Author: James Turner

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Bigger and stronger?  How will the third sector fare under the new Government?

Bigger and stronger?  How will the third sector fare under the new Government?

So George Osborne’s July Budget has been and gone.  Did it tell us much about future funding of the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector?

The answer is not really.  There were, of course, many announcements that will have an impact on VCSE organisations’ beneficiaries.  But for actual funding details, it’s probably going to be September’s spending review when we learn this kind of detail.

There is, however, plenty that we do know about the direction of the Government’s VCS policies.  First, at a ministerial level, there’s continuity, with the Coalition Minister, Rob Wilson, re-appointed to the role.  After the Brooks Newmark imbroglio last year, a bit of continuity is probably no bad thing.

Secondly, Rob Wilson gave a speech in June on the theme of building civil society together.  This sets out a four point plan for working with and funding VCS organisations.  Before we get onto that plan though, there’s an important announcement to make: the Big Society is dead.  Back in April, I was quizzically surprised by the resurgence of the Big Society in the Conservative manifesto.  But it was a dead cat bounce: in 2,000 plus words of the Rob Wilson speech, there is no mention of Big Society.

Instead we have a “bigger stronger society” – all lower case, no capitals.  But, like its predecessor, a bigger stronger society seems rich on rhetoric and short on cash…  The one bit of new funding is a Local Sustainability Fund for high-impact charities and social enterprises.  However, this has been long expected (it was first announced in early 2014) and, indeed, seems to have halved from £40m to £20m.

However, we have long known that the Government regards itself as an enabler rather than a funder of the VCSE, so perhaps this lack of cash is only to be expected.  Which brings us to the four point plan.  I think the easiest thing is just to quote directly from the speech:

“This is our plan:

“First, we need a confident and capable voluntary sector, armed with the skills it needs to meet the challenges ahead.

“Second, we want to see more social action and volunteering, with community participation embedded in our lives from school days onwards.

“Third, increased levels of giving, and more social investment, helping people who want to use their money to transform lives to connect to organisations who can put those funds to work.

“And fourth, stronger, more resilient, more capable and more empowered communities.”


All of these aims are, of course, laudable.  The tricky bit, equally obviously, is achieving them.  It will be, perhaps, most interesting to see if the Government can help effect a shift in the levels of volunteering in the UK.  Right near the end of the speech, the Nesta-led (and Cabinet Office-funded) Cities of Service initiative gets a name check for its work in seven UK local authorities.  This was a scheme started in New York in 2009 and now including 170 Mayors in cities with a combined population of over 50m.  If this initiative can achieve the level of change it’s had in the States, maybe we will start to see a step change in volunteering levels.

So as the new Government settles in, the direction of its policies for VCSEs is certainly becoming clearer.  We might have to wait until September, though, to see what — if any — cash there is to help VCSEs down this path.


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How dead is the Big Society?

How dead is the Big Society?

James Turner, Associate Director at Rocket Science, looks at what the main parties have to say about the voluntary and community sector.

How dead is the Big Society? My view, and I think the generally shared opinion, was it drew its last breath sometime in 2013 or 2014. A victim, perhaps, of Lynton Crosby’s desire to ‘get the barnacles off the boat’ in the run up to the election and focus solely on the economy. Or maybe a recognition that it simply hadn’t worked. The conclusion of the January 2015 Civil Exchange report, Whose Society? The Final Big Society Audit was blunt: “The Big Society has failed to deliver against its original goals.”

But what’s this on page 45 of the Conservative manifesto (I assume you have read up to p45 by now…)? Helping you build the Big Society – a whole two pages of commitments to volunteering and to the voluntary sector. I admit that it’s not the Big Society-fest that the 2010 manifesto was. But that was an age when we were all in it together. Times have clearly moved on.

The focus of the Conservative commitments are, first, on expanding the National Citizen’s Service, secondly on involving charities in delivering public services (although the Work Programme is held up as an example of this, mmm…). And finally an entitlement for three days of volunteering each year for people working in large companies and the public sector. That last commitment is perhaps particularly to be welcomed. Not least because it has raised the hackles of some traditional Conservative business supporters, worried about its potential cost.

And what of the other parties’ manifestos? Well, I think the first piece of good news is that, as with the Conservative manifesto, there is a surprising amount of space dedicated to the VCS. And there is also a fair degree of consensus. The themes in the Tory manifesto of encouraging social action among young people, involving charities in delivering public services and encouraging volunteering are seen across all the major manifestos.

There are differences in emphasis of course, but both the Conservatives and Labour highlight the Step up to serve campaign. And Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are all committed to supporting volunteering initiatives.

