Rethinking and rebuilding the voluntary sector post-pandemic

By Andrew Hogg

From crisis comes opportunity. COVID-19 has had an unprecedented effect on the voluntary sector, but it has also given us an opportunity to rebuild for the better.

With this in mind, the speakers attending the recent  ‘Rethink Rebuild’ webinar gave their thoughts on how the voluntary sector can move forward to face the challenges and inequalities laid bare by COVID-19 and to create a more equitable society.

COVID-19 has highlighted key systemic inequalities at the heart of our economic system. A recent report from Imperial College London has shown that ethnic minority groups have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic. When age and sociodemographic factors are accounted for, people from these communities are almost twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than their white peers.

Kaneez Shaid, Head of Community Engagement at Rethink Mental Illness, highlighted the direct impact the pandemic has had on people with mental health issues, such as the erosion of support frameworks and statutory services, loss of communal spaces and increased demands for accommodation. NPC have linked COVID-19 with a rise in domestic violence cases, with increased demand for services and donations from voluntary sector organisations, alongside a reduction of charity fundraising efforts:

In many communities it has been the not-for-dividends sector that has provided cohesion, that has provided people with food, with economic viability, access to vaccines, and social infrastructure stopping people falling through the net…the question for me becomes how we make this more visible politically. – Lord Victor Adebowale, current Chair of the NHS Confederation

Seth Reynolds, Principal Consultant for Systems Change at NPC, argued that the pandemic has created a ‘liminal space’ wherein we can pause and reflect on the systemic drivers and fundamental patterns of behaviour that created the inequalities the pandemic has laid bare.

This is a chance to fundamentally and systemically change the way our economy works for the better. There is no going back to normal, so how can the sector provide leadership to face the new challenges going forward?

Collaborative and system leadership

A recurring theme during the webinar was the need for a collaborative leadership approach to accommodate systemic change. Lord Adebowale talked about the need for system leadership, the adoption of which would enable voluntary sector organisations to align their missions and operations towards a common goal. This would set sector-wide objectives and generate a cooperative atmosphere whilst facilitating conditions within which others can make progress toward social change. This means leading beyond the boundaries of one’s own organisational needs to achieve aggregate, cross-sector outcomes.

This would involve understanding the interdependence of the voluntary sector, and decision-making that may go against the immediate concerns of the organisation to achieve collective outcomes. It also entails the acceptance of diversity as not only a good in and of itself, but as Lord Adebowale observed, as an “essential, economical, and operational good”, to include a broad remit of local, grassroots organisations.

A collaborative approach to leadership would also make best use of resources and help align funding to where it is needed. Juliet Mountain, the Director of Shaw Trust, argued that a competitive funding environment means that charities tend towards mission drift and invariably must follow the funding, rather than the needs of those who use their services. She argued that shared intelligence, not just of hard data but of expertise, resources, tools, and decision making, would enable lower capacity groups to easily access and understand generated data. This would enable the triangulation of funding and a coordinated decision-making process – what Lord Adebowale called “process matching intention”.

Power with, not power over

Collaborative and system leadership would also entail a shift towards localism – services either co-produced or fully produced by the communities who receive them – and relationships based on trust, power sharing and diversity. Kaneez Shaid talked of devolving hierarchical relationships between charities and local communities and creating new structures of shared power and co-production, such as integrated care systems and place-based activities embedded into local communities. Leah Davies and Seth Reynolds of NPC similarly argued for local partners and grassroots organisations to be embedded into social recovery plans to co-create structures that are built and maintained by the people using them.

Power sharing can go further than this. Even small, day-to-day changes can help to address power imbalances, such as adapting a more inclusive vocabulary when it comes to working partnerships. Both Kaneez Shaid and Juliet Mountain argued that a shift in language can facilitate a more cooperative mindset and be more inclusive of smaller, grassroots organisations. For instance, using ‘participant’ instead of ‘client’ or ‘colleague’ instead of ‘co-worker’ would create a more inclusive taxonomy and equitable relational partnerships. This in turn would engender collective decision-making and create added value for participants.   

Grant-making

One of the few things to directly result from COVID-19 that has been openly welcomed across the voluntary sector is the increased access to unrestricted funding. In November 2020 over 150 funders made a pledge towards flexible grant-making and trust-based relationships with charities.

