Archive for December, 2011

Charities in 2012: little stars twinkle out from the gloom

It’s pretty grim out there right now for many charities. Demand for their services is increasing, and the needs of beneficiaries are getting more complex. Spending cuts and low returns on investments means there’s less money to go round.

But, as Debra Allcock Tyler recently pointed out at the Directory of Social Change’s (DSC) Social Change Awards, no matter what happens over the next year, people will still be born, get together, have children and muddle on with their lives. Other commentators, such as the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) chief executive, Matthew Taylor, have also talked about the need to stay positive and to look on the bright side during these uncertain times.

So developing their theme, and without being naive, are there any positive glows for the voluntary sector in 2012? And, if we are going to be positive, how can we make the most of the opportunities which will exist, while remaining realistic about the challenges?

The very fact there’s a sustaining and enduring civil society should be a continuing cause for celebration. Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the Charity Commission, speaking at the the DSC awards ceremony talked powerfully about the continuing interest in and importance of civil society. Reminding us that, on average, 25 new charities register every day, she said that they are there “because of the need for our civil belonging”. No doubt some of these new charities are being formed precisely as a response to these hard times.

And it’s worth remembering that not all of these organisations are chasing public sector money or contracts: 64% of charities do not receive any public funding. Many are small community-based organisations, and rely on fundraising and voluntary effort.

The latest Charities Aid Foundation/National Council for Voluntary Organisations giving survey shows the value of donations staying static over the last year, but it also shows more people are donating and that they’re increasingly doing so online. Given the current climate, these results show that giving is holding up rather well, which must be encouraging news going into 2012.

While contracts inevitably favour larger organisations, it’s still the case that local organisations, which focus on making the connections at a neighbourhood level, building up skills, “passporting” what they do, rather than scaling up, could still flourish in 2012. An example is Pathways 2 Progress, a west London project providing mentoring and empowerment to young people at risk of involvement in serious crime.

It has an impressive record because it has great people involved in the project; it works hard at making links in the local community, cultivates local businesses to provide funding and job opportunities, and hasn’t tried to become too big or inhuman.

Many of the provisions within the Localism Act also come into force from April 2012. Sector organisations can nominate a list of assets they think are integral for community life, and local shops, pubs, post offices and libraries have been quoted as examples. If the owner wants to sell the asset, there is a “right to bid” for it, and a six-month period for funding to be organised. 2012 could therefore see the continuing growth in new forms of mutual ownership, such as the Metfield Stores, a co-operative community interest company. (Rumour has it; the Metfield Stores was also the inspiration for The Archers community-run village shop).

Next year is likely to be a time when there are louder and shriller voices calling for charities delivering public services and in receipt of public funding, to be barred from political campaigning. The sector’s voice in speaking truth to power and speaking out on behalf of their beneficiaries is one of its powerful hallmarks. Of course, charities have to make a judgement and consider the consequences of speaking out, and to think through whether the potential gains are worth the possible downsides. But the prolific use of social media means that there will always be people ready to do so, and in 2012 it simply won’t be practical to put the sector’s voice back in the box.

So yes, next year will still have challenges for the sector and it won’t be easy. But, to misquote the Christmas carol, there will still be some little stars which twinkle.

Rosie’s blog first appeared in Guardian Voluntary Sector Network.