New Starts, Fresh Resolve.

Duncan Shrubsole, Director of Partnerships, Policy and Communications reflects on 2015 and offers  resolutions for the sector in 2016:

As we embark upon the New Year, as is customary it is time for some reflections and resolutions. Personally, 2015 was a year of significant change for the Shrubsole household. My little girl started primary school and is learning to read; my little boy learnt to walk, is learning to feed himself and started nursery and my wife went back to work and a new role after maternity leave. Each of these changes needed new routines and approaches to be developed and learnt for us all as a family but we were lucky we had the material resources, particularly stable housing and employment, to help us start our various new chapters (relatively) smoothly.

In the voluntary sector, 2015 was also one that brought about huge change, with some of the key events likely to have a significant impact now in 2016 and for a long time to come. The first was the election of a majority Conservative Government and its decisions on public spending. As we reflected at the time, some in the voluntary sector had given the impression that they were hanging on for the return of a Labour government, for the taps to be turned back on and for normal service to be resumed. As we head into the New Year it is very clear that those of us seeking to shape public policy and practice need to focus on presenting arguments and evidence that resonate with this Government and conservative opinion more broadly.

Garden tap

There are certainly no taps and there will be no turning them back on. The Spending Review, whilst the headlines were of expected cuts not being made – and indeed within individual Departmental budgets there were some  welcome announcements, such as some increased resources for tackling domestic abuse – the big yet under-reported story was the size and length of the cut and squeeze to local government funding.

the early months of 2016 will see officers and elected members engaged in frantic attempts to make ends meet as they face a series of Hobbsian choices…”

In town halls up and down the country, the early months of 2016 will see officers and elected members engaged in frantic attempts to make ends meet as they face a series of Hobbsian choices between how much to cut vital and well-loved service A as compared to vital and well-loved services B, C, D or E and onwards. And the impact on the voluntary sector will be huge: less money for everything; more of the remaining money parcelled up into bigger pots and contracts; the officers who you used to work with and understood you gone or now with much bigger workloads; higher thresholds for all public services; more people with greater needs relying on voluntary provision. Anything that is not related to meeting a copper-bottomed statutory duty – and that means the vast majority of local charity services and activities – is going to really struggle.

Anything that is not related to meeting a copper-bottomed statutory duty…is going to really struggle.”

With less public money available the voluntary sector will need to raise more of its own income, and so comes into play the second key issue that reverberates from last year – the debate around charities, what they are for and crucially how they raise their money.

Donating Money To CharityDay after day in 2015 charities became front page and headline news and it wasn’t pretty.  Kids Company entered public consciousness and for many represents all they would profess to know about the “charity sector”. And the debate about fundraising, whilst prompted by particular circumstances and examples, gained traction because of a more widespread concern that the practices of some large charities had strayed too far from what the public understood and expected charitable fundraising to be about. This has then prompted debate around charitable ratios, what the relationship should be between charities and the state, charity campaigning, salaries and more. Beyond the specifics – much of which has been misunderstood, misinterpreted or even misrepresented – there is a general sense from much of the media and some politicians that charities have been under-scrutinised and should be called to account. And whether as symptom or cause, public trust in charities has been hit.

the effects of the storm are likely to be felt most acutely by small and medium sized charities – which of course constitute the vast majority.”

Although the large charities were under fire, the effects of the storm are likely to be felt most acutely by small and medium sized charities – which of course constitute the vast majority (97%). We already knew that whilst there was a sizable funding gap facing the sector as whole, it was much worse for small and medium sized charities (who had lost between 34 and 38% of income) who in addition faced a “capacity crunch” reducing their ability to engage in new initiatives, restructure and rebuild.

We need to recapture and cherish that spirit of resolve and resilience.”

So there seem few reasons to be cheerful. But life in the voluntary sector has never been easy – every charity formed when people of goodwill got together to say, “this is wrong, this should not happen and we will do something about it”. We need to recapture and cherish that spirit of resolve and resilience. So here are some suggested resolutions for 2016:

  1. Keep doing what we are doing well. Day in, day out charities are doing fantastic work, often below the radar. People need and rely on us – and this will only increase as services reduce and welfare cuts bite – so we should have confidence in what we do and keep doing it. And the majority of the public are with us – with hundreds of thousands of people having given time, money and goods to support charitable causes over Christmas, whether helping homeless people or refugees or neighbours and communities cope with flooding.  At Lloyds Bank Foundation we have supported small local charities tackling disadvantage across England and Wales for 30 years and will continue to do so.
  2. Look for new coalitions, alliances, approaches and solutions – in what we do and how we do it. With funding harder to come by we need to be looking for new ways to leverage what we have and bring in new sources of time, support, expertise and resources. At the Foundation we will be looking for opportunities for greater collaboration with others, including working more closely with Lloyds Banking Group, harnessing their capabilities to help charities to sustain and develop.
  3. Be louder and prouder about what we do as individual charities and what the sector does as a whole. We should be positive, confident and authoritative about our work but also better at making it come alive and telling our individual and shared stories of achievement and success. This will also help to mobilise supporters to help advocate for charities in the debates and decisions as councils set their budgets.

We will all need to be bold and sometimes bolshy in public and smart in private to resist or redirect the worst of the cuts.”

We will all need to be bold and sometimes bolshy in public and smart in private to resist or redirect the worst of the cuts. And when difficult stories are published and challenges raised it’s time to get on the front foot to journalists, MPs and Ministers, not just providing limited rebuttal after the event. As a Foundation we will play our part by making the case for and highlighting the value of small and local charities and the need to reform commissioning with new research and stronger advocacy.

This year will undoubtedly bring concern and challenges but can also bring opportunities. We must all work together to make it a year of moving forward for the voluntary sector: new starts, fresh resolve.

Happy New Year!

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