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Helping small charities to survive? We are down to the wire

Helping small charities to survive? We are down to the wire

Many small and medium sized charities are bearing the brunt of austerity – losing grants and contracts whilst managing increasing demand for their services which are no longer funded. In any other situation you would want to throw in the towel, pack up and go home.

• Decisions to reduce public funding have meant that only those with high needs or tick a box get supported – effectively withdrawing help for swathes of people who still need it, yet are no longer eligible
• This in turn has created a fight for survival and increased competition as organisations cross borders and service boundaries to secure contracts and funding in areas where they may have little experience or knowledge
• So when services get recommissioned through a single contract only those organisations with the balance sheet, resources and approach to risk are fit to apply and/or have the security of TUPE commitments on their side… and it is not just the private sector
• Funders may be reluctant to plug the gap in statutory services, favouring new, innovative solutions to problems which they can pump-prime, yet will be difficult to sustain once their funding ends
• Which in turn creates further competition for limited resources and investment goes to those that can demonstrate ‘my impact is bigger than yours’
• Meanwhile people that need services and support go to the organisation they trust and have built a relationship with, which is no longer funded to help them. Yet it finds a way.

This story is by no means new –this has been happening for years but it is having a compounding effect, not just on the smaller and medium sized VCS but most importantly on the people that need their help. The unintended consequences of service design, commissioning and funding decisions are taking their toll and causing people such additional stress that their mental health suffers.  Navigating public services makes their challenges much greater than they needed to be.

People need to talk to someone when they are in crisis, we are human after all. An online service may help signpost you to services if you know what you are looking for, or give you an email address to get in touch with someone – that is if you have an email address, access to a device or mobile. I wrote last year about Dorothy, an elderly lady who had effectively been neglected by public services and was just about managing to live independently with the support of neighbours. It took me nearly an hour negotiating around the ‘computer says no’ culture of the bank to get them to send her a cheque book so she could get money out of her account. The reliance on ‘digital by default’ as the panacea for citizen interaction is ill-judged and poorly thought through.

Equally no amount of ‘nudge theory’ is going to help someone with a learning disability who does not understand that if they do not attend an assessment interview with DWP, they will lose their disability benefit. Even if a letter is sent to them three times – it does not help them understand it any better. They just get sanctioned, lose their benefit, go into crisis and all the arrangements that have taken years to build around their life fall apart.

And if you have multiple needs then be prepared for lots of different assessments in different places by different organisations to access services that are not joined up and compete with each other.

I accept this may not be the experience of everyone, but it is happening to a significant number of people, who, already vulnerable and at risk, are caught in the (muddled) middle.

It is in his muddled middle where the true value of small and medium sized charities comes into play, as they help people to navigate through systems and services, assessments and appointments. Often this work is unpaid, yet critical to wiring public services together, but an activity which is generally hidden and hard to measure.

The Lloyds Bank Foundation, is actively championing small and medium-sized charities and has produced sobering evidence on the impact of funding and commissioning across the country. It makes recommendations around changes to commissioning, flexibility around funding and improved grant-making practice.

However, as statutory funding reduces and competition for grants to plug gaps increases, small and medium sized charities will inevitably face difficult decisions about their future. These decisions are ultimately influenced by the extent to which public agencies, funders and other stakeholders are prepared to change, do things differently and work together. The trouble is change takes time and time is something that we have very little of.

Caroline Masundire

Rocket Science is hosting an event on 4th October with London Funders on what works in helping organisations become more resilient and help their sustainability.
Find out more here.

Tough at the top for a trustee

Tough at the top for a trustee

Becoming a trustee of a community organisation or member of a management committee can be both rewarding and daunting in equal measure.  I have been a trustee in a number of organisations of various sizes and reach and have found my experiences to be very different in all cases including setting up a community organisation as well as helping to close one down.

Reflecting on these experiences, and regardless of the size of the organisation I have learned the importance of

  • having clear roles and accountability,
  • a trusted and respectful relationship between trustees and
  • above all remaining focused on the purpose of the organisation and protecting the interests of the people and communities they were serving.

Many of the organisations I work with on a day to day basis are predominantly small, work for and are based in local communities and are mainly run by volunteers with some paid staff.  They often comment on their difficulty in recruiting new trustees as well as helping the organisation move forward, particularly at a time where money and funding is tight but not feeling able to make change for fear of failure, lack of resource and sometimes lack of energy.  I am sure many organisations feel this way whether they are large or small.

As a trustee it can definitely feel tough at the top!

