A fragile but mighty sector… reflections from the VCSE

Looking back to 2020… it all seems like a bit of a blur now: strange parallel universe. But I look back with immense pride. Our sector did what it does best: in the face of a crisis, it mobilised at an exceptional pace, often before others could. Our grass roots organisations had the trust already. They are always there for people so they know how to reach them. Local VCSE don’t care if people don’t fit the right box, they care about their community and the place they are rooted in not just about the contracts. Everyone wanted to volunteer and they came out in their droves. People had time and they could afford to give, many were furloughed, people wanted to do their bit.

Even then we saw charities reach into their already dwindling reserves, Trusts and Foundations coming out with different types of funding to support the response. And, in the main, our teams (like so many key workers) were hugely energised despite the stressful circumstances. They worked all hours, operated in constant flux, changed services, developed new services and delivered incredible impact.

But what has happened since then? In many ways for our sector it is the same as the rest of health and care… Demand has shot through the roof, funding remains either the same or, now the Covid money is gone, there is a big black hole.

For perhaps the first time we cannot recruit and retain colleagues, including volunteers. We have never been a high paying sector. People know that when they go into these jobs but there is a big BUT here… we cannot deliver exceptional, safe services to people if we cannot safely staff them. However good you are as an employer, however fabulous the work is… when staff leave during a cost of living crisis because they’ll be paid 5,10,15k plus more.. what can you do? Every VCSE CEO I speak to is saying the same. 

It also comes at a time of exhaustion. We have seen our colleagues dig deep… deeper than deep but they are human… there is a limit. And these roles often carry a heavy emotional burden. They see the increasing crisis, the waiting list of people who are desperate for support NOW… not in weeks or months, they pick up the pieces. Like colleagues across health and care, leaders are doing their best to provide reassurance – that we can only do what we can do. We can do a lot because we flex, turn, give and give but our sphere of influence only stretches so far. But not being able to meet the need is crushing for morale.

And if anything, perversely, we are having to ask more of our teams than we did during Covid because to a great extent during the pandemic, many things were put on hold… less business as usual, less red tape, less process. This wasn’t necessarily a good thing in some cases but it did create some space. There was also more grace and kindness. The clapping for key workers, the compassion and patience for each other. The recognition that everyone was doing their best. All in the same storm… not all in the same boat.

And for those in the sector who deliver public sector contracts, we had a form of reprieve from commissioning and procurement. Don’t get me wrong, we know these things need to happen but as they restart: with the incredible work they bring, I beg my public sector colleagues to never underestimate the impact of these processes on organisations and staff in terms of the investment of time and resource, the upheaval for front-line staff and services. And that instead of focusing on leading services, weathering the storm and working as a system, leaders are heads down on tenders. And in the main (but not always).. those amazing grassroots organisations (remember the ones who saved our skin during Covid) are left out. They don’t have professional bid writers, finance teams to do the sums, HR to manage the TUPE. They have front line managers (if any paid staff at all) who are working all hours trying to keep the lights on.. still doing all they can to keep going. And so they continue to deliver on short term pennies, cobbled together. There isn’t an easy solution to this. It is impossible for everyone to get a slice of the pie when the pie is not big enough.

Recently, as Covid cases escalated again, health and care pressures once again through the roof… we found ourselves back in the world of escalation calls… emergency status under what I have learnt to be called Opel (Operational Pressures Escalation Levels) 3 or 4. In other words, the proverbial has hit the fan. All hands to the pump. Essential urgent activity only, system partner support stepped up, staff redeployed. And yet I am left wondering about the VCSE… that so many of our organisations are also at Opel Level 3 and 4. And yet the help doesn’t come. To a great extent, it can’t… not in the same way… but there are things which could help. There are certainly things that could be done which would make a difference. More thought could also be given on avoiding (often inadvertently) making things worse.

I think of the Community Centre Manager who saw the CCTV at 5am & thought it was someone breaking in. It wasn’t. It was someone getting in the queue for the Advice Services drop in. The same Manager who needs to retire but can’t bear to, knowing what might happen when she does.

I think of the Manager who works part time with one other, plus volunteers , supporting hundreds of children on one of the most deprived estates in Europe. In one year to keep going he had to write countless bids and track and report on 8 different grants. All grants which were for a year maximum and amounted to peanuts. Peanuts he was working magic with. Just imagine if they had more than peanuts. 

