The perils of ignoring infrastructure

The Commission on the Future of Infrastructure has just launched its final report, which makes difficult reading for all of us with a stake in ensuring the voluntary sector continues to thrive.

The report sets out a vision for the future of the voluntary sector and infrastructure. It focuses on  catalysing and enabling the work of the wider sector through innovation, rather than trying to continue delivering the sorts of support services that were possible in the golden age of generous government grants.

Time for a frank conversation

At NCVO, we see the report as the start of a painful conversation about what needs to change and how we can all make it happen. Over the next few months, we will be working with NAVCA to convene a series of roundtables across the country aimed at developing sustainable solutions to infrastructure challenges at both national and local level.

We hope you will contribute your views, whether online or in person.

What are we talking about?

There are currently around 800 active voluntary sector infrastructure organisations, according to the Civil Society Almanac. A majority of them work on a local basis including more than 350 Councils for Voluntary Services (CVSs), over 200 Volunteer Centres, Rural Community Councils and specialist local bodies.

Just under 50 infrastructure organisations work nationally, and just a handful internationally. The national category includes not just broad-based organisations like NCVO , but also those with a sector focus such as Regional Voices in health and social care and Clinks in criminal justice. It is a complex and ever changing field, as different forms of partnerships get created and brought to a close.

Unglamorous but vital

Infrastructure organisations have a boring name, but do important work. In recent years, we have delivered a diverse menu of support that enables voluntary sector organisations to do their work well. This ranges from advice and training to room space and equipment, as illustrated in the table below, taken from NCVO’s Civil Society Almanac.

This support has had a tangible impact on the work of frontline organisations: For example, recent research by the Office for Civil Society  found that groups accessing infrastructure support were much more likely to be successful in grant applications contract bids.

Championing local communities

Infrastructure plays a unique role in realising the potential of the wider voluntary sector to champion the needs of local communities, not just by developing individual organisations through providing support, but also by catalysing partnerships across the sector and between the sector and government bodies. Infrastructure connects organisations with communities, as in recent experience in Rotherham with social prescribing but also by helping organisations to influence decisions about local services and community development, vis recent work by Hackney CVS.

A golden age of grants has gone

Like the wider voluntary sector, infrastructure organisations have experienced a double squeeze since the recession began. Several years of sustained increases in government grant funding in the early 1990s have given way to heavy cuts at a time when charities are increasingly in need of our support in order to respond to a double whammy on the frontline.

With a few notable exceptions, alternative sources of funding such as contracts, social investment, community foundations, and crowdfunding have yet to plug the gap in most infrastructure organisations’ finances. Some have withdrawn from providing certain services. Others have closed down.

Rising to the challenge

There are some brilliant examples out there of local and national infrastructure bodies that have risen to the challenge of adjusting to the new reality by changing the way they work. Our own Big Assist initiative has helped more than 500 infrastructure organisations diagnose their support needs, choose expert support, and engage in peer to peer visits with other organisations to share experiences, so we are pleased that the report recommends extending it.

Collaboration, charging and going digital

Collaboration is one way in which infrastructure organisations are meeting the sustainability challenge:  Community Works Brighton & Hove has been formed through a merger of four local infrastructure bodies that generated significant savings. Other organisations have developed unified approaches to handling referrals and delivering particular services.

A second approach is to become more entrepreneurial:  Since 2010, the percentage of infrastructure organisations’ income coming from voluntary sources has declined whilst the percentage of income earned through charitable activities has gradually increased as more organisations begin to charge for services previously provided free of charge.

A third approach entails developing innovative ways of working that are more cost-effective, such as greater use of digital platforms: ONE Lancashire exemplifies a new approach to diagnosing local organisational needs in its online organisational health check for local organisations.

But big challenges remain at local level…

Despite this progress, big challenges remain for local infrastructure organisations. Foremost amongst these is how to develop a national network of local support that addresses rather than reinforces wider inequalities. Local infrastructure support is often weakest in those parts of the country that need it most:  deprived areas that have fewer or less well-funded charities.

A second challenge is how to realise the potential of our sector to champion local communities in a new commissioning landscape that is characterised by a proliferation of overlapping bodies, each with different remits and geographical coverage. Local infrastructure has a vital role to play in convening organisations in new ways so that their expertise and insights continue to shape decisions about services in ways that benefit local communities.

A third challenge is how to compete for scarce funding opportunities whilst also supporting other often smaller organisations to do the same. Collaborative working is difficult in a climate of fierce competition for contracts to deliver local services.

…and nationally… I am looking at you, NCVO!

This report does not focus on national infrastructure bodies, but I think it is also time to tell ourselves some painful home truths:  NCVO and other national bodies have much work to do in over-coming the self-interest of our individual organisations to engage in collaborative and innovative ways of working that make a real difference to the wider work of voluntary sector organisations. Advice on how our leaders can do this will be gratefully received, I promise!

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Avatar photo Ruth Driscoll is NCVO’s Head of Policy & Public Services. She has a decade’s experience of senior level working in policy and research for overseas development organisations.

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