STRENGTH in numbers is a concept the plucky charities behind the Swindon Advice and Support Centre know a thing or two about.

When they deserted their various business park offices to weather the downturn and funding cuts together under one roof at the tail end of 2014, some were a hair’s breadth away from folding.

Two years on, the hub at Sanford House is shaking up the status quo, transforming the face of the voluntary sector in Swindon by supporting thousands of people let down by the system as one.

“It was a big project, in a short pace of time,” admits Richard Hill, chief executive of Voluntary Action Swindon, the charity tasked with managing the building.

“But we did what needed to be done.”

The idea of a charity one-stop shop was dreamt up by the Citizens Advice Bureau, Mind, Carers Centre and Voluntary Action Swindon back in 2013.

Under immense pressure to maximise scarce resources and avoid overlaps to ensure the most vulnerable did not fall through the net, they formed a working group, Swindon Charities Working Together, to weigh up their options.

Eventually they made the case for a joined-up hub to the council, which offered them the use of the vacant Sanford House.

“We had already started working together informally,” explains Swindon CAB chief executive Claire Newport.

“Immediately we were noticing the difference and how much we were getting out of it for our clients. It just made sense to make that a bit more formal. Having a better knowledge of what other organisations do automatically provides a better service.

“People can book appointments with different charities all in one place. If people come to us with debt issues we can look at other organisations that can help them like Wiltshire Law Centre. Quite often as a result a person may have mental health problems and we can make a referral to Mind. You never have just one issue and that’s why it works well.”

From a modest cluster of five charities, the centre is now home to 13 organisations: Alzheimer’s Society Swindon and District, the Citizens Advice Bureau, Discovering Autistic Spectrum Happiness (DASH), Developing Health & Independence Swindon, Healthwatch Swindon, Mediation Plus, Shopmobility, Swindon Advocacy Movement, Swindon Carers Centre, Swindon Mind, the Stroke Association, Wiltshire Law Centre and Voluntary Action Swindon. Other community groups like The Harbour Project occasionally hot desk in one of Sanford House’s many conference rooms. 200 people work in the building including a large band of volunteers.

“We completely supported these aims,” says Caroline Gaulton, Swindon Council’s strategic commissioner for the voluntary sector. “We wanted people to be supported in a joined-up way and the best value for public money. The council is limited in the amount it can fund charities,” she continues. “But we are looking at other ways we can support the sector.”

VAS secured a 10-year agreement and receives an average budget of £107,000 from the council to manage the building and look after tenants.

While some charities are not funded by the council, most of them are, at least in part, and their rent is taken care of by the local authority.

“The real beauty of this project is that I know for a fact that some of the organisations here would not be around if we had not provided these offices,” says Richard.

“Things like building maintenance and complying with health and safety, which we look after for them, means they’ve been able to focus on their work and tick this off their worry list.”

Collaborating at such a level with other charities has not only helped to better appraise and get to the root of users’ problems but tackle the inevitable knock-on effects, insists DASH chief executive Adrian Embling.

“I don’t like the word referral because we don’t refer someone to another charity and forget them,” he says firmly.

“But having other charities in the same building is helpful to keep track of what’s happening, where they’re at, make sure they are getting the support they need and they know they can always come back for help.”

Launching a one-stop shop in a central location has removed a major obstacle for potential users: uncertainty.

While some may have previously been shuttled back and forth from one charity to another, often miles apart hunting for the right support, they can simply walk through the door, speak to a volunteer who will signpost them to the correct organisation.

They can also browse the extensive library of booklets and information in the reception hall.

To ensure privacy the CAB has its own entrance to the side of the building on College Street, should users prefer to avoid coming through the main door.

While more people are venturing to Sanford Street, the word about the hub has been slow to get out.

And the team’s biggest challenge remains reaching the thousands of vulnerable people across town struggling in silence unaware such a valuable resource is on their doorstep.

“It’s probably a fairly unknown facility in the town centre,” concedes Richard.

“They might not need us today but they might need it in two or three years’ time,” chimes in Susanna Jones, Swindon Carers Centre chief executive. “So it’s important for us to promote it so they know it’s there’s a reference point.”

Caroline nods: “We don’t want then to reach a crisis point and not know where to go.”

Which is why the centre enlisted the help of savvy Nationwide volunteers in March to try and set out long-term goals and establish a communal brand.

First up was the pesky matter of boosting visibility and this meant ditching the ‘support and advice centre’ tag, which had never truly stuck.

The centre was recently renamed, Sanford House – the moniker it has been known by virtually from the start.

Coming up with a shared vision without compromising any of the organisations’ individual identities, particularly those groups affiliated to national charities was slightly trickier.

“It speaks volumes for the group how far they’re prepared to go to help the local community,” says Nationwide’s Dan Jones.

“They are prepared to be a bit less precious about their individual identities and they know the power of the collective.”

Dan and his team have also allowed all these single agents to combine training and volunteer inductions to allow them to work more efficiently. “They’ve been an invaluable resource,” he said.

Nationwide’s marketing nous has been invaluable, according to Susanna. “It’s been a massive opportunity to make things more efficient for us and for the clients,” agrees Richard.

While a positive wind of change is blowing over Sanford House, the team is under no illusion the going will get easier with a simple rebranding campaign and common agenda.

With austerity showing no sign of relenting and more cuts planned to public services, the volunteer sector has never been spread so thin.

“Although a lot of other charities are not here, we are the visual presence of the voluntary sector,” concludes Susanna.

“Some people who might need us still don’t know that we’re here so we can’t be complacent.

“We want to promote that collective offer to as many people in Swindon as we can because it’s a community asset. We need people to know we’re here for them.”

Sanford House is based on Sanford Street, SN1 1QL. The centre is open to the public from Monday to Friday between 9.30am and 4.30pm.

For a rundown of all the services available at Sanford House and in Swindon as a whole go to