Why innovation is vital to the future of infrastructure

On Monday evening in Manchester I set out my thinking on the vitally important role of voluntary sector infrastructure. I described how the environment has shifted dramatically and how many organisations are adapting to it. Infrastructure may lack the glamour of its sisters on the frontline, but I think it is about time a spotlight was shone on the vital work they do.

Navigating unknown waters

Political, economic, social, technological and structural transformation is taking place on an unprecedented scale. None of us in the voluntary sector has the luxury of choosing to stand still. The status quo is not an option, and infrastructure organisations, like so many others, must adapt.

Funding shortfalls are sufficiently serious as to threaten the survival of support services in some parts of the country. They are especially severe in ‘charity desert’ areas, where our sector is overstretched and yet people are most in need of support and voice to tackle poverty and inequality.

Infrastructure organisations are a vital part of a unique but fragile voluntary sector ecosystem that has more than proved its worth. The pressures of today mean all of us must be willing to work in closer partnership with one another, as well as with government and funders.

But this is not a pessimistic message. A growing number of infrastructure bodies are already hoisting their sails, navigating the storm, and making the most of the opportunities available to them in this brave new world. They are focused not on saving their own organisations, but on finding new ways of unleashing the potential of individuals and organisations in their communities. They are unlocking community assets and sharing them in ways that deliver real social change.

Infrastructure is a two-way street

It remains important that we recognise that some who do the right thing may nevertheless find themselves in difficulty. This is wrong, and it reminds us that there is an ongoing risk that good, well-managed organisations will not survive because of the environment we are operating in.

Many of you will be familiar with the great work of Involve Yorkshire and Humber – it has made a real difference to the communities it has served and its closure is incredibly sad news. Where we can we should all collectively support those affected by the loss of these important organisations. For our part, NCVO will continue to argue for support for infrastructure where we can demonstrate that it is effective and needed.

The main thrust of my speech was to recognise where innovation and adaptation are already happening. The best infrastructure organisations recognise not only the challenges, but also the opportunities inherent in the newly localised world of public services commissioning. They are adept at spotting new ways to get local voices heard in the design and delivery of services – whether by Police and Crime Commissioners, Local Enterprise Partnerships, Clinical Commissioning Groups or local government.

By blending the best of public, private and voluntary sector approaches, they are creating new value for the communities with whom they work. Local infrastructure’s USP is its ability to act as a two-way street between the complex and often confusing range of new statutory bodies, and the rich range of community and voluntary groups operating at local level. Forging relationships between communities and government bodies is not without risks, but get it right and you can achieve big changes.

Beacons of good practice

More than 500 organisations have already received support on their journey of change from our BIG Assist initiative, either in the form of vouchers for consultancy advice or peer to peer learning through wikis, visits and mentoring.

Yesterday I was really pleased to be formally recognising 27 of these organisations as BIG Assist Beacons of Change. These outstanding infrastructure organisations are working in new and exciting ways, committed both to sharing their own stories and learning from others.

Over the next few months and leading up to the BIG Assist conference in February next year, NCVO will be showcasing the best of local infrastructure working with the BIG Assist Beacons as well as collaborating with NAVCA and other national infrastructure.

Infrastructure organisations are too important to let slip away – we must work together to grow the conversations about why and how to support infrastructure to adapt, and to shout from the rooftops about its inherent value.


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Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

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