Minotaurs, Rope and Resistance

Last night to the final National Coalition on Independent Action gathering and some sobering insight into the current state of the voluntary sector.

In case you didn’t know it, your favourite charities are mainly in trouble – particularly your small, local, on the doorstep variety.

According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations around half of all voluntary organisations have an income of less than £10k. A further third flourish on less than £100k annually. While these small, nimble little charities make up most of the ‘voluntary sector’ they only total 5% of its income.

Between 2010 and 2013, these organisations lost nearly 25 per cent and 20 per cent of their statutory income respectively. Whether small or large, most voluntary organisations will depend on local authority funding – cut by 37% – with more cuts to come.

“The idea of doing another 50 page tender just does me in…”

Lots of stories last night on the forensic attack being made to the voluntary sector.

From the temptations of impossible funding arrangements charities must navigate, the contracts and the compromises along the way – the rational that has to be carefully explained. To the impact of signing the contract – creaming off ‘core costs’, leaving little to actually ‘deliver’ the service.

Or the erosion of independence, the loss of empathy with disadvantaged voices.

Or the self-editing and silencing of ‘truth spoken to power’.

Or the loss of advocacy and defending people’s rights.

Lots of stories.

“What do we want charities to do? Are they established to salve our consciousness – or to solve problems?”

These are challenging times for community groups. Many signing contracts, reducing them to ‘service organisations’ delivering services. Despite this their work may go way beyond service delivery. These are organisations that deliver social capital, build resilience in broken neighbourhoods, speak out about those most disadvantaged, nurture participation amongst those written off, provide forum for dissenting voices, facilitating development and all kinds of unfashionable things.

We now clearly need an alternative delivery system, a way to fund this essential work that nurtures a distinctive, independent voluntary sector.

“We’ve a horrible five years coming for the voluntary sector. It’s crucial we set aside differences – we need to work together…”

If the voluntary sector has been squeezed into an impossible corner – accept funding conditions or shut – then the silence from organisations established to support them has been deafening. Only now are NCVO, ACEVO, NAVCA and others beginning to put their head above the parapet, and speak up about change – even as government prepares to cuts there funding. Maybe it’s too late.

As the voluntary sector has been under attack NCIA has been a foghorn blaring away since 2008, a candid call for an independent voluntary sector.

The call now is to get stuck in.

Just like Jason and the Minatour – we need to delve into this maze and confront the monster. To go in and challenge the beast – whilst like Jason, remaining attached to the rope. The rope anchors us to our values, connects us to our mission, to what we’re for, what we’re set up to do; to what matters, and what will lead us home.

Completing a report for a grassroots charity the other month (represented at the event last night) I was asked in the final edit meeting to remove any reference to ‘advocacy’. “It’s too political. It will upset funders.” I wasn’t surprised.

The truth is – this is all very difficult. The people I know involved in this work – from national charities, regional organisations, to small local groups – are confronting these situations daily and having to make all kinds of impossible choices. Some of them conflicting with core principles and what matters. And so the distinctiveness of our sector is diluted.

We can talk tough. What ever we might say, we’re all scared.

We all self-edit. We all want to protect our agenda. In doing so we risk cutting the rope and losing touch with what matters.

One alternative is finding others – finding solidarity. Resisting the changes with others, because we’re reminded our work, our cause is too important. NCIA or any of it’s associates is a good place to start.

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