The future of local and community groups

Stephen Mallinson is chief executive at Localgiving. His background is in telecommunications, Stephen previously worked for BT, a large telecommunications equipment vendor and as CEO for tech start-ups in Cambridge. In his spare time he is a Prince’s Trust business mentor, a governor for his local primary school and also tries to squeeze in a longstanding feature film project.

Every three months my village magazine pops through my letterbox. Alongside stories of red kite (or was it admiral?) spottings, photographs of village children running riot, and a letter from the “vicar” (his use of inverted commas, not mine), there are pages and pages of notes and adverts for community organisations and charities.

And while they’re there by the score, they’re also so easy to miss – perhaps a case of familiarity breeding blindness. Think ‘charity’ and we’re more likely to start with the professionally-marketed international organisations rather than the luncheon club for the elderly just around the corner.

The state of our small organisations

This almost-invisible part of the charity sector performs vital work for our friends, families and neighbours, but Localgiving’s recent Local Charity and Community Group Sustainability Report has uncovered some alarming trends:

  • 81% of local charities expect to face an increase in demand for their services, but only one in seven feels sufficiently resourced to cope
  • Just under half (47%) of local groups are confident of staying financially afloat over the next five years, and nearly ¾ (73%) expect to see a decrease or stagnation in income over the coming year
  • 42% of groups have dipped into their reserves in the past year, but only 4% are able to prioritise building reserves

 

While the situation for local charities is complex, there are some discernible themes:

  • Pressure of demand, the rise of competition for local authority contracts, and decreased income is forcing many groups to prioritise the immediate over the long-term
  • Fundraising and marketing skills shortages are compounding the problem, and leaving many groups dependent on single-funding sources: grants which are vulnerable to cuts
  • Many groups feel that there is a lack of awareness of their work, which in turn produces a shortage of volunteers, fundraisers and donors

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that local charities are facing a challenging future. And this will likely have some very real social implications.

What does this mean for society?

It is my view that local groups have their own unique and distinct value, forming an essential and complementary part of the wider charity sector. Having often grown organically in response to local issues, they are perfectly placed to effect change on the ground as and when it is needed.

Strong relationships with beneficiaries, volunteers, supporters and their wider networks fosters community cohesion. This integration, combined with in-depth local knowledge, enables local groups to implement innovative and effective solutions that would be impossible to develop from afar.

If these groups are lost, the implications for society are far-reaching. Not only will many individual beneficiaries be left without access to personalised services and support, but volunteers and supporters too, will lose an important community focus.

This has the potential to lead to the degradation of social networks and ties, fracturing communities, increasing social isolation and perpetuating its associated problems. It is therefore vital that these groups are supported to continue their work and co-exist with the larger, better known charities.

What now?

If we are to avert the crisis the data is pointing to, then there is a need for action, and this will be a job for all of us; the voluntary sector, government, industry, philanthropists and the general public.

In my view, this means cherishing the value of our local charities and community groups, and helping them build their skills, their services and their resources. This is at the heart of what it means to have a civil society.

 

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