Many participants in the webinar who shared their opinions in breakout rooms after the talks also agreed that the temporary suspension of funding restrictions and flexible approaches to grant-making during the pandemic had been hugely beneficial and at times necessary to keep smaller charities open.

Flexible grant making could also involve simplifying and standardising application processes, such as what is asked for from the grantee or the technical vocabulary used in the application. This would mean charities would not have to spend more time than necessary filling out forms and could use templates to increase their application output.

However, as Leah Davies and Seth Reynolds noted, to continue to understand the value of flexible funding and to know where future funding should be allocated, proportionate impact measurement is needed. It is important for funders to be able to keep demand light and proportional whilst having access to a funding feedback loop.

Concluding thoughts

This webinar revealed some key sticking points: cross-sector collaboration, system leadership, and the adoption of new models of power sharing that encourage localism, co-production, shared system analysis, and collective decision-making are needed to dynamically respond to funding needs. Similarly, the collective utilization of resources would allow for greater triangulation of funding and level the playing field for smaller, grassroots groups.

Organisations must come back from the pandemic with a renewed emphasis on community engagement, decentralised and devolved forms of organisation, and embrace the mentality of ‘power with, not power over’. Organisational models and processes, such as affiliate frameworks and decentralised partnerships, should be adopted to encourage power-sharing and to create structures with genuine value to the people using them.

Grant-making has trended towards flexible funding and trust-based arrangements, which is undoubtedly a good thing and grant-makers should continue to provide flexible and unrestricted funds. However, suitable impact measurement is needed to properly determine allocation and value, and that those who need funding the most will get it.

Simply put, we cannot go back to normal. The pandemic has exposed the deep systemic vulnerabilities at the heart of our economic model, and the voluntary sector must adapt to address these vulnerabilities and create a more equitable society.


Further reading: more on the voluntary sector on The Knowledge Exchange blog

Supporting our communities when they needed it most: how the VCSE sector has navigated the coronavirus pandemic

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Throughout the course of the pandemic many people have been reliant on the voluntary and community sector to provide support. With local authorities stretched, services in higher demand than ever and individuals making use of support in greater numbers than ever before, the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector has been a lifeline for many.

However, the sector is not immune from the pressures caused by the pandemic. They themselves have been stretched with demand for services increasing, and with income streams having beeen limited many are now facing significant challenges to survival. 

The same storm but different boats 

The VCSE sector is a varied and vibrant sector, often providing bespoke and specialist support to people in greatest need. Diverse, specialised and adaptable, the sector was quick to respond and able to offer support at the outset of the pandemic. But the sector has also been shown to be vulnerable in the face of tightening finances, reduced volunteer availability and increased demand for services. 

Research carried out by NCVO in March 2021 reported that charities and the voluntary sector have had vastly different experiences during the coronavirus pandemic, with the impact of the pandemic being reported across the sector as “uneven and unpredictable”. The research showed that while some organisations have expanded their service offer, others have seen their income shrink drastically, or have found delivering services increasingly difficult due to the restrictions being imposed during the national lockdowns. 

Key findings from the research include: 

  • Nearly half (46%) of those surveyed reported demand on their services increasing, versus just 19% seeing a slowdown. 
  • 35% say their costs have increased in the past year, while for 34% they have decreased. 
  • 46% of organisations have had to use their cash reserves to cope with the impact of covid-19 on their organisations. 
  • 44% of respondents say they could rely on their cash reserves for more than six months, while 9% either have no cash reserves or not enough to last them a month. 

A report by Equally Yours, commissioned by the Funders for Race Equality Alliance in April 2021 highlighted the challenges facing the Black and Minority Ethnic voluntary and community sector. This sector has historically experienced specific challenges (such as a high number of organisations being eligible to apply for only a small number of available funds). The research suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated their financial pressures, but also highlighted other challenges, such as regional inequalities in the availability of funding and support, the precarious position of many smaller charities and voluntary organisations who have not been able to access government support, and the challenges of short-term funding, which makes it difficult to create long term plans.

These sentiments were echoed in a separate report from researchers at Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) which looked at the value of smaller charities in responding to the crisis.

A new-found appreciation for the sector 

The voluntary sector made up a key part of the UK’s economy before the pandemic, not only as businesses and specialists within their fields, but also as part of the wider fabric of the communities in which they operate. Many within the sector would probably argue that they were not valued enough. Their expertise, flexibility and resilience in the face of challenging funding environments, have characterised the sector long before the pandemic.

