In March, NCVO announced the launch of a new project looking at how voluntary sector organisations could work better with, and alongside each other when bidding to deliver services.
The announcement, in partnership with ACEVO and the Lloyds Bank Foundation (LBF), promised to “explore how the relationship between large and small voluntary organisations can be rebalanced, in order to deliver better services, strengthen communities and ensure equity of opportunity across the voluntary sector.”
It goes on to say that the project will be “considering the wide range of factors that influence the way voluntary organisations behave and the wider commissioning and funding environment affecting them.”
This a hugely welcome development, and with only around 6% of publicly commissioned funds going to the voluntary sector, there is obviously significant room for improvement in the way the sector works with each other, and their overall approach to commissioning.
Add to that the evidence reported in last year’s LBF report ‘Value of Small’ which highlighted that 55% of local government funding awarded to the voluntary sector goes to charities with an income over £10m (with 76% of those not locally based), the situation appears clear.
The voluntary sector, and especially smaller, local charities, are not maximising the opportunities available to them.
But is that the whole picture? Is the problem smaller charities needing to work better and more collaboratively which other? Partly, yes. Of equal, if not greater concern, is that public sector commissioning is clunky, process rather than outcomes driven, old fashioned, obsessed with OJEU regulations, and in many cases completely devoid of common sense.
Any project which seeks to look at how the voluntary sector can better operate within commissioning, absolutely, positively has to look at how public bodies, from parish councils to Government departments, support the voluntary sector into the market place.
This is not a moral issue (well, not entirely), it’s a practical issue. The LBF (2018) report identifies three immediate benefits in facilitating smaller charities to deliver local services:
1. Individual value – “the support SMCs [small to medium charities] provide for people facing disadvantage leads to ‘soft’ personal, social and emotional outcomes − such as wellbeing − as well as hard and more tangible outcomes − such as employment.”
2. Economic value – “the work of SMCs creates value directly for the economy as well as value for public services through the individual outcomes achieved.” The report highlights that SMCs had a £7.2billion footprint in 2014-15, the vast majority of which is reinvested back into local communities.
3. Added value – “the work of SMCs provides a range of added value that cuts across individual and economic value.” This includes the fact smaller charities engage many more volunteers per £1 spent than bigger ones, as well as generally have a better understanding of the local need than pretty much any other entity (and often better than the local authority itself).
To realise these benefits, public sector commissioners need to create an environment both supportive in principle and in practical terms for local charities.
There are several things they could do to enable this, some more straightforward than others:
1. Separate commissioning from procurement: Councillors, directors and service commissioners need to detach themselves from procurement. Process must be secondary to outcomes. Work with local charities (and residents) to find out what the problem is and what solutions are possible. Develop service specifications around these. Insist on minimalist, or at least proportionate processes to decide who gets to deliver the services.
2. Put your money where your mouth is: Ring-fence a minimum percentage of commissioned funds to be directed to the local voluntary sector. Ideally at least 30 to 40%. If the local market isn’t big or stable enough to accommodate it, invest in capacity building.
3. Fix your internal systems: Carry out a top down and bottom up review of all of your financial and legal processes. What are your commissioning and finance thresholds? How much information do you actually need for a quote/procurement process? Are decision making processes lengthy? Do you often have delays? Find out why and remove the blocks.
4. Fund your local CVS! They can do a lot of this work for you. They can commission effectively, they are already engaging with and developing capacity and infrastructure across the sector. They know what the issues are and who the people working on them are.
Hopefully Rebalancing the Relationship’s focus will be broad enough to investigate both sides of the issue. Without significant structural change in the public sector, it really doesn’t matter how well the voluntary sector works together, they will be excluded.
NCVO are currently in the process of pulling together an Advisory Group to oversee the project (draft ToR here). They have called for expressions of interest, and although the selection process is a little opaque at this stage, Simpact CIC have volunteered to be a part of it. We’ll keep you posted if we hear anything.
The call for evidence is expected to begin this Spring/Summer, where the wider sector will have the opportunity to contribute and help shape the narrative. This is potentially a real opportunity to create change for the entire sector.
Ultimately, public sector commissioners should be helping to grow and develop charities, not consigning them to the sidelines, fighting over scraps.