Helping the voluntary sector to work with change

The past five years have seen considerable, and growing, interest in how voluntary sector organisations can enhance their sustainability in the longer-term. This is potentially driven by wider trends in stagnating income throughout the sector and an increasing reliance on earned income, something that appears to be affecting small and medium-sized organisations in particular, whose income can be particularly volatile and unstable.

The range of support for organisations to tackle these challenges and become stronger, more sustainable and more resilient is now extensive – most recently having been seen in the form of the Local Sustainability Fund, funded by the Office for Civil Society and delivered by the Big Lottery Fund.  But the support available can also frequently be disparate as well as unclear to the organisations themselves and those supporting them. What’s available, where it can be accessed, or what gaps in that support exist is not always obvious.

It was in this context that the Big Lottery Fund and the Office for Civil Society commissioned NCVO to undertake a review of the different mechanisms and support available to organisations wishing to build their sustainability –  the full evidence review is available to read and download. Here I want to outline five messages anyone involved in supporting organisational sustainability should be thinking about.

1. View organisational sustainability as holistically as possible

Improving the sustainability and resilience of an organisation is as much, or indeed more, about strength of leadership and governance, quality of impact assessment, and connection to beneficiaries as it is about stabilising and diversifying income. The best and most effective types of support understand the journey towards sustainability to be a series of interconnected elements within a wider ecosystem. It’s possible that pursuing financial sustainability in a siloed approach could actually have a negative effect on an organisation’s position if fundamental processes and systems are not working effectively.

2. Build support around organisational life-stage

Support appears to be especially effective when it’s geared towards a particular life-stage of an organisation. Some funding identified in our review was directed at organisations wishing to grow, whilst other forms of support were geared towards more-established organisations wanting to explore new organisational forms, such as mergers or developing themselves as social enterprises. Both can work well, but they’ll do so better when organisational context is taken in to account.

3. Fund support focused on the sustainability of purpose

Much support is usefully targeted at sustaining the structure of an organisation, enabling it to continue providing services. There is, however, considerably less support aimed at the sustainability of purpose – or mission – of that organisation, rather than its logistics. In some cases, the beneficiary group of that organisation may be best served by the organisation deciding to close or to merge with another organisation. This may, in certain specific circumstances, be the most viable option available after careful consideration by the organisation. This is clearly not an option desirable to all organisations, but for those that may benefit from this, more support of this nature would be useful.

4. Bring together learning on diagnostic tools

Our review found a wide variety of diagnostics in existence, many of which are seeking to achieve broadly the same thing: an organisational ‘health check’. There could be real value in consolidating and combining some diagnostics. This should not be at the expense of those tools and health checks which are specific to a particular sub-sector, but there could be considerable value in drawing together learning from across the multiple tools that are currently available.

5. Ensure opportunities for peer networking

While peer networking featured as an element of some forms of support, there was not always a high priority given to it. The value of simply being able to speak to someone else experiencing similar challenges should not be underestimated and opportunities to bring together staff at all levels, but particularly at senior level, should be included within different forms of support. This can be informal in nature and as simple as facilitating telephone calls or other opportunities to meet.


These are just a few of the things discussed in the full review, but I’d love to hear if these feel important to you or there are other issues we really need to be considering. You can read the full review, and if you’re interested in this topic it’s also worth keeping an eye out for our forthcoming report evaluating the Local Sustainability Fund, which I’ll be blogging on soon.


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Avatar photo Nick Ockenden is an NCVO research associate and former head of the research team. As part of this role he led the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research, where he worked from 2005.

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