During the pandemic, collaboration has been essential. In many areas the VCSE sector have been part of the vanguard of support for the most vulnerable in society, helping to organise local responses to the pandemic and fostering community resilience in the process. 

Research published in People, Place and Policy  in November 2020 observes that, at the local level, the pandemic has led to a strengthening of pre-existing ‘complementary’ relationships between the VCSE sector and local authorities, with voluntary organisations finding themselves further embedded in local systems of decision making, co-ordination and service provision. The research suggests that there is a newly visible and increasingly ‘complementary’ local role for previously ‘supplementary’ voluntary and charity-based organisations, responding to the needs of vulnerable members of the community.

Supporting the sector to move forward

Grantfinder is the UK’s leading provider of funding information for the VCSE sector in the UK. During 2020 we provided information on emergency Covid-related funding on our website and also offered all local authorities in the UK a free portal to signpost funding support to small businesses in their communities.

As the country starts focusing on recovery, we have recently launched a new funding portal that helps charities and community groups to find funding. My Funding Central is a simple to use tool, which provides users with regular news updates and tailored funding alerts. Annual subscriptions start at £50 and are free for small organisations, offering an affordable way of searching for available funding and connecting to potential funders. Over 1500 charities are already signed up and benefiting from being signposted to funding they may not have been aware of.

The impact of the voluntary sector is threaded through the wider fabric of our communities. As we come to terms with the social and economic trauma of the pandemic, these organisations will have a significant role to play. Ensuring that the sector is suitably valued and resourced will enable it to play as full a role as possible and help communities on the road to recovery. 


GrantFinder and the Knowledge Exchange are part of Idox Funding and Information Services.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like to read: 

Levelling up: can charities get a piece of the action?

Horizon Europe goes live

Levelling up: can charities get a piece of the action?

The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

So far, over £8bn has been put aside by the government for additional investment in so-called ‘left behind’ areas. The policy also appears to enjoy public support. The recent success of the Conservative candidate in the Hartlepool by-election, and the election of mayors in Teesside and West Yorkshire show that voters will back politicians with strong levelling up messages.

Local authorities and businesses are eager to bid for the first pots of levelling up funding that are coming onstream. But is there room for charities to get involved, and is there still time for them to shape the levelling up agenda?

This was the focus of a webinar organised by NPC, the think tank and consultancy for the charity sector.

Defining levelling up

There are different views about what the phase ‘levelling up’ actually means. But Tom Collinge, policy manager at NPC explained that this has become clearer now that various initiatives under the government’s levelling up agenda have got under way:

The Levelling Up Fund is a £4.8bn fund to invest in infrastructure that will regenerate town centres, upgrade local transport and invest in cultural and heritage assets.

The Towns Fund is a £3.6bn fund to support the regeneration of towns.

The UK Community Renewal Fund will provide £220 million additional funding to help places across the UK prepare for the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the UK’s replacement for structural funding from the European Union).

The Community Ownership Fund will provide £150 million to help community groups buy or take over local community assets at risk of being lost.

Levelling up funds: making the case for charities

Looking at this funding from a voluntary sector perspective, Tom acknowledged that charities may find it hard to see how they can fit into the kind of work that is eligible for funding. A lot of the focus is on capital spending – transport infrastructure, repairing buildings and creating new parks. An NPC analysis of the levelling up funds found that as much as 87% could go on capital investment. This could be challenging for charities whose work involves delivering services in areas such as youth provision, addiction or homelessness.

Even so, Tom suggested that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of accessing these funds. He explained that a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.

Deadlines are tight: bids for the first funds must be submitted by June 18. So, the time has come, said Tom, for charities to be vocal and make an economic case for levelling up funding.  Collaboration with local authorities and metro mayors is likely to be crucial, and Tom suggested that charities with already good relations with local stakeholders are more likely to succeed in their bids.

Levelling up : the local perspective

Kim Shutler, Chair of Bradford District Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) Assembly agreed that collaboration with local councils is key for charities looking to bid for levelling up funds. But although Bradford’s VCS has a strong relationship with local government, Kim explained that making the voluntary sector’s voice heard can be challenging.

While Kim has experience of partnering with statutory services in delivering mental health support to adults, bids for levelling up funds are handled differently. She was critical of the lack of clarity in how charities can influence the levelling up agenda in meaningful and sustainable ways, and suggested that the top-down nature of the process is detrimental to grass-roots charities.

