Communities need flexible funders to influence the public sector
Over the last three weeks, I’ve met 32 leaders of small and medium voluntary organisations at four online peer support sessions. I have been inspired by their dedication and creativity: by hook or by crook, they have made it possible for services to reach people in dire need. Used to a turbulent environment and light on bureaucracy, their organisations moved remarkably quickly in response to the immediate crisis of lockdown, and have proved remarkably adaptable and resilient throughout the twists and turns that followed. Children with learning disabilities; undocumented young migrants; families of prisoners; housebound older people – all, and many more, have been supported by local organisations.
But the duration of the crisis, and the extreme levels of uncertainty, have stretched many close to their limits. And now, as we emerge out of an extended period of restrictions into a period of unpredictability, leaders are faced with harsh realities. On the one hand, demand for services is growing, from people with increasingly complex needs; on the other, staff are exhausted and funding is precarious.
Our recent conversations – like with charity CEOs we met through our Leading in Uncertainty peer support sessions – echo much of what we heard in our 2012 study of social welfare voluntary organisations and their experiences of navigating their way through the recession. Then, as now, we heard stories of resilience and determination, as well as anxiety and despair.
‘I found the lack of recognition of our sector during the pandemic difficult… it was often forgotten that charities were still open and providing essential services too.’
At the same time, through both the recession and the pandemic, we have been reminded of the disproportionately important role that trusts and foundations play in supporting these organisations. Since March 2020, their flexibility has offered a lifeline, ensuring the continuation of essential services and activities.
In particular, the emergency has shown us that lighter, more flexible, more trusting funding practices are possible. And hopes are now high that trusts and foundations will ‘keep the faith’ through the period of prolonged upheaval and uncertainty that lies ahead. This is the driver behind the open and trusting grant-making campaign , with its commitment to sustain and build on progressive practices for the future.
In 2012, we heard a plea for trusts and foundations to step into an advocacy role, using their influence to stimulate and facilitate debate and action about the adverse effect of public sector funding cuts and the decimation of public services. The response was, largely, to remain silent. For some, taking on this role felt like a step too far away from independence and into ‘campaigning’. For others, there was a concern that sweeping statements would ignore the constraints faced by public agencies, and might ‘tar everyone with the same brush and ignore the pockets of flexible public sector practice’.
However, almost ten years later – faced with similar difficulties around government funding, and in ‘the foothills of the economic shock’, the need for someone to speak out remains urgent:
‘We have put in a massive shift. Often unheralded, or taken for granted. Our work is vital, but it can’t just happen on a wing and a prayer. And it’s not just about one tweak here, and one tweak there. We need the whole system to change.’
‘If reporting deadlines on one grant shift, or processes for another become easier, that’s great. But unless that becomes standard practice across the board, the stress and the burden are still there.’
‘Our vital contribution isn’t really understood by statutory authorities. But without the support of these bigger players, we will not be here to make the system work: reaching minoritised communities, interpreting the benefits system, plugging gaps and mopping up mess.’
Trusts and foundations – with their prize assets of independence and leverage – are perfectly placed to step up and argue for greater consistency and flexibility in how the work of voluntary organisations is funded, both within their own sector, as well across all levels of government. This is not the moment to be bashful. For, without vocal and concerted effort, there is a genuine risk that vital organisations providing essential services will buckle under the strain.