The government responded to new research highlighting how ‘broken commissioning threatens the survival of small charities’ with a programme of support to help small and medium charities to successfully bid to deliver public services. Others will have their own views….but suffice to say I was underwhelmed by their approach.
But if incubators and Crown Representatives aren’t the answer, how could the government respond meaningfully and effectively to the challenges faced by vast swathes of the not for profit sector?
Here I suggest five ways the government could offer genuine support to small and medium sized charities:
1. Stop believing that ‘business’ is inherently better than ‘charity’
Charities and not for profits must be entrepreneurial to thrive, but to suggest that aping big business is the way to do this is misguided and damaging. ‘Big Business’ remember brought us delights such as Enron, the global banking crisis, PFI and countless other examples of how not to do things. There are economies of scale that are helpful to achieve, but charity performs a hugely important – and socially distinct – purpose to commercial enterprise. Social enterprises are a hugely important part of the social economy (particularly those that are genuinely enterprising and actually deliver social impact) but not every charity ought to be a social enterprise.
We should not judge charities by the business acumen and financial efficiency – though that’s not to say strong financial management and entrepreneurialism are unimportant. Charity must deliver social benefit. They should be ‘charity-like’.
2. Make ‘The Grant Making Tango’ compulsory reading for commissioners and funders
Written in 2004 and as compelling today as it was then. Julia Unwin sets out the need for funders to be clearer about what impact they are seeking from their funds; maintaining activities or services, building organisations or systems change. She also makes the case for different funding styles to support this; giving, shopping and investing.
Too many funders and commissioners are unclear about the approach they are taking and precisely what impact they want to have. Understanding the differences and being clear about intent will inform the way charities (and others) are invited to bid and reduce the amount of time wasted trying to second guess vague specifications and guidelines.
3. Start doing more ‘investing’ – let charities find solutions to problems
If commissioners knew best how to solve a particular social challenge then I’d have thought they’d be best placed to deliver that solution or service. The fact is that smaller charities and community groups are experts in their fields. They are often closer to their beneficiaries (many of them run by their beneficiaries – or at the least directed by them) and well equipped to identify the best ways to tackle those challenges. Commissioners are paying for someone better placed then them to deliver the solution. Why then should we try to impose the most appropriate way to deliver the solution?
Invest in the groups and organisations that are best equipped to find solutions and then trust them to get on with it. Provide support, challenge, question, encourage and work with them to ensure they have every chance of success…but let them do what they do best – support people and causes that need their help.
4. Don’t allow grants to be seen as the commissioners’ Cinderella
For too long grants have been seen as the poor relation of contracts. The Orwellian mantra of ‘contracts good, grants bad’ has eroded confidence in grant-making as a valid mechanism for supporting the delivery of social outcomes. It must stop. Grants are often more effective, more efficient and less bureaucratic than the dead hand of public sector procurement.
The real villains here are inappropriate use and poor practice – whether in grant-making or in procurement. Done poorly grant-making is expensive, burdensome and unlikely to deliver real impact to beneficiaries and procurement is no different. Let’s stop judging a particular approach and start appraising the way it’s done. Good grants and good contracts.
5. End austerity – fund public services adequately and start investing in prevention
The elephant in the room here is the fact that our public services are chronically underfunded and charities are being asked to pick up the pieces. Local government funding has been cut savagely over recent years and is only getting worse. Take Adult Social Care for example, one of the biggest costs in our Welfare State. It may need reform and there are plenty of things that can be done to improve the way we deliver it, but there is simply not enough money to meet rising demand. There’s no realistic prospect of investing properly in preventative measures when councils are struggling to merely meet their statutory duties. If the government wanted to alleviate the pressure on small charities, it should fund public services properly and not expect the care of millions of vulnerable people to be provided ‘on the cheap’ by someone else.
I’m not so naïve to believe that these five things on their own would fix the ‘commissioning crisis’. Nor would they mean an end to the challenges faced by small and medium sized charities. In fact it’s my view that the constant hand-to-mouth existence faced by many small charities is what gives them their cutting edge and drives innovation and improvement. However the government are serious about wanting to offer support to these organisations, they may want to consider these actions. And….the bit I know they’ll really love, they could do numbers 1-4 without it even costing them any more money.