Talking to charities: how to engage with the voluntary sector

Charlotte Stuffins blogs about policy. Charlotte no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site.
This blog was originally published on the Guardian Local Government Network on 10th October 2011. It is the first in a five-part series on best practice between local authorities and the voluntary sector. The series is based on the recommedations and case studies of NCVO’s Best Practice Guide for Local Authorities and the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS).

The important relationship between local authorities and the VCS

It is a difficult time for the voluntary sector. Many charities are facing significant reductions to their statutory funding and are looking for new ways to reduce strain on their already stretched budgets. Here at NCVO, we have launched a project to identify the best ways to save money and work with local government to improve services despite the cuts. We want to share some of the schemes that councils up and down the country have organised in response.

Councils say they understand the need to talk to local voluntary organisations, but we have seen many cases of poor or non-existent relationships between the two sectors. We are not alone in this observation: the National Audit Office warned that effective communication was needed, in its guidance on commissioning published earlier this year.

What local authorities have told us?

In March this year, we joined with ACEVO and NAVCA to write to all local authorities. Our letter urged councils to ensure that the voluntary sector was not disproportionately affected by cuts to local budgets, and to show us how they were achieving this. We received almost 100 responses – just over a quarter of district and county councils.

Many of these letters detailed projects that had been established to promote positive relations between the public and voluntary sectors. It was also clear that there was both good and bad practice in local authorities run by all three major political parties; this is not a party political issue.

Case Studies

One way that relations can be improved is by simply talking and engaging with the sector. In Gateshead, the council has ensured that voluntary organisations involved in its community asset-transfer policy have a single point of contact at the local authority. The policy was adopted in 2009 and has led to successful asset transfers to the voluntary sector, including community centres, sports clubs, homelessness provision and community allotments.

The success of the scheme was attributed to this simple yet effective communication structure. A single point of contact can help smaller organisations feel included in decision making and help them to access information quickly, which is often essential in the hectic day-to-day running of a frontline organisation. Gev Pringle, chief executive of Gateshead Voluntary Organisations Council, told us that he felt the local authority was able to offer local community groups “the best support available”.

A more innovative example of a new communication structure is the voluntary and community sector reference group created by South Somerset district council, where six organisations were elected to speak to the council on behalf of the local voluntary sector.

The group is also consulted by the local strategic partnership on the views of the sector on local, regional and national policy and seeks to inform the council’s strategies. The LSP funds the reference group as it has proved itself a helpful tool for building relationships with the third sector and, in particular, small voluntary organisations.

What is the outlook?

Relationships are evolving. These two councils from different geographical, demographic and political starting points have established good communication channels with the voluntary sector. This is just one of the ways that councils can engage with and benefit from voluntary organisations at this time of change.

Through the gloomy light of spending reductions and squeezed resources comes an opportunity to reassess and refresh the ways that the public and voluntary sectors work together, creating more cohesive communities.

Charlotte Stuffins

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