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!

Tell us what you think

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Ruth Driscoll 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.

10 Responses to The perils of ignoring infrastructure

  1. Mark says:

    Thanks for this Ruth, an interesting piece on an interesting report. I can not admit to having got my head around this yet but feel that the overall direction is right. The golden age of infrastructure is over and we do have to change, move with the times and be leaner. We need to find ways of putting our own sense of self importance and our belief that we have a right to exist aside, something for us at a local level to grapple with as well as those of you within the heady heights of the Society Building.
    How we do this and how we ensure that trustees and members are taken on the same journey is still a bit of a mystery to me, but as always we will find a way that suits our individual position. However if you could develop a simple toolkit that I could follow that would move my organisation forward with as little hassle, and for as little cost as possible I would be most grateful – or better still an NCVO discount on magic wands would do the trick.

    • Ruth Driscoll Ruth Driscoll says:

      Hello Mark
      Thanks for your post – it made me smile! It’s good to know that we are on the right tracks for the challenges you are facing. We will certainly bear in mind your suggestion of a toolkit (and/or magic wand) to help organisations move forward. You are probably already aware of the support available through Big Assist but would encourage others to take a look through the link off my blog if they have not heard of it before. Please keep in touch and maybe we will see you at a roundtable soon! Ruth

  2. Rob Jackson says:

    Back in 2004 a strategy for modernising infrastructure was developed with the same aims outlined in this article. Building on Success gained government support but was widely ignored, and sometimes even derided, by others in the sector. Some of that negativity came from some of the very organisations who may well be enthusiastic and supportive about this new work.

    Ultimately the strategy failed to achieve its goals but many of the lessons learnt are highly valuable to this new work. It would be a shame if they were simply forgotten and ignored.

    • Ruth Driscoll Ruth Driscoll says:

      Hello Rob Thanks for your comment. I am really keen to avoid reinventing the infrastructure wheel and would love to read the Building on Success report if you can direct me to the right website? I hope we can overcome the sector politics by having an ‘open invite’ approach to the roundtables, taking them nationwide, and getting senior buy-in from within our own organisations. Of course, this should not stop us asking difficult questions about why we don’t all collaborate more and better. Hope you will stay involved in the conversation! Ruth

  3. Paul Colley says:

    Big Assist is to continue? In my view one of the main beneficiaries will be the consultants who deliver the ‘work’ and not necessarily the infrastructure-providing organisations themselves. Let’s hope that it can be redesigned so we can actually do the work not just end up with a consultant’s report and no funding to implement it.

    • Ruth Driscoll Ruth Driscoll says:

      Hello Paul I understand your cynicism about consultants because I have worked with a few useless ones myself over the years. But effective consultants work closely with the staff of an organisation to come up with recommendations that are fully costed and affordable. The ‘peer to peer’ model of Big Assist where staff of a successfully reformed infrastructure body work directly with staff in another organisation seeking to do the same also helps guard against ignorant outsiders recommending the world on a stick without a viable payment plan.

  4. Phil Pusey says:

    Currently we are still funded to do the core infrastructure functions as outlined in the Value of Infrastructure Programme. We provide our local authority with qualitative and quantitative information on the local voluntary youth sector, linked to the broad outcomes of the authority and wider partners. Our guiding questions are always ” does this benefit our members organisations, and does it benefit local children and young people?” As you suggest too many infrastructure orgs have sought their own survival/growth above the needs of members resulting in competition and losing their independent representative function. Our aim is to become cost neutral, so that the value of our contract is more than offset in tangible benefit to the front line organisations through the services we provide to them. I would welcome the opportunity of round table discussions and the development of some local, regional case studies where infrastructure is working well.

    • Ruth Driscoll Ruth Driscoll says:

      Hello Phil I am really interested to read your account of experience in Staffs. Some smaller organisations that NCVO works with have complained that the current cuts climate is creating challenges around infrastructure bodies competing with frontline organisations for the same small pots of grant and contract funding. Your approach sounds like it has a lot of potential to create a ‘win win’ for both types of organisation. I’d love you to come along to a roundtable and will be sure to send you an invite when we have a firm date. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. Nick Comley says:

    As a Rural Community Council, Community First in Herefordshire and Worcestershire is relieved to see that DEFRA funding for ACRE is continuing for this year at least. The RCC network delivers infrastructure support to grass roots organisations in rural communities across England and for £2.5 million is good for it. Especially given the level of funding for the creation of LEP’s , why was this opportunity to mainstream VCS infrastructure into growth and job creation not even considered? It’s all very well basing your entire economic plan on consumption by the rich and austerity for the poor but what about the pathways to employment and the support for those not in employment that the VCS provides?
    It is the shadow state of citizen action, the unacknowledged love child of Big Society that may come back to haunt the establishment. Just wait for Russell Brand to see the latent power of the VCS to empower stateless citizens. It’ll make Syriza look like the Liberal Democrats! Watt Tyler all over again, they’ll be quaking in their boots! That’s the true peril of ignoring infrastructure, nature will find a way….