We’re listening!

Earlier this year NCVO started piloting some new approaches to gathering insight and getting closer to our members. I was tasked to set up one of these approaches, and I have gone out roughly twice a month to different towns or cities and had conversations with our members and sector leaders. It has been extremely useful and interesting.

How did it work?

For each trip I was hosted by a local infrastructure organisation (those that exist to support charities). A typical day consisted of a meeting with the CEO and senior staff of the host organisation, a roundtable with senior staff from local organisations and a forum or network meeting. Sometimes I met with a local council officer, and sometimes I visited frontline charities.

What did we learn?

Small organisations seek support locally

Smaller organisations tend to go first to their local infrastructure organisation for support. Or organisations working in a particular field will go to their own national body (e.g. Age UK, Citizens Advice). That made me realise that NCVO needs to build stronger collaborations with those organisations. By providing those organisations with trusted tools and resources, we can save them from having to invent new ones, and the local organisations will know that the support they receive locally is backed up by the best of what is available nationally. My view that infrastructure organisations are critical to the ecosystem of public services was reinforced.


Lev pictured with staff of Northumberland Community and Voluntary Action, Ashington, Northumberland.

The sector shares many common concerns

I heard some concerns come up time and time again – most notably:

  • Increase in competition for grants and contracts, which has the greatest impact on smaller organisations. NCVO is working with ACEVO and Lloyds Bank Foundation to explore collaboration between organisations of different sizes that bid to deliver commissioned services.
  • The complexity of the operating environment, for example, in Harrogate and Ripon they have a two-tier council structure, their CCGs are in the process of a merger, and despite being in North Yorkshire they have been placed in the West Yorkshire health transformation area. This requires having to develop new relationships both within the sector and externally.
  • Increased regulation, such as fundraising and data protection, which has a bigger impact on very small organisations.
  • Lack of understanding, mainly in the public sector, of the breadth and depth of what the voluntary sector has to offer. A particular issue that arose many times was frustration with the roll out of social prescribing. In many areas, it is being seen as a mechanism to refer patients to already underfunded services without any additional funding, and, despite there being capability and willingness in the voluntary sector to manage such schemes, NHS organisations are choosing to either deliver it in-house or commission the private sector.
  • Attracting and retaining volunteers, especially younger volunteers, is challenging, as well as the challenge of broadening the diversity of boards. And related to this is the need to be competent in use of social media.

It’s tough out there

I know I’m stating the obvious here, but I’m very grateful for having had the opportunity to see first-hand the struggles of some amazing organisations that are achieving a phenomenal amount. Some stand-out organisations for me were:

  • Emmaus in Mossley, Greater Manchester, which is a live-in community where formerly homeless people come to live, work and develop skills together. Everyone takes part in the running of the community and they run a thriving second hand and upcycling business that generates significant income for the charity. I witnessed a real sense of community there.
  • St Augustine’s Centre in Halifax, providing a welcoming environment, friendship and practical support for asylum seekers and refugees; completely reliant on grants and individual donations. I was bowled over by the positive and warm atmosphere.
  • Inspire South Tyneside, where they are delivering sector support and the volunteer centre function for the district, whose population suffers substantial challenges, with only three part-time staff. Inspired by Inspire!

What will we do with this information?

Along with other ways we gather insight, the learning will feed into our strategic planning process. All this has made me realise how it is more important than ever that we work with other national bodies such as NAVCA to help infrastructure organisations to be even better at what they do. And I will be looking for ways to expand this and involve as many of my colleagues as possible in future visits. In future blog posts, I will highlight how what we have learned on these trips has made a tangible difference to how we work at NCVO.

Thank you

Huge thanks to the organisations that made these trips happen: Action Together, Harrogate and Ripon CVS, Inspire South Tyneside, Jewish Volunteering Network, Middlesbrough Voluntary Development Agency, Newcastle CVS, Northumberland Community and Voluntary Action, One Knowsley, Support Staffordshire, Tandridge Voluntary Action, Voluntary Action Calderdale and Voluntary Action Leicestershire.

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Avatar photo Lev is an associate consultant to NCVO, and has specialist interest and knowledge in the role of the voluntary sector in public service transformation, partnerships and consortia, charity governance and leadership.

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