The Big Society Gets Squeezed

Just read this report by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in England, which I presume is the same one reported on the BBC, telling of significant pessimism in the charitable sector in the face of public sector spending cuts. For once we in Northern Ireland are ahead of our friends on the other island as that pessimism has been pervading the community and voluntary sector here in Northern Ireland for some time... And perhaps for more reasons...
The squeeze that is hitting English charities will hit us too as the assembly departments and local councils need to find ways of cutting their budgets... and since the recent RPA debacle has shown the reluctance of public sector turkeys to vote for Christmas there is no doubt that in order to retain staff and resources for themselves, they will reduce funding to outside bodies... Even though the community and voluntary sector adds a huge amount of value to any investment (the "voluntary" element obviously allows the deployment of large numbers of people on the ground without the troublesome matter of wages), in a world where bean-counters are king, it is a lot easier to look at expenditure rather than outcomes... especially when many of the outcomes in community projects are hard to measure, such as the sense of security and well-being of older people, the harmony within homes, relationships between communities.
Unless the outcomes are "ring-fenced" there is no-doubt that the public sector would prefer to retain their budgets themselves rather than "pass them on" to a voluntary organisation. And so, the Con-Dem coalition's aim of smaller government but bigger society may well be undermined.
Again, the fact that we have the biggest of big government here in Northern Ireland will put an added strain on things, as the squeeze may be even tighter, and the prospects for the economy tougher as public sector workers find themselves on the dole. Indeed the economic recovery here is apparently already lagging behind that in the rest of the UK. This in turn actually puts added strain on the public AND community sectors, as the problems caused by debt, depression, unease percolate through society.
If we then add to that the fact that for over 10 years the community sector has been buoyed by so-called "peace money" which, as a number of commentators have said, has been spread a mile wide and an inch thick... But that money has been gradually running out, because, despite appearances to the contrary in Ardoyne and on Broadway last week, we now have peace here. The fact that much of this money was used in small, local, newly started charities (no one wanted to give money to established and effective organisations that might have then expanded their areas of operations - it was so much sexier to hand over a big cheque to a wee new group headed up by an attractive local Mum or a "former combatant") means that when the gravy train stopped rolling many of those organisations didn't have the financial reources, or experience to continue. Sustainability only latterly became a buzz word with such funders, at a period when things had moved from a period of optimistic community development into a post-Darwinian survival of the fittest.
But anyway, what does this mean on the ground. I've had a relatively wide experience in the community sector here in Northern Ireland, particularly within the church-based part of it, and most organisations are saying similar things... But let me focus on our own church-based community project Dundonald Family and Community Initiative (DFCI). This is a short video embodying some of their key values.

DFCI has seen referrals increase exponentially, with debt, relationship breakdown, anti-social behaviour, social isolation all on the increase. Some of these referrals are from statutory services, or organisations directly funded by the public purse. We ourselves work in partnership with those services and have recieved various small grants from the local council, but have never recieved anything from central government. We have also never recieved anything from the "peace funds". Previously all our funding was from charitable trusts, central church funds, donations and the subscriptions of beneficiaries. However, in a period when other sources of funding are becoming more limited, charitable trusts incomes have been hit by the stock market fall and there is less spare cash in people's pockets, that pool of money is becoming smaller and filled with bigger hungrier fish.
The net result of this is that despite the demand for our services going up, and our expertise and reputation increasing (for example our recent family fun fest was a roaring success) our ability to meet the presented need and indeed our long term viability is under threat. Indeed currently 2 out of our 4 paid workers are on notice that they may lose most or all of their funded hours, and for the best part of 18 months another of our workers was permanently on 1 month's protective notice. I take my hats off to people who can work under such pressure, particularly when their jobs are focussed on helping others.
Small organisations such as ours need financial resources (you can help DFCI by direct giving or by innovative ways such as registering for and using the Easy-click search engine, or the Easy-fundraising shopping portal. But organisations such as ours also need volunteers to help at all levels... People are the community and voluntary sector's greatest resource... from those with the basic day to day skills needed at the cutting edge of each organisation, through to the professional skills and expertise needed for their management committees if they are to negotiate the choppy waters ahead.
Come along and be part of the "Big Society."


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