Where charities can succeed, she suggested, is to demonstrate to local authorities and other partners that the voluntary sector has a compelling story to tell. Learning the language of the people with the money, making a good business case and articulating what charities can bring to the table means the voluntary sector can find a way into the levelling up process.

Shaping the levelling up agenda

As corporate director of children’s services at Barnardo’s, Lynn Perry is well placed to talk about levelling up. Much of what the charity does involves working at the heart of communities, in partnership with local agencies, young people and families. 

Charities like Barnardo’s have a unique understanding of the challenges facing the country’s poorest communities. Lynn believes that this perspective strengthens the voluntary sector’s offer, not just in terms of service delivery, but in designing policies and thinking about community assets.

Looking at the bias towards capital projects in the levelling up funds, Lynn argued that a broader definition of infrastructure is needed. Support for families, care for the elderly and improving the lives of disabled people is every bit as important as 5G and better transport. And with the right social infrastructure, young people who get early and continued support can grow up to be the nurses, engineers and climate scientists we’ll need in the years to come.

Lynn observed that this is a unique moment to recognise the value charities can bring to the levelling up agenda. During the pandemic, the voluntary sector has played a vital role in supporting communities in ways that some public services could not. She believes that the future of the levelling up agenda should be shaped by working with communities and the charities that support them. And, along with Kim Shulter, she stressed the need to make better use of the insights and social data collected by charities to demonstrate the real value of the voluntary sector.

Tom Collinge supported this, and suggested that while it might be too late for charities to influence the existing levelling up funds, they should be looking towards the Shared Prosperity Fund. The delay in its introduction may be beneficial, giving the voluntary sector time to think about making the case for revenue funding.

Raising the voice of the voluntary sector

The UK has a long road to follow before it can say the work of levelling up is done. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has observed,

“The differences between regions are rooted in history going back decades, even centuries. Having fundamental effects on them will require reallocating capital spending for sure, and a whole lot more — investment in skills, in health, in early years, and a coherent and long-term industrial strategy.”

Working with local stakeholders, charities can bring their insights, skills and experience to this process, both in terms of accessing funds and influencing future programmes. It’s now time for the voluntary sector to speak up on levelling up.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange on community development and regeneration

Improving basic skills levels in England

a conference

by Stacey Dingwall

At the end of last month, the OECD published its review of adult skills in England, Building Skills for All. The review was commissioned by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) after a 2013 Survey of Adult Skills in 24 OECD countries ranked England at 22nd and 21st in terms of young adults’ (aged 16-24) levels of literacy and numeracy respectively. For all adults (aged 16-65), the country was ranked in 11th position for literacy, and 17th for numeracy.

England’s skills levels reviewed

The latest review produced similar results, estimating that there are around nine million adults of working age in England with low levels of numeracy and/or literacy. This represents more than a quarter of adults aged 16-65 in the country. The lower levels of basic skills among young people are also noted again: while older adults (aged 55-65) in England have basic skills levels broadly similar to their peers in other OECD countries, the same cannot be said for younger adults. As the older generation reaches retirement age, this obviously raises concerns over the skills levels of the current and future workforce.

The findings prompted the OECD to recommend that as universities in England are “failing to develop quite basic skills” among their students, some students would be better suited to enrolling in further, as opposed to higher, education. If universities didn’t allow students to enrol without at least a GCSE C grade in maths, for example, or graduate without achieving a reasonable level of basic skills, the think tank believes that this would allow a rebalancing of the country’s education system, by targeting resources in areas where they are best suited.

Who or what is to blame?

Higher education bodies did not agree with this assessment of the current system, contending that the survey involved too small of a sample of students to support such a large reform. However, research conducted with employers on their experiences of recruiting young people has found evidence of a basic skills issue. Surveys carried out by the CIPD and Education and Training Foundation both heard from employers who were particularly concerned about young employees’ (current and potential) literacy and numeracy skills, as well as their ability to communicate in a professional manner, i.e. not in text speak.

Following the publication of the OECD’s 2013 report, the president of the International Council for Adult Education, Alan Tuckett, blamed England’s poor results on constant changes to the curriculum, arguing that this had distracted attention from adult education. He argued that there needed to be more investment in lifelong learning, highlighting that South Korea had achieved second place in the rankings, following such an investment. The country enacted its second Lifelong Education Act in 2007, defining lifelong learning as including “all types of systemic educational activities other than traditional school education”, including basic adult literacy.