The trouble is that our sector is often invisible. Few have the time or budget for comms and marketing, networking etc But this invisible work is like a big dam holding back the flood. It is NOT the soft, cuddly, nice to have stuff. It is the stuff that is saving people’s lives quietly every day. It is the ONLY stuff that could reach people  during the early days of the pandemic. It is the stuff that people trust in when they do not trust anyone else. 

And so when we talk about VCSE sector sustainability what we mean is sustaining this work… Of course when organisations shut, in itself it is awful, but really it isn’t just about that. It is about the loss of the work that no one else can do, the skills, wisdom and history, the years of community trust disappearing. It’s about the fact that there IS no one there to help those people then. I am in a very fortunate position in my own organisation that we are probably in a more sustainable place than most I but I can say with certainty that if this had happened 5,6 years ago we’d have been gone. When I first arrived at my organisation back in 2014, every night I went to sleep wondering if there was anything I could do to keep the doors open. It was a very heavy weight. I know this is a weight many of my colleagues are carrying right now.

I’m not saying that people don’t value the work the VCSE do. Most people I speak to have accessed or had contact with a charity. I think that in the main, the majority of our public sector colleagues now recognise the value of closer working with our sector. But I do think that we are overwhelmingly taken for granted and probably not valued ENOUGH when it comes to the crunch. 

One of the big troubles is this: calling us the voluntary sector seems to mean that many think we can run on fresh air. The third sector? Another name I’m not keen on because frankly, for many people we aren’t third… we are first to respond.

We deliver a vast, vibrant array of provision which spans from enabling self care and prevention to operating with great complexity and risk. We are not the cheap alternative but we deliver incredible value… return on investment if you like. And we do it differently in a way which complements our public services. We are agile, flexible and (to some extent) less constrained by red tape. This makes us exceptional in a crisis.

But most CEOs or managers in the VCSE I speak to at the moment are deeply, deeply worried. The cost of living increases, the rise in demand and poverty, the energy prices increasing for buildings which are typically large and inefficient, the workforce crisis… the list goes on. Our grants and contracts no longer cover the costs (many were already being operated at loss). The fundraising climate has changed entirely. Community and corporate fundraising has dried up and the competition for grants has shot up. Again, the small grass roots organisations often lose out here.

As a sector we are VERY, VERY good at holding hope. It’s our bread and butter but I am hearing from more and more leaders who are struggling with that because there is no obvious light at the end of the tunnel.

And so the time is now. This is already too long to get into listing solutions but one thing is certain: we must work on them together as a sector, and as a system. We need to drive this as leaders but we also need our colleagues in national and local government and in the NHS to take urgent and brave steps, as well as helping to play the long game to create the shift in resources to communities that’s needed. Incidentally some of these things will not cost money, there are about shifting behaviours and changing mindsets…. They are also about how we come together as a VCSE. Because we are so often set up in competition, because so many are fighting for their existence… there is often a lack of trust… behaviours rear their ugly heads which do us a disservice, damage our reputation and only hurt the people we serve. Time and energy wasted on the wrong things.

I’m proud to be part of the West Yorkshire Partnership (ICS) which has recently signed an Memorandum of Understanding with our sector https://www.wypartnership.co.uk/news-and-blog/news/west-yorkshire-cements-place-of-voluntary-community-and-social-enterprise-sector-within-partnership

They have also invested in the role I am about to start on the Integrated Care Board and as Senior Responsible Officer for the Harnessing the Power of Communities Programme: working alongside colleagues to try and drive forward solutions in health and care. This isn’t the magic bullet though and much of this will take time. I could write a parallel blog on how much our wonderful NHS is struggling right now. It doesn’t have a secret stash of cash ready to save us all which I think many are hoping for. But there is much that CAN be done… change that has started and now needs to be turbo charged!

I’m looking forward to working with the brilliant leaders out there to come together to make change happen. We have amazing colleagues and allies like the Chair Cathy Elliot who is from our sector and CEO Rob Webster who I know values the work we do very much. Similarly at place there are incredible system partners helping us to drive this change. I have seen this first hand in Bradford District and Craven. The West Yorkshire Partnership has already been bold in making investments that other areas of the country have not. Things like this are very important markers in the sand and some of the reasons why I wanted to do this role. Because these things do give us hope.

Sadly, they won’t help us with the immediate burning issues in hand as we move into a devastating winter for so many. That will require different action: drastic action… Government action. I fully endorse the call made by some of our national sector leaders: http://www.acevo.org.uk/2022/09/cost-of-living-crisis-joint-statement/

And so as sector leaders we steel ourselves as best as we possibly can. We are ready to respond but we cannot do it alone.

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