The Backbone of Civil Society: Sustaining small community groups
There was substantial investment from 2005 to 2010 in building the infrastructure of development support to voluntary and community groups, through such government programmes as CapacityBuilders and others, which has significantly declined over the last 5 years. Added to this, the economic recession, public sector funding cuts and welfare reforms has impacted on voluntary and community organisations working with the most vulnerable in society creating a strain on resources to meet the demand on their services.
Equally, there has been a policy push at central and local government levels to enable communities to have a voice in decision making processes, shaping local public services, and taking on the management of local assets and services. These themes have straddled both the New Labour agenda and the current Conservative government agenda packaged as the Big Society. If anything, the Localism Act places even higher expectation on communities to gain the skills and knowledge for local governance and the delivery of services. Two recent reports published at the beginning of this year, highlight the deep and long lasting effects of reductions in government funding on local charities and the people they support. The NCVO report looks at how small and medium sized charities have been affected by the chaning financial landscape since 2008. The IPPR North report looks at how smaller charities are adapting to change, their strengths and weaknesses and the social and economic value they provide. The new research found that local and central government funding for small and medium sized charities reduced by up to 44% between 2008/09 and 2012/13. This was a higher proportion of their income than that of larger organisations, which have been better able to adjust to the government shift towards competitive commissioning and contracting models. The studies also found that income loss was uneven across geographical regions, with small and medium sized charities in the North,the North East, North West and West Midlands having lost the highest proportion overall. Income declined for every sector, with legal services, social services and health seeing particularly large reductions.
Given the further reductions in government spending, and the continuing move to contracting and commissioning which favours larger charities and private compaies, smaller charities will find it increasingly hard to survive and the people they reach will be placed at greater risk.
Yet these are the groups in communities of place and interest that make up the majority of the voluntary and community sector. Their ability to reach out and work with members of a community that public sector agencies and larger voluntary organisations find difficult to reach makes them essential and a critical part of the fabric of civil society. Furthermore, the ability to build relationships increases social support networks for those more vulnerable in society, and through experience of participating in community activity, learn new skills and knowledge that provide practical benefits for individuals as well for the community. So what are the most effective ways to support and sustain this vital part of civil society? How should commissioners and funders ensure that resources reach smaller groups that build upon their social value?