Thursday, 22 January 2015

Challenges for Charities and the Voluntary Sector

The media is full of doom and gloom about further cuts to public services, local government “meltdown” and so forth, based on Government spending plans. There’s the small matter of a general election soon, but I don’t think we can expect lashings of new money whatever the result.

On the other hand we’ve not heard much about Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ lately – perhaps he has other things on his mind! But I’m sure the two are connected; Big Society is a sound idea in its own right, but also implies an expectation that local charities and voluntary organisations (and indeed families and neighbours) will pick up services the public sector can’t maintain. Whether you think this is right or not is a political question, but I have no doubt that this deliberate strategy exists.

So how should charities and the voluntary sector respond? Unless you think cuts can successfully be overturned, I don’t believe you can work in isolation or pretend it isn’t happening. Some engagement, some change, is essential otherwise the money will simply dry up – and service users will suffer. From my experience, here are three things I believe the sector should think about.

1.    Diversify income sources
Some third sector organisations try to stay as they are. They resist change whilst the world around them changes, and this is asking for trouble. This particularly applies to funding sources. Relying on a single funding stream is risky at the best of times, and when that stream is NHS or Local Authority commissioning, there’s an even greater risk. People work in the third sector for the best of reasons: because they want to make a difference, not because they want to fill in forms and funding applications. But you do need to think creatively about how different funding options could increase your resilience – perhaps even your income. How many of the ideas on the right have you actively pursued?

2.    Explore new ways of working
I don’t support “mission creep” – i.e. changing your purpose or priorities to suit the latest funding opportunity you’ve seen! But I do think there is scope for flexibility, for example about geographical areas covered or the ‘boundaries’ of the client groups you serve. And there’s certainly a case for finding new and different ways of working, because any funding source (including the public) wants to know that their money is being spent in a way that achieves the greatest impact. So look for innovations, including partnerships and collaborative working, and prove that these achieve better outcomes.

3.    Take a service user view
I don’t object when I hear “I want to start a charity…” but I’d much rather hear “There’s a need for…. and I’d like to help”. I do worry when charities talk about competition, appearing to put self-interest above the needs of those they serve. If you believe in a cause, it’s those you support that matter. Diversity and different options are great (particularly in a field such as mental health), but I baulk at any hint of empire-building. Put yourself in the place of a service user and ask what they would regard as being in their best interests. Ultimately, it’s organisations that take this user-focussed and unselfish view that I believe will succeed – for everyone – in the long run.