When you are reviewing your governance arrangements or going through some form of change and transition (i.e. a new direction, project) or recruiting new people to your board getting the following three things right will ensure a much more effective outcome for your organisation:

Clear roles and accountability

This is obviously important, but you need to make sure that you are using your skills and expertise appropriately and spread work equally amongst the board so that individuals do not feel overburdened with responsibility. It also helps share expertise.  Where you have gaps in skills actively recruit people to fill those gaps or use short-term volunteer support instead.

A trusted and respectful relationship

When new people join or you are just beginning spending time building your relationship is really important.  It took me quite a few months to find my feet in my first trustee role, it felt very overwhelming at the beginning and I was not effective until about four months into my role.

You must also think about how you work together as a team and how you behave as all of these things impact on the effectiveness of your meetings and your ability to make good decisions.  Remember being challenging is important but not for the hell of it and making a decision (positive or negative) is better than going around in circles from meeting to meeting.

Remain focused on the purpose and interests of the communities you are supporting

And finally, but probably most importantly is making sure that every decision you make as a trustee is in the best interests of the communities you are supporting.  This might appear to be an obvious statement, but I have seen some instances where decisions made at the board level should have been taken earlier or been entirely different.  This would have avoided some of the challenges and difficult decisions that came later on down the line.

There are many tools and products to help organisations move forward, find out more about how Rocket Science can help here  or get in touch with Caroline Masundire. 

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.


For more information contact James Turner

BIG Assist approved supplier

BIG Assist approved supplier

Rocket Science announced as BIG Assist approved supplier

BIG Assist is a programme for infrastructure organisations in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector; delivered under contract to the Big Lottery Fund by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

The programme works to support infrastructure organisations based in England, to be more efficient, effective, sustainable and better able to adapt to the current and future operating environment. For more information on the BIG Assist programme visit the BIG Assist website:

Rocket Science have been approved as a BIG Assist Supplier to offer support to infrastructure organisations. We can be found in the BIG Assist ‘marketplace’ here

This recognition builds on the work we have done supporting a range of voluntary sector organisations and infrastructure to support their organisational development and resilience as well as their impact and income modelling.  You can find out more about our range of support here.

For more information contact James Turner in our Newcastle office or Caroline Masundire in our London office.

Is the third sector in Glasgow facing a boiled frog moment?

Is the third sector in Glasgow facing a boiled frog moment?

Richard Scothorne writes for the Glasgow Centre for Population Health on his perspectives facing the third sector in Glasgow following a recent review conducted by Rocket Science.

You can access the blog through this link on the GCPH website ….. or read on.

Is the third sector in Glasgow facing a ‘boiled frog’ moment? | Glasgow Centre for Population Health

Our recent research, commissioned by the GCPH, on the status of Glasgow’s third sector workforce revealed some stark facts. Third sector incomes are going down and demands on the sector are going up.

We came across lots of staff who were both dedicated and distressed – they were working harder because they remained committed to their clients. They still got reward from their jobs because they felt they were making a difference, but they wondered how much longer the squeeze could go on before something gave.

Organisational leaders felt that a tightening of finances was converting collaboration into competition as organisations fought for survival.

There appears little likelihood that these trends will reverse – or even slow down. What does this mean for the sector?

This looks horribly like a ‘boiled frog’ moment – referring to the anecdote that if a frog is placed in boiling water it will quickly jump out of the pot– but if put into cold water which is then slowly heated it will stay put until it is too late.

So, for me, one of the big questions from our work is ‘What can these organisations do to get on the front foot?’ The answer is not straightforward – not least because we didn’t see any convincing patterns in which approaches were working for those third sector organisations which had effective responses to the situation.

Approaches to the situation

As a veteran of various third sector Boards I have seen a range of responses to this question. These have included:

  • developing a stronger focus on doing a small number of roles really well – in other words, serious specialisation
  • ensuring that they can tell a persuasive story about the difference they make, directly and indirectly – through thorough evaluation and case studies – and so demonstrate the value they offer
  • developing strong alliances and partnerships around some important tasks and client groups
  • broadening the sources of income which might include social enterprise strands
  • merging with one or more organisations to reduce overheads and widen markets.

This is not easy stuff, particularly the last response. There are a lot of small organisations with strong teams, a clear focus and distinctive cultures and reputations. One of the strengths that small organisations can offer funders is that they can be fleet of foot and offer a highly personalised service to their clients.

Mergers, leadership and culture

But compared with larger organisations they are often incurring high overheads per client which in practice takes money away from clients and threatens their organisational survival. In principle, mergers look like the obvious solution. However, research suggests that, while there have been some notable successes, most mergers don’t work well – mainly because there is a fatal lack of clarity about leadership and culture.

