Six challenges for infrastructure organisations

If I ever find the person who first came up with the word ‘infrastructure’ to describe an important number of this country’s voluntary organisations, I’ll be having a word or two with them. What organisations that have been lumped with this unfortunate moniker do is crucial to the whole voluntary sector – they provide advice and support to other charities on operating effectively, and they represent the interests of those charities to decision-makers. In NCVO’s case, that’s usually Whitehall and Westminster. In the case of a local infrastructure organisation, it might be local councils, and new bodies such as clinical commissioning groups.

Yet the rather drab word ‘infrastructure’ conjures up images of motorways and pylons. I spoke to leaders of infrastructure organisations today at the first Big Assist conference and this is one of the first things I said – we need a better name! It’s at best underwhelming and at worst off-putting.

In my speech I said I thought infrastructure organisations were facing six key challenges.

1)   Language: I’m serious about this – we need to come up with some more compelling language which emphasises the symbiotic relationship between front-line activity and activity provided by what we currently refer to as infrastructure organisations.

2)   We need up-to-date and robust research on the value of infrastructure. NCVO’s own BLF-funded project of that name helped develop a common framework and language for infrastructure as well as ways to capture, share and demonstrate its value. Finding new and better ways of showcasing the true value of infrastructure will be essential if we are to persuade our sceptical policy makers that we are not just a layer of fat which needs trimming in austere times. Today we’ve launched an infrastructure map to help with this – please help us crowdsource this by adding infrastructure organisations if they’re not already there.

3)    We need to be open to new ways of doing our work and to be resolute in defending the values we hold dear. Much of the policy discourse at the moment is on how to marketise the provision of support services through such mechanisms as vouchers on the grounds that this will drive up quality and efficiency. We have nothing to fear from competition and we should welcome the arrival of new providers on our patch, including from the private sector. If we can find new and better ways of supporting organisations on the ground, and ultimately the beneficiaries they and we serve, then we should be up for the challenge – which is why of course we are running Big Assist. But the market is not without its faults. So while we’re testing new approaches to the provision of support services, we’ll also test their efficacy and not flinch from rejecting things that aren’t working.

4)   Infrastructure is only partly about strengthening capacity, crucial though this role is. It also provides advocacy and leadership for the sector, and we need to make sure this role isn’t forgotten. This in particular is an area where the market is unlikely to provide the income necessary. We need economically sustainable infrastructure so that it can be a strong and fearless champion for our sector.

5)   We need to look for new avenues of support. We have no choice but to lessen our dependency on old-fashioned grants and to broaden our funding mix if we are to have any chance of securing a long-term future. We should continue to push for core grants to support voice and advocacy. But selling our services, seeking new partnerships and commercial collaborations, and generally being bolder about putting a market value on the expertise and intellectual capital that we hold will be essential for our sustainability.

6)   We should all be looking for ways of working more closely together, both to drive efficiencies and cuts costs but more importantly to expand our reach and pool our expertise. This is something that should come naturally to us in this sector, which after all is built on the values of cooperation and reciprocity. Whilst collaboration should not be confused with merger, we shouldn’t be fearful of that where it makes sense for the good of our work and where it benefits the people and causes we are here to serve.

Those are the bullet points. If you want the full detail you can download my speech (.doc). I believe that infrastructure is the difference between a good sector and a great one. But we have to be leaner, fitter, more adaptable and more adventurous if we are to continue to prosper and thrive. And as if that weren’t enough to be getting on with, we need to find a way to describe what we do that doesn’t sound like something to do with filling in potholes. I’m very keen to hear what you think about the challenges we face.

Justin Davis-Smith speaks at the BIG Assist Conference by Ncvo on Mixcloud

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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