I ran a training day this week for a small charity which is, warily, thinking about dipping its toes into PR and marketing for the first time.
It quickly became clear that even the simple ideas we were coming up with were beyond their limited resources and the event became an impromptu staff meeting as they looked at ways of restructuring teams to free some time to allow people to do more communications.
Now, this is all very gratifying for me – they liked what I was suggesting and could see the value it offered. But it raised some uncomfortable issues, too.
Where do resources go – future investment or current staff?
Like many charities they run largely on volunteer and part-time labour. To get additional things done they’re going to have to take work away from some staff and give it to other, already over-loaded colleagues. Or they’re going to have to stop doing some things completely. Or they’re going to have to find a partner organisation with resources they can share. Or they’re going to bring in a new member of staff from outside to do the work. To get someone who’s worth having they’re going to have to pay – not big bucks, but something. How does the CEO explain to volunteers, some of whom have stuck loyally to their task for years, that there’s no money to pay them, but there is enough to hire someone else?
The answer is that without investment in communications the organisation’s membership won’t grow, its income will stay fixed and there’ll never be enough money. But that’s easy for me to say. I’m not the one doing a full day’s work just for the love of it.
Where to go for more advice on funding?
I had a quick squint at the websites for ACEVO and NCVO – two of the biggest support/membership organisations for the third sector – looking for advice on sharing services, diversifying income streams, or just managing staff through financial hard times. I may just have missed it in my haste, but there’s less around than I’d expected (though the advice I listed here almost two years ago is still valid). NCVO’s Sustainable Funding Project looked helpful for small voluntary organisations looking to widen their funding base – linked here in case it’s of use to anyone. Other suggestions gratefully received!
Lying awake at 4am fretting about how long it’s taking to confirm a new piece of work, I was trying to remember my own rule 5 – the one that starts “it always takes longer to get work sorted out than you think it possibly can.” Looking up the actual quote this morning I was astonished at how breezily confident of getting new work I sounded a mere 7 months ago.
The need to re-focus the business was clear as soon as the scale of spending cuts in the public sector (where I’ve done most of my work for the past two years) emerged. It’s a time-consuming undertaking though, and not everyone took the hint.
Being prepared for cuts?
Pre- election I was talking to a 20-something AD at an agency with lots of public sector contracts and asked if she worried about what might happen when spending was cut. She looked at me with all the confidence of someone who’s never experienced a recession and said, as though speaking to the very hard of understanding: “If there’s a new government there will be changes in policy. Change always needs to be communicated. We’ll carry on working with the Department, just on different things.” The agency is now making a significant number of staff redundant. I genuinely hope she’s not one of them, she was very good at her job – but lots of people were caught in that trap and were just not prepared for what was coming.
Money saving tips
I’ve been doing some work recently on how the voluntary sector can cope with the impact of spending cuts – maybe that’s what’s making me pessimistic! A lot of the advice translates to any SME, so here are some resources that might be helpful
When it was elected the government pledged to: “support the creation and expansion of mutuals, cooperatives, charities and social enterprises, and support these groups to have much greater involvement in the running of public services” (Cabinet Office, Building the Big Society, May 2010)
- Capacitybuilders, the government agency responsible for supporting the third sector has just lost £1.3m of its budget
- NCVO has revealed the results of crowd-sourcing the reality of government cuts to the sector – 700 responses to date, showing cuts of up to 90% to some programmes of work
- Charities warn that cuts threaten the Big Society idea: What the government says it wants to achieve with the big society and how it is behaving are two different things. All this has created a lack of trust. Within weeks of this government starting out it has destroyed its relationship with the sector through its dishonesty.
“So is the big society a romantic Tory aspiration or cynical political sophistry? Follow the money and the story unfolds. Far from finding themselves cherished, charities are taking a hard hit from the first round of cuts”. (Polly Toynbee, The Big Society is a Big, Fat Lie )
I’ve been planning a post about the role of the sector in a mixed economy of local service providers, and the need for it to be properly funded, for ages but couldn’t get the right words into the right order. Then I found this, so, with thanks to Progress, here’s the thing: ” If local groups are to deliver more in the way of services, they need to coordinate their work with others in the same boat and work in consortia; to share good and best practice both in commissioning and delivery; and have access to capacity-building processes and skill development. They need to be genuine partners to local authorities to work on common programmes. All these are under threat from a cuts agenda which regards back office functions as less important and therefore more readily discardable. “
I’ve been thinking again about how public services demonstrate their worth. As the cull of quangos continues apace, more organisations are looking to see how to prove their value to government before it’s too late. I’ve a presentation to write about this today, so I was interested in an item on the Today programme this morning on the subject.
The gist of the piece was that although quango-cutting may be currently popular and demonstrate a macho approach to saving money, government should think about what’s worth keeping and be careful before it embarks on wholesale cuts. The evidence shows high costs connected with cuts but often little in the way of added efficiency or long-term cost savings. Jobs still need to be done, they’re just done by other agencies or bought back into government, leading to a lack of focus and reduced accountability.
I sympathise with my mate Menthol Dan’s theory that over the next few months we will see a mass cull of NDPBs, a slow disintegration of services, a realisation that something needs to be put back in place and then a process of re-assembling the pieces again.
I’ve said here before that the lack of hard evidence of achievement is a major problem for lots of quangos who don’t have the evidence up their sleeves to show how valuable they are. It’s an issue for lots of voluntary sector bodies too – especially those who receive direct grants from government. NCVO have been looking at the issue as part of their Measuring Outcomes for Public Service Users (MOPSU) programme – there’s a useful summary of the arguments here
The programme is starting to identify possible principles for voluntary sector bodies to use when they’re trying to manage the notoriously difficult job of measuring outcomes – maybe these could be transferred to NDPBs too ?
- Any assessment must be based upon the experience of users rather than the interests of commissioners or providers.
- Outcomes should be directly attributable to the intervention
- The service should be assessed across different ‘domains’, which in turn are weighted to ensure that the service is making a demonstrable difference to the user, and that any difference reflects the different dimensions of any service
- Any measures should carry as low a burden as possible, which in practice leads to the usage of regulatory data collected for existing purposes, if possible.