Despite Tuckett’s criticism, the 2015 OECD review concludes that while it is still too early to evaluate the success of the government’s education reforms, including making maths and literacy courses a requirement in most 16-19 education, their objectives are the correct ones. In terms of funding for adults skills and education, however, recent news of a leaked memo suggesting that BIS agencies including the Skills Funding Agency are at risk of abolition due to further budget cuts is a cause for concern. It has already been confirmed that funding for the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) is being withdrawn in 2016-17; supposedly as part of the government’s commitment to protecting core adult skills participation budgets in cash terms.

Good practice: the Citizen’s Curriculum

In 2014/15, NIACE developed the Citizen’s Curriculum approach, with the aim of ensuring that everyone is equipped with a core set of skills required for the 21st century:

  • English;
  • maths;
  • English for speakers of other languages (ESOL); and
  • digital, civic, health and financial capabilities.

The approach was piloted in 13 areas, delivered by a range of organisations including local authorities, colleges and charities. This initial phase sought to understand adults’ motivation for learning, as well as ensuring that they are being provided with opportunities for learning that are suited to their particular needs. This co-production aspect of the approach is seen as key to its success. With a particular focus on disadvantaged groups, including the homeless and ex-offenders, the pilots provided insight into what works in engaging disadvantaged learners. For example, the pilot carried out by the homeless charity St. Mungo’s Broadway found that embedding skills such as maths and English within independent living skills was particularly important, and helped to adequately prepare learners for moving on and progressing in life.

Following an impact assessment that saw 92% of participants indicate that they were motivated to progress to further learning opportunities, the second phase of the pilots was launched in October 2015. This will see previous participating organisations returning to build on their work in the previous phase, alongside new pilots testing the approach in different settings, or with different sets of learners.


 

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our other article on STEM skills in the UK.

Christmas without a home

By Heather Cameron

Last week saw George Clooney launch a campaign to feed the homeless at Christmas by donating the first £5.

When visiting Edinburgh’s branch of Scotland’s not-for-profit sandwich shop, Social Bite, last month, Clooney filmed a video clip on a staff member’s phone in which he pledged the first £5 donation to Social Bite’s £5 Christmas dinner appeal.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Olympic star Sir Chris Hoy, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, comedian Rob Brydon, broadcaster Chris Evans, and Scotland football manager Gordon Strachan have also pledged their support.

Last year’s campaign raised enough money to buy 36,000 meals to feed homeless people in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen for the whole year. Just 24 hours after Clooney’s initial donation, £165,000 was raised with over 33,000 people donating.

How many homeless?

Considering that Scottish local authorities logged 35,764 statutory homelessness assessments in 2014/15, of which 28,615 were assessed as ‘legally homeless’, this figure is impressive.

Nevertheless, the actual number of homeless people is likely to be far greater.

The latest data for Scotland suggests that 50,000 adults experience homelessness each year.

Shelter has estimated that 109,000 children in Britain will be homeless this Christmas, with nearly 5,000 of them in Scotland. According to the Scottish arm of charity, this is a 15% increase on last year’s figure, which:

“is simply not good enough and a badge of shame for such a relatively wealthy country”…The increased number of homeless children indicates a growing bottleneck of families stuck in temporary accommodation due to the major shortage of affordable housing across Scotland.”

upset boy against a wall

Government figures show that the number of people in temporary accommodation has grown over the past five years despite more than £1bn being spent on homelessness since 2010.

And these figures don’t include the hidden homeless that evade official statistics. According to Crisis, “official homelessness figures are masking the true scale of the problem”.

People living in overcrowded accommodation, shared accommodation, young single people and those in ‘concealed households’ (including groups/families/single people who are unable to form separate households and forced to live with others) can all be hidden from the system. And as local authorities only have to accommodate ‘statutory’ homeless people, these people are often hidden from support and advice as well as statistics.

Positive practice

As Social Bite’s Christmas dinner campaign shows though, good work is being done. Many homeless charities work tirelessly across the UK to provide services for people at Christmas time and indeed throughout the year.

The Salvation Army provides support and friendship to the homeless and other vulnerable people and its Christmas appeal for donations of time, money and gifts has seen much success over the years.

