The small charities delivering in dusty corners

Our Chief Executive, Paul Streets argues that the army of smaller organisations in our communities are best placed to solve many of society’s intractable problems. 

This blog first appeared in Third Sector on 18th May 2016

As I travel into the dusty and neglected corners of UK plc, I’m humbled by the thousands of local charities that just quietly get on and deal with the consequences of disadvantage. Rarely seen. Rarely heard. Sometimes chaotic. Frequently ‘on the edge’.

That’s probably why they work. They mirror what comes through the door. Staffed and volunteered by people who have lived through, or with, what’s affected the lives they touch: and moved to do something about it – often living vicarious existences hustling for their own survival.

As with all good relationships they start by building trust: often with people who are neither trusting of, nor trusted by, society. And then layer on the stuff that transforms chaotic lives. They establish empathy and a person-centred approach that would be the envy of many large-scale public services and private organisations.

In spite of – or perhaps because of – their size and locality, they get to grips with the most intractable problems people face: problems that cost us all dear. Unravelling the complex issues that lead women into sex work (Manchester Action on Street Health); supporting women facing historic or recent sexual violence in Newport (New Pathways), working with survivors of trafficking in Bristol (Unseen UK), or using peers to move young men on from drug-related gang crime in outer West London (Ignite Trust) .

These are not the “colluders” Louise Casey, then the government’s adviser on troubled families, talked about three years ago: their focus is achieving positive change to lives.

At their best they’re highly cost-effective: using skilled volunteers in a way that would make even Matt Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister, an advocate.”

And this is the first step towards rehabilitation for some; ‘gearing’ money from one source to secure another; adapting to the needs of those they serve, and providing a resilience and commitment to local people which shames larger organisations whose commitment is often no more than contract deep.

If the Prime Minister David Cameron really wants to achieve a ‘great social transformation of Britain’ as he said recently he could do little better than put some of the millions of pounds he has ploughed into the Troubled Families programme and its like into these organisations.

Rose-tinted, perhaps. But isn’t that a prerequisite for any of us who believe it’s possible to make a difference? And it’s true that, as with all sectors and organisations, they’re not all good at what they do. Empathy doesn’t always map over into effectiveness; sometimes they go wrong, and sometimes they probably should merge or collaborate better. But seeing is believing. In the past three years I’ve visited and spoken to hundreds of small charities. Each one special. Each one unique. But not rare. We manage to fund more than 1,000 like them and could multiple that many times over on different issues with wider criteria and more money.

None of them ever will be, or want to be, household names. None of them send direct mail, door knock or chug anyone. None of them are well paid for what they do.

These charities and their realities are the 97 per cent of our sector, yet the column inches devoted to them often seem to be in inverse proportion to their plight.”

The issues that do affect them are the seismic shift from grants to contracts with its consequent impacts on income and staffing; approaches to outcomes which put standardisation and volume over value and depth; the differential impact of local government funding reform on the poorest areas and people, and the raw consequence of austerity that flows swollen through their open doors.

They are not rare but certainly endangered. Many will survive – but many won’t as austerity bites. Where it bites hardest, they will be needed most. Perhaps as a sector we need to reconsider just who we’d like to promote, and whose battles we fight? Who knows it might even push all of us up in the popularity stakes.

One thought on “The small charities delivering in dusty corners

  1. Paul’s Comments on this blog resonates very much what we do currently in these tough times for the small community based organisations trying to survive. We don’t fit neatly into any clearly marked tick boxes as often our work impacts on an individuals well being and this I mean from anxiety to not having the skills or confidence to manage their budget whilst surviving on £35.00 a week or less. DWP through Jobcentre like to refer clients to us for support but don’t want to “invest”, G.P.s like to refer their patients for counselling and complementary therapies but don’t want to “invest” and the list goes on…… so here many small groups have to rely for funders like Lloyds Foundation. We want to see more investment like these in the years ahead.

    This ofcos impacts on their mental health which the clients don’t see it as such and often express this as something different. The language of distress is difficult to explain in another language which we may see as mild mental health issues and IAPT therapy does not work with these clients! yet Commissioners want to fund IAPT( Improving access to psychological therapies) services which only the larger organisations can deliver as they have the systems in place but heck they don’t work on the hundreds of minority clients that access our support work.
    Often Theory and practice does not really work in the real world. How many countless “good practice” and reports have you read which are gathering dust!
    apologies for being cynical if I sound negative in my comment.
    I wish more CCG Commissioners and Local Authority senior staff would go out in the real world and see what is really happening out there.


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