Funding, Finances, Future: Lessons from our members’ assembly in Southampton

In May, NCVO Communications trainee officer, Rosie, brought us to her home turf in Hampshire. Here we gathered forty local members and friends to talk about commissioning and financial sustainability. We were grateful to partner with Southampton Voluntary Services to deliver this members’ assembly.

One of our delegates said it best when she described why she’d come along to meet us: ‘I’m here today for the F words: funding, finances, future!’

Her synopsis of her organisation’s challenges resonated with our members and reminded me of this caution from our 2019 The Road Ahead report: ‘The key message for charities is therefore to prepare for continued demand for their services and support, as the individuals and communities they serve will struggle to make ends meet.’

Southamton members' assembly picture

Funding

With this introduction, we shared the details of a year-long project we’ve embarked upon with the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) and Lloyds Bank Foundation, working to re balance the relationship between large and small organisations.

NCVO Policy officer, Rebecca, asked our delegates what lessons they’d learned from their commissioning experiences: did they feel valued and recognised by commissioners? Was collaboration in commissioning realistic or  problematic?

Though a couple of positive examples were shared, most of our members pointed to an administrative burden in the commissioning process. Small organisations in particular had a lack of time and expertise; they struggled to navigate the jargon and demands of commissioners. Where their resources were limited, they found it hard to articulate their distinctiveness that could set them apart.

It was important to us to understand our members’ views on collaboration in commissioning. One delegate said, ‘It’s such a shame, previously when the sector has had more money, it’s been a friendly and collaborative environment. Now that there’s a lack of funding it just seems so competitive.’

Another shared a sobering observation: ‘The increase of competitiveness puts a bitter spin on working in the voluntary sector. It’s changed our organisations and it’s changed our jobs – and not for the better.’A number of our delegates were frustrated that commissioners and partners from large organisations tended to bulldoze local projects and voices. One member said, ‘They don’t invest time in learning what’s happening on a local level before they parachute in. It puts our backs up and devalues our local expertise.’

We’re still gathering insights on the commissioning experience. We would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Finance

Our delegates in Hampshire collectively agreed that staying financially sustainable was the challenge of a voluntary organisation’s lifetime: ‘When you’re lucky enough to receive funding it’s only guaranteed for a short term… how do you plan and strategise beyond this?’

Our members were looking for ways to simplify the practical details of finance in their organisations. So we were pleased to invite Charity Finance Group’s Rachel to share some tips with us. Rachel pointed to some of NCVO’s member resources, including our income diversification tool. She emphasised:

“Focus on why you exist and you’ll have strategic growth. Too many organisations focus on the what or the how and there’s not enough focus on the why. It’s what adds value; it’s what makes you who you are.”

Southampton members' assembly gathering

Future

The best part of any Members’ Assembly is hearing our members’ stories, ideas and experiences. One of our guests asked me: ‘How does NCVO decide what to focus on and where to go next?’

As a national council, it’s important to us to let our members drive the work that we do to champion volunteering in all its forms. Being an NCVO member means more than tapping into a treasure trove of tools and resources; our members are a part of something bigger, representing the real might of the voluntary sector.

Our friends at Southampton Voluntary Services (SVS) capped off our assembly by sharing an example of local collaboration in Southampton. Here, representatives from local charities joined forces with the public and private sectors to creatively problem-solve in their community. We’d spent a lot of time at this assembly discussing the pitfalls of collaborating, so SVS CEO Jo’s concluding remarks about the future in her community had an impact on me: ‘When we work together we have a better chance of tackling difficult problems.’

It’s exciting to spend time with our members who have such a special influence in society. Where there are increasing pressures on voluntary organisations, there’s an even greater thread of real strength that comes from our members, working to improve the lives of others.

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Hollie McKee Hollie is the Senior Membership Officer at NCVO and leads on supporting the membership journey of our 14,000 members. Her priority is listening to members and connecting them with the networks and practical resources they need. She has a background in PR and membership, working with both grassroots and large charities throughout the country.

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