Crisis runs their Crisis at Christmas event across the country providing hot meals, fun activities, entertainment, health care and advice for the homeless. This year they have Christmas centres in Birmingham, Coventry, Edinburgh, London and Newcastle.

A new community initiative led by students at Darlington College aims to give homeless people in the town a Christmas lunch at the college, a cooking demonstration and festive meal at a local restaurant.

And as well as providing dinners for homeless people in Scotland, Social Bite will also be using donations to provide food and clothing packs for refugees in camps in Calais, the Serbia/Croatia border, and Lesbos.

Final thoughts

With the sheer scale and complexity of the issue, of course it won’t be possible for such initiatives to reach every homeless person. And with the combination of cuts to welfare and a severe lack of affordable housing across the UK, many more families are likely to face a fight to keep roofs over their heads.

So while we settle down to enjoy the festive period with our nearest and dearest, perhaps we should all spare a thought for those who simply seek the gift of shelter.


Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our previous blog on Britain’s hidden homeless. 

Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.

Commissioning the third sector … are we outsourcing authority as well as services?

By Rebecca Jackson

Public sector cuts under the coalition and current Conservative governments’ programme of austerity have been far reaching and severe. Social enterprises and charities have been promoted by government as a new and effective way to deliver public services in a way which meets the needs of service users but are more cost effective than previous models.

But the closure of Kids Company last month raised questions about the difficulties of outsourcing public services. When a body receives public money, but is ultimately a private organisation or business, who is held responsible for how that money is spent, who is responsible for its regulation and who is ultimately held accountable for its failures?

social enterprise 5

Photo By Paul Carttar & Carol Thompson Cole w/ David Gergen and dpict.info Free for editorial and/or personal use only. No sales, no commercial use.

Rolling back the state

Estimates suggest there are 70,000 social enterprises in the UK, employing around a million people. Social enterprises and charities have been incorporated extensively into the delivery of public services. This is not only to provide efficiency, but expertise and personalised service in a way that national government-led roll-outs could not. There have been a number of schemes which have functioned effectively, where social enterprises and charities have successfully integrated to help local authorities deliver public services.

Social enterprises represent an alternative way of doing business in the UK; one which promotes investment in communities and projects which promote sustainability and collaboration. They include organisations from the economic, social, cultural and environmental sectors. Their diversity is one of their major advantages.

However some more sceptical about their use have commented that a growing government obsession with outsourcing public services, to both the private and third sector, has created a “shadow state”. Increasingly people have begun to question whether this approach is a sustainable or suitable method for the delivery of public services in the UK. There’s no doubt that social enterprises provide an alternative approach to service delivery, but at what cost to the taxpayer and government legitimacy?

Questions of legitimacy and authority

Founded in 1996 by Camila Batmanghelidjh in south London, Kids Company provided a range of services to vulnerable children in London, Liverpool and Bristol. Its high profile supporters within government included David Cameron. However Kids Company was forced to close after a very public “funding crisis”. Now there are questions over exactly whose responsibility it was to make sure that the money given to Kids Company by government was spent correctly and who is liable for the failure of the charity and the potential loss of £3m of public money.

There are two key issues. The delivery of specialist services to improve outcomes for hard-to-reach groups, is not easy or cheap. Commissioning these services from the third sector, when there are recognised issues with their ability to access sustainable finance and investment, as well as workforce and skills issues within the sector, is never going to be straight-forward. The situation of Kids Company is actually very unusual as sector surveys show that the main challenge that social enterprises and the voluntary sector face when delivering contracted services is the risk that the focus shifts from the needs of service users to meeting narrow, performance management requirements. Public sector procurement models based on cost and value for money leave little leeway and also put organisations into competition with each other for scarce funding.

Secondly, there is the question of the relationship between transparency, legitimacy and government authority. Kids Company lacked transparency and in the end, by not addressing concerns or applying appropriate scrutiny, government outsourced its authority as well as its services.

Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron gives a speech at Demos with Frank Field Labour MP for Birkenhead and Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder and Director of Kids Company, London, Thursday January 7, 2010. Photo By Andrew Parsons Free for editorial and/or personal use only. No sales, no commercial use.

Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron gives a speech at Demos with Frank Field Labour MP for Birkenhead and Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder and Director of Kids Company, London, Thursday January 7, 2010. Photo By Andrew Parsons
Free for editorial and/or personal use only. No sales, no commercial use.

Answers in the form of regulation?

