducing overheads was the first hurdle. It’s never simply a case of reducing staff or closing offices but rather looking at how to implement ways in which the service can be delivered more economically overall.

We were lucky enough to have a volunteer who was able to build bespoke software that would reduce hours on our journey booking procedures. We had the software built – for free – over July and August this year and then started testing it for usability. It’s a wonderful system whereby a client can call in and place a request for a community volunteer journey within minutes.  They only have to give us their details ONCE and next time just tell us their surname and where they are going and, with the click of a button, all the details are entered ready for a driver to be matched to that client.

We knew that the clients would be happier!

What else did we look at?

We added social inclusion and rural inclusion journeys to our service so that we can now offer community transport to those living in more rural areas of the Stratford District and those who are isolated due to a lack of transport.

We also needed to cut back on the paperwork and administration that has added to our overall costs.

To explain how we work, drivers are matched by the system according to how close they are to the client so that it is the most cost efficient journey as they pay .45p per mile to the driver.  All driver matches are done by the operator calling each one available until they get a positive response.  Then the operator can log the drive and call the client back to confirm the journey. That takes time and patience.

Once a journey is confirmed, the client is notified of the length of journey, the cost of the drive and the cost of the administration fee. Administration fees are charged at a nominal rate to help our organisation pay for the overheads of running the service. Administration fees are between £1 and £5 depending on the length of the journey. The average is £2. All of those administration fees have to be collected for the service to help the service stay operational. Drivers often bring in their fees in cash while others pay through internet banking. It’s a huge undertaking to collate all of that and again, takes many hours each month. For this, we have one paid staff member part time and a volunteer helper. The resulting hours and costs to manage this process are very high and it’s not a task we can leave to the volunteers alone.

So we started looking at how we manage the administration fees and how our drivers and clients feel about them too.

Making administration easier for all

The feedback we received told us that we needed to relook the way in which we manage the administration fees. We asked our software benefactor if he could add a report by source i.e. can we draw off a report on all the journeys we undertake for WMAS (Ambulance service) or for a parish council?  Now we have a much less time consuming way to deliver of lists of journeys for invoicing to other organisations that use our service. We also have an easier way of reminding drivers to deposit their administration fees monthly so we’re always up to date. In time, we’ll have a log in at the front end of our software for drivers to submit fees and to pick up a list of their next journeys.

It’s also prompted us to do further research in to membership fees vs administration fees in early 2017.

Looking at external offices

VASA has offices in Stratford upon Avon, Shipston on Stour, Southam and Alcester.  That all adds up to a lot of rent, photocopying, telephone rental and other expenses. We had a hard look at the overheads of each comparing each to the  number of journeys they had booked over a twelve month period. We looked at the physical location and how it complied with data protection and lone working policies. We suspended our Alcester office and have now found a better solution that offers full data protection and complies with our working policies at a reduced cost. It will up and running in January 2017.

Our Shipston on Stour office is housed within the Medical centre and so our overheads are nominal. The office in Southam will benefit from the partnerships we have been building over the past few months.

Forging partnerships and encouraging growth

Charitable organisations need partners. VASA have been busy forging partners to help the organisation grow and more specifically, to help us grow our community transport service in the Stratford on Avon District. We have a partnership agreement with the WRCC (Warwickshire Rural Community Council) whereby we will be taking on their community transport clients and drivers in January 2017 to help them continue to provide and grow the service in years to come. We can do this for three reasons:

  1. We have software that will enable us to manage their drivers and clients needs from our main office or an outer lying office such as Southam without it disrupting their current service.
  2. We have a need for more drivers for the clients in our area.
  3. We have a good base of volunteer office staff to manage the service without it costing more.

In addition to this, we’re talking to other transport authorities to offer them our services when they’re looking at ways to enable community transport in their area.

In conclusion

VASA could have continued as we were but it wasn’t sustainable in the long run. By implementing software we have managed to reduce working hours for staff and volunteers, collect admin fees, reduce costs, increase partnerships and the number of beneficiaries we provide the service to, collect data on what type of transport needs are being met, secure premises at reduced rates and able to manage other services too.

We’re not finished implementing all the findings from the review of the service but we know, that when we have, we’ll be able to deliver a stronger, sustainable service.  If you’d like to know more about what we’re up to, please get in touch. We look forward to your support throughout this process.