How can councils better support the local voluntary sector?

Paul Streets is chief executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation.


It will come as no surprise to those of us in the voluntary sector to hear that charities often have testing relationships with their local commissioners.

For many charities, local councils represent both their greatest source of opportunity (by enabling and funding them to deliver vital public services to local people) and frustration with how increasingly these relationships are managed through formal contracts – see research on this.

This is an issue we’ve been monitoring closely and earlier this year we decided to gather the collective experiences of small and medium-sized charities to give us true evidence of how the growth in commissioning and contracting processes has affected these charities and the work they do.

Commissioning in Crisis could not have painted a starker picture of the scale of the challenge engulfing all those participating in council led contracting and procurement processes. Whether you’re a commissioner, a large charity responding to a multi-million-pound bid or a small charity looking to deliver specialist support.

The overly bureaucratic and complex nature of commissioning processes used today cannot be constructive. And for small charities, with limited capacity or access to extensive resources, the inappropriate requests made by commissioners make for uncomfortable reading.

Commissioning in Crisis – key findings

The report highlights the experiences of small charities penalised from commissioning processes if not shut out completely, purely on the basis of their size. The worst examples read like a script from The Thick of It:

  • Poor scrutiny – a charity being marked down during the tender process for not explaining the process it would use to get its services accredited – because it already had the accreditation.
  • Irrelevant requirements – a charity being penalised during the procurement process for not having a hard-hat policy despite bidding to deliver mental health support – because the same process was used as for procuring building work.
  • Forced mergers – a charity being told it was a requirement to merge with another organisation simply to be able to bid for the work.

We know on the whole council commissioners value the contribution charities make locally and many report them as valuable community assets delivering social benefits. So how is it that charities come out so bruised by a process meant to streamline and improve local services and deliver better value for money? And more importantly why does it matter?

Many of the charities we spoke to said to us that they understood the pressure local commissioners were facing. But the combination of squeezed budgets, smaller teams and changing timescales that they have no control over, means officials themselves are so bogged down by internal bureaucracy and process that by the time tenders are published and charities and other providers are responding, common sense has simply failed.

What can commissioners do?

The purpose of this report isn’t to point the finger at individual commissioners but to shine a spotlight on how the whole system is failing. And by capturing their experiences in this way, we have an opportunity and responsibility to ensure the system is reformed so charities can compete for contracts in the future with other providers, on a level playing field.

There are simple recommendations for commissioners to take forward:

  • Getting to the heart of how small charities operate and using this to inform commissioning
  • Simplifying the process and ensuring collaboration between all involved
  • Focusing on the long-term value of effective service delivery, rather than on short-term time and cost savings

We know the government is looking at improving commissioning processes and our report demonstrates the need to act now. The reforms we’re recommending don’t have to be expensive or time consuming but they do need to be urgently implemented and that’s where we need your help.

In your conversations with commissioners, central government and MPs we need you to continue championing the important difference charities make in our local communities and urge them to take on board the simple commissioning process reforms we have suggested.

The risk to charities themselves if nothing changes is the threat of closure. But the risk to vulnerable and at risk communities, who stand to lose the targeted and personalised support small local charities are experts at providing, at a time of growing need, is unthinkable.


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