Eleven weeks ago, I became the Chief Executive of Tower Hamlets CVS. Since then, I have been on a learning curve like no other I have experienced. This blog attempts to capture some of what I have learned and to present that for sharing and discussion with the not for profit sector in the borough.
That times are tough
Having met with people from so many not for profit organisations I now know that not only are times are tough for the sector but that the financial pressure is mounting. To add to that pressure we face increased regulation as evidenced by the recent GDPR changes and changes to fundraising regulations, an operating environment that has become more like a competitive market for everything as a result of the move to contracts and an environment where relationships or partnerships are increasingly important especially to smaller charities who feel the squeeze the most.
At the same time, the needs of the people that we exist to help are becoming increasingly complex and the need for good leadership in the not for profit sector has never been more important. We are constantly being asked to do more with less and this is an almost insurmountable challenge at times.
Small not for profits are vital
I have spent the few weeks meeting or working with small charities, CICs or social enterprises, funders both public and private, local politicians, and other CVS organisations. That has only reinforced for me why small charities, social enterprises and CICs are essential to the not profit ecosystem in Tower Hamlets and to so many vulnerable people with very specific needs. Being small allows organisations s to identify, and quickly adapt to the changing environment of the needs they are set up to address. As we saw from the Grenfell disaster, smaller organisations are often the first to be called upon in a crisis, the best at tailoring a response to need and evidence shows they are often the last to leave.
My biggest concern is that my discussions with other CVS organisations show that they are helping nearly as many smaller organisations to close or merge than start up. This is a real canary in the coal mine warning for us as a CVS, for local residents and for organisations such as the Council. Evidence from other places shows that organisations merging or closing means the exceptional tailored services they deliver to vulnerable people in niche areas are compromised or discontinued. This is not where we would like to end up.
How we fund, design and produce services or projects matters
The passion and energy of volunteers and staff cannot sustain much needed services or projects on its own. There needs to be funding to support the addressing of real need. We are lucky in Tower Hamlets that we have a Council that is not as cash strapped as some others and is genuinely seeking to support the local not for profit sector. However, that means directing resources to where they are needed most and in ways that work best for target groups. The move over the past year to co design and co production of services is therefore very welcome and we hope that this will be reflected in a revised approach to Community Commissioning. However that needs to be allied to a continuing grant scheme for smaller organisations that is accessible and has proportionate monitoring or reporting requirements. Experience shows that small grant schemes are potentially an engine for innovation and change which is something smaller organisations are historically really good at.
Digital solutions can save time and money
Having seen the success of Spacehive and Firesouls’ work in Tower Hamlets and recently sat through a presentation with a small digital agency that has a digitial solution for matching small and medium sized businesses people with not for profits. This digital solution will cut costs, save time, and if underpinned by outreach capacity make the routeway between the private and throd sectors much easier to make. I love that I am seeing more charities reflecting on the areas of their work that are particularly resource intensive and questioning whether they could be improved by taking humans out of the equation.
Based on the observations above the challenge for the CVS over the coming year will be to support the not for profit sector with the financial and sustainability challenges facing us all. In addition we will need to create the co-design and co-production expertise and knowledge needed to help our sector embrace the opportunities presented by the Council’s conversion to the principles of person centred service design and delivery. Finally, we will need to create some digital design capacity to support the not for profit sector with innovative digital service design and delivery. We can often see the potential for a digital element in service design and delivery but lack the resources or expertise to make that happen.