What exactly went wrong with Kids Company will hopefully emerge in time as a result of the statutory inquiry which was announced last week by the Charities Commission.

Within the existing structure in place in the UK, charities and third sector organisations in England and Wales are held accountable for their practice and conduct by the Charity Commission, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own independent regulatory bodies.

However their effectiveness is disputed. Many smaller organisations are left to largely self-regulate. There is no official stance from government on charity regulation, no mandatory standard of practice, only guidance to direct charity conduct. A damning Public Accounts Committee report in 2014 found that “We are dismayed by the fact that the Charity Commission is still performing poorly and failing to regulate the charity sector effectively. It is obvious that it has no coherent strategy and …it is clear that the Charity Commission is not fit for purpose.

It seems that the government lacks the necessary instruments to scrutinise and challenge the way that charities or third sector organisations operate.

Because of the nature of the organisations involved, what the third sector needs is a regulatory body which is able to effectively set out standards and rules of practice, and explicitly state what is expected of charities in terms of accountability where public funds are concerned, but is not a police force. Too much regulation and scrutiny over charities’ practices would make for a sector which was reluctant to contribute to public services and would reduce their focus on the task of delivering effective public services.

This regulatory challenge is something which needs to be addressed if charities and social enterprises are to continue to be part of the public service delivery structure in the UK.


Want to know more about what we do? Our article Celebrating a different kind of library describes our membership service.

Follow us on Twitter to see what other developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Celebrating a different kind of library: the Idox Information Service

Number 95

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office, an art deco building in Glasgow

by Laura Dobie

It’s National Libraries Day this Saturday, and events are being held up and down the country to celebrate libraries and their contribution to communities. When people think of libraries, it tends to be public libraries which spring to mind and rows of bookshelves. However, the library sector is diverse.  Many librarians and information professionals work in different types of organisations, with different kinds of service users.

With libraries taking centre stage over the course of this weekend, we wanted to showcase our own specialist library service and the skills of our library staff.

Who we are

The Idox Information Service is a membership library service, which was established over thirty years ago under its earlier name of the Planning Exchange. At the outset the emphasis was on the provision of resources to support professionals working in planning and the built environment, but we’ve expanded our subject coverage over the years to cover the whole spectrum of public sector information.

Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Our work

Our research officers are all qualified librarians, and many are chartered members of CILIP. This picture shows the range of activities last year:

2014 statsGrey literature is a particular strength of our collection. We spend a lot of time sourcing documents such as technical reports from government agencies, and research reports produced by think tanks, university departments, charities and consultancies which are often overlooked by other databases. Recent research has highlighted the value of grey literature for public policy and practice.

Although we may work in a specialist sector, many of our activities will be familiar from other libraries. We do our own abstracting and cataloguing, and current awareness services are a big part of what we do.

We also write our own research briefings for members on different topics, with more detailed analysis of research and policy developments, and including case studies and good practice. Some of these briefings are publicly available on our publications page.

The interest from members in using our Ask a Researcher service has been increasing, due to the time pressures and other challenges that people face in sourcing and reviewing information. A recent example looking at the links between employee wellbeing and productivity is on our website. Members regularly comment on the usefulness of the results, and it’s satisfying to be able to make a direct contribution to their work in this way.

Keeping it personal

While there has been an increasing trend towards self-service in libraries, and our online database allows our members to search for and access resources themselves, there is a strong personal element to our work.

Our members know that we’re always available at the end of the phone or via email to provide them with dedicated support when they need it. It’s important to us that we provide a quality service which keeps pace with the changing needs and expectations of a varied membership base.

Hopefully this article has provided some insight into a different kind of library, and library and information work, and the way in which we support professionals across a variety of fields. More information about the service can be found here.


Laura Dobie is a Research Officer at the Idox Information Service and a chartered librarian. She writes regular blog articles and research briefings for the service, and tweets for @IdoxInfoService

De-mystifying social enterprise

social saturday 13 september 2014

by Alex Thomas

Tomorrow marks the first Social Saturday (#socialsaturday), a day to celebrate and buy from social enterprises in the UK. Social enterprises are a growing social and economic force with approximately 70,000 operating in the UK contributing £18.5 billion to the economy according to government data. However, despite this presence and impact less than 5 in 10 people know what a social enterprise is and less than one in ten has purchased from on in the last 12 months (according to a recent article by article by Brooks Newmark, Minister for Civil Society). Continue reading