Earlier this year, the Report of the Independent Commission on the future of local infrastructure, Change for Good made a series of recommendations to try to ensure that, despite further cuts in public funding, support for civil society organisations is sustained for the common good. It recognised, however, that “a call for more money and a return to the previous status quo were out of the question.” By highlighting the emergence of new forms of infrastructure and resourcing for civil society, the Commission’s Report gave some truth to the maxim that austerity can be the mother of innovation. The Commission also argued that responsibility for the implementation of Change for Good rested with others who could more easily tailor future infrastructure to the needs of specific places or communities of interest. Taking up that challenge, a group of London Funders are commissioning a detailed assessment of the future of civil society support in the capital. Whoever carries out the work is required, not surprisingly, to have a “good understanding of civil society and its existing infrastructure in London” but also, in a clear sign of the times, an understanding of “what the private sector can offer.”
Rocket Science’s recent reviews of VCS infrastructure, both in London and other parts of the country (eg Buckinghamshire, Barnsley, Sheffield and Knowsley) and the way civil society organisations seek and engage support, show a significant role being played by support services other than Councils for Voluntary Service, including the private sector. This confirmed a trend we noticed when conducting research for the Big Lottery Fund (“Supporting Change and Impact”) to assess the different sources of external advice and support used by Civil Society Organisations. In our survey of 300 organisations (2013) we found that whilst around a third (37%) of grant-holders received support from their local Council for Voluntary Service, almost two thirds (63%) opted to source support from a consultancy or freelance.
Change for Good does comment on the role of the private sector in supporting and investing in civil society. However, its recommendations to business (eg “work with your local infrastructure bodies to implement your corporate social responsibility strategy” or “deploy the skills of your workforce for the benefit of local charities and communities”) seemed to be a decade or more behind the times. The report failed, for example, to reflect on the way far-reaching changes to the delivery of public services in the UK have become a significant driver for businesses to engage and interact with certain civil society organisations, albeit for commercial as much as charitable purposes.
A steady blurring of the distinctions that traditionally existed between the public, private and voluntary sectors has been one effect of three decades of opening up of public service contracts to providers irrespective of their legal form. The process has been given further impetus by the new government’s championing of a “bigger stronger society”; private companies which have benefited from this considerable market, and a relatively low-tax business environment, are being strongly encouraged by government to reciprocate, not only by demonstrating their corporate social responsibility, but also the additional social value they can bring to the delivery of public services.
The increasing outsourcing of services in employment, criminal justice and now health has had the possibly unintended consequence of developing new sources of support for certain voluntary organisations and charities. Civil Society Organisations which have been able to work with lead or “prime” private-sector contractors have, to a varying degree, benefited from the latter’s recognising the value of investing in their supply chains, including specialist VCSE providers.
Rocket Science has worked with a number of the prime contractors of both employment services (eg the Work Programme) and criminal justice (eg Transforming Rehabilitation). Whilst we are aware of different approaches which these companies use to win large public-service contracts by offering to invest in civil society, it would be beneficial as part of any future redesign of infrastructure to ascertain the true scale and value of such investment, whilst also recognising its inherent flaws and weaknesses. Relying on the business winners in an increasingly cut-throat, public-service market to provide support for selected civil society organisations is risky, potentially divisive and could severely compromise one of the central tenets of the sector, its independence.
Instruments like the Social Value Act, the intention outlined in the Conservative Party’s Manifesto (2015) to encourage more employee volunteering and the increasing interest in local place-based giving initiatives, are all aspects of an ecology of cross-sector working and different sources of investment which has considerable implications for the way elements of civil society may access support in future. To this effect, there has been a proliferation of intermediary and brokerage organisations which match private companies with civil society organisations. For example, in London alone, East London Business Alliance; Heart of the City; City Action and Team London as well as local, borough models like Business and Community Together in Kensington and Chelsea, or Love Kingston pair companies with charities, source employee volunteers and introduce business skills to community organisations. This is a fast maturing market place, but it is no panacea for the cuts to publicly-funded support for civil society. The potential, but also the limitations and motivations of private sector investment have to be far better understood in any assessment of the future of infrastructure and the need for continued support for Civil Society Organisations.
John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science and Trustee of London Funders