And actually our impression was that the larger organisations felt under just as much pressure as the smaller ones.

So, just for starters, two questions, which I suspect third sector leaders are losing sleep about:

  • If I knew that current trends were going to continue for the foreseeable future – in terms of income and demands – what could I do to safeguard the support for my clients?
  • If I had to ensure that our current clients continued to receive a high quality service (from someone) – and that we respond to increasing demands – how could I make this happen?

….and one for the funders:

  • How can I work with my third sector partners to develop creative ways of responding to increased demands and less money – and sustain the commitment of their dedicated staff?

If this feels like a boiled frog moment to you – it may be time to jump.

Contact Richard Scothorne for more information


Standout from the crowd – Tips on funding for the VCS

Standout from the crowd – Tips on funding for the VCS

So the election has come and gone and many commentators predicted that whoever won,  many of the challenges facing voluntary and community organisations would remain the same.  Central and local government funding has been on a downward trend, but cuts to public services  are accelerating the scale of funding reductions and competition to get grants from major funders and trusts is very high.

However there are opportunities as the VCS is very good at delivering services to communities, reaching those that other public services find hard to engage with and legislative changes, such as the provision of health and social care services, are creating openings for the VCS to move from a funding relationship to a commissioning relationship.   The trouble is that smaller voluntary and community organisations find it difficult to show the impact they are having on their community and don’t shout about it to the right people.

I run a popular workshop called Perfect your Pitch, which is designed for groups to help them articulate their offer and impact in applications and when they get the chance to meet the right people.  We take people through a process to identify their unique point of difference and get them to practice this in front of a ‘dragon’.  Nearly 250 people have been through the course and I wanted to share this learning to help you think about how to use these techniques the next time you put in an application or get a chance to meet a commissioner.

Tip 1 – Don’t chase the funding –to me this is the most important tip –  sit back and think about what funding you need rather than what funding is available.  Yes it sounds simple but a lot of organisations get caught up applying for funding without thinking why and how they are going to deliver it.  I had one attendee that spent a whole month applying for ten different opportunities and did not win any of them.  They were of course very disheartened, but when we worked it through only two of the opportunities were really relevant to the service the organisation provided, splitting her time across ten applications, meant she could not do a good and thorough job on any of them.

Tip 2 – Prepare, prepare, prepare – this follows the first tip in that you cannot expect to write an application in half a day from scratch.  By focusing your efforts on fewer higher quality proposals you are likely to get better scores when they are being assessed and a greater chance of winning.  We run grant programmes for funders and assess applications, as with most funds, we are always oversubscribed for the funding that is available.  This means that you could still put in a very good application but just miss out by a few points as we have a cut-off point on scores.  We often find that applications score less well either on their response to evaluation (impact) and monitoring or on making the case for their project.  And sometimes it is really hard to work out exactly what the project wants to achieve… think about the reader, we don’t know you, we can only judge you on what you tell us.   I use the Nana test… if your Nana understands what you want to do then so will everyone else, keep it simple and clear.

Tip 3 – Need to scale up? – work with others.  We cannot change the fact that is much more cost effective to contract with one organisation rather than with many.  This is happening across all public services and with some funders, cost savings are made on management by contracting with a ‘lead contractor’ or ‘lead partner’ who will then do all the management on behalf of the commissioner and sub contract with other organisations to deliver services.  Whilst it makes sense, it does mean that smaller organisations miss out because they are not connected into the right ‘lead partner’, or there is not an obvious one to work with – we think this is particularly challenging in rural areas.  In a lot of cases organisations and particularly their trustees can be resistant to change and collaboration as it feels risky, but there is greater risk on your sustainability if you need to rely on public funding to keep afloat. So if you want to access funding to support your communities, working with other areas and organisations will help you provide the scale and reach to make you a viable proposition to a commissioner.

Tip 4 – So what is good about you?  Why should we fund you? Why should we work with you? – can you really answer these questions in a succinct way with impact?  I suspect not or at least you would need to really prepare your response.  There is something about the British personality to be a bit self-effacing and we can find it very difficult to be bullish about what we have achieved and what we can do.  You need to work out what your point of difference is from another organisation

  • is it about your reach and trust in the community? – which means you can access them far quicker than someone else
  • is it that you have lots of things going on in your building that can help the people you are working with? – which means you can provide added value support they would otherwise not be able to access
  • is it that you have a team of volunteers that make it much more cost effective to run a lunch club or cafe

Identifying two or three things you do that make a real difference can be very powerful and keep you in people’s minds.

If you would like to find out more about our training and support contact Caroline

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