And in terms of delivering public services, Labour and the Lib Dems make specific pledges on early intervention and prevention – where the VCS often has a key role to play. Labour and the Lib Dems also both propose a replacement for the Work Programme administered at a more local level.

The one area of difference, unsurprisingly, is on the future of the Lobbying Act. This has, of course, complicated life for campaigning charities. Labour promises to repeal the Act (although accepting that it needs some sort of replacement). The Lib Dems say they will consider what to do based on the evidence of Lord Hodgson’s Review. I can’t see mention of the Act in the Conservative manifesto. But it’s safe to assume that having only introduced it last year, it would be set to stay with a Conservative government.

So there you have it: More mention of the VCS than you might expect. A large amount of consensus. But differences in approach. You might be cynical and say that none of it will happen anyway. But apparently that’s not the case – politicians do keep their manifesto promises!

Follow James on Twitter @JamesRocketSci

To review or not to review?

To review or not to review?

Should charities review their organisational strengths?

James Turner, Associate Director at Rocket Science, looks at the pluses and minuses of organisational reviews

“We shouldn’t be reviewing what we do, we should be doing what we do…”

I know this feeling well. Outside of Rocket Science, I am a trustee at a small charity in the North East. The charity does great work helping children and young people in need. And the thought of taking senior staff and trustees away from this frontline work to review our organisational set up doesn’t feel quite right. It’s both a luxury we can’t afford and a diversion from what we should be doing.

However, these thoughts and feelings are all based on the notion that a review is time-consuming. What I can promise you is that it doesn’t have to be that way! A Rocket Science review can be a swift review! To misquote Bruno Mars, don’t believe me, just try it… Any charity or voluntary group can access our free VCS Assist tool on our website. I joined Rocket Science in November 2014 and part of my due diligence (which mainly involved looking through their web-pages…), I gave this tool a go in my role as a trustee.

The first thing that I found out is that, although the tool states that it’s for use by employment and skills VCS organisations, 95% plus of the questions are valuable to any VCS group. In fact, I think that out of over 40 questions, only two are specific to employment and skills groups.

Secondly, I found out that it was indeed quick. The introduction page states that to get the most out of it, you should spend 60-90 minutes completing the survey. However, I feel that is at the top end of the time it takes. Certainly a quick overview can be done in 15-20 minutes.

Most importantly, the results of the survey are valuable. Really valuable. After giving the VCS Assist tool a test run, I felt compelled to talk to the chief exec at the charity where I’m a trustee: “You’ve got to look at this! It’ll help us pinpoint staff development needs for the next year. And it will pinpoint what we are good at and where we know we are not so good.”

This last point is key – I think most people who are heavily involved in a charity, whether as staff or trustees, will have an intuitive but unformed sense of what they are good at. However, a strengths review helps to clarify this sense. You can really see what elements of governance, management, HR, finances and so forth are the issue.

And, finally, there are a couple of points where no review or tool can help you. You are on your own! First, there are two schools of organisational development, destined never to agree. You might be a believer in the Theory of Constraints – in layperson’s terms, you are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. Or you might believe in strengths-based performance management – making the most of what you are already good at. But either way, an organisational strengths review can help you target the best things to focus on.

Secondly, using a tool like the VCS Assist tool might be enough for your organisation. Or you might want to do something more thorough – involving more staff, comparing views on organisational strengths and working together to draw up an action plan. Of course, either approach is valuable. The key is to ensure that the return on the investment of time remains high with a more thorough approach. And modestly, of course, I’d suggest that Rocket Science can help find that right, more-thorough approach…

And it’s there that I’ll finish. I know only too well that reviewing doesn’t always feel like doing. But with the right sort of review, I strongly feel that you can do much more. And do it much better, too.

You can download the tool here

Follow James on Twitter @JamesRocketSci

James Turner

James Turner

I like to think I’m an unusual blend of being good with numbers and good with words, too. What I’m really interested in is making sure information – whether it’s words or numbers – is set out in a way that’s easy to understand.

I am Rocket Science’s newest member of staff, having joined on 17 November 2014. My background has been developing and designing £100m+ funding programmes for the Big Lottery Fund (BLF). These programmes focused on issues such as community regeneration, reaching the hardest to reach and tackling disadvantage.

The areas that I’m most interested in are policy analysis; data analysis; working in partnership; design of / consultation on strategic level funding programmes; and making sure these funding programmes work in practice.

Outside of work, I’m a Trustee at the Toby Henderson Trust, a Northumberland charity for children with autism.

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