“This bid nearly caused me a nervous breakdown.”
Worried, exhausted and burning out. The people who make small charities run have faced significant challenges over the last five years with growing demand and reduced funding. They have increasingly done more with less, with services just holding together.
But the reduction in funding is not just about cuts to local authority budgets. It is how that money is being allocated – and the hurdles being placed in the way of small charities. Not least that small charities voices aren’t being heard and responded to on these issues.
Local authority commissioning ‘failing small charities’
Local authority commissioning seems a surprising issue to inspire passionate conversation. Yet, when I speak to small charities they are animated in discussing how commissioning is failing their organisations and ultimately the people who rely on their support. They are also clear that they don’t feel heard by those with the power to make changes.
Last year the Commissioning in Crisis report by Lloyds Bank Foundation highlighted the very real barriers small charities are facing. Huge swathes of paperwork often demanding irrelevant information and/or unnecessarily high numbers of meetings, are met with the response of funding shortfalls, unrealistic payment structures, forced mergers and inappropriate divisions of contracts.
Worryingly, some organisations were told they would be penalised for suggesting alternative ways for delivering services if it contradicted the contract. This prevents small charities speaking freely.
Some of the demands could seem laughable; the report told of mental health charities being asked for their “Health and Safety Policy regarding hard hat areas”. Commissioners who have faced their own pressures from budget cuts, are using the same procurement process for small charities as they are for building work.
This is no laughing matter; the impact is felt by individuals who need the support provided by charities that are bogged down by
An unsurprising consequence of becoming increasingly buried beneath red tape and struggling to be heard in the system, is that small charities have seen a 38% loss in public sector funding over the last five years.
Small charities are vital for local communities
Yet these organisations are vital for local communities. Small charities often form when local people notice a problem and want to make things better. Being small allows them to personally connect with those they support and provide a stable point that people can rely on support. They are often the first in and last out when it comes to solving issues. They aren’t swayed by contract value; they place value on the people in their communities rather than the funding opportunities attached.
As they support people in filling out seemingly endless forms and circular processes to ensure they have the basics they need to survive, so in turn small charities have to fill out forms which ask needless detail and follow protracted processes to ensure their survival. There is only so long that small charities’ staff and volunteers can keep going. We need to see change to ensure their future. Surely there has to be a better way.
Challenging the Lobbying Act
The bureaucracy surrounding small charities is not going to reduce unless their voices are heard whether locally or nationally. That is why this week we – along with 124 other organisations – signed a letter to Minister for Sports and Civil Society Tracey Crouch MP about the role the Lobbying Act was playing in quietening the voice of Civil Society.
At the Small Charities Coalition, we are worried that the Lobbying Act will prevent small charities from speaking up. We already hear about CEOs of small charities working into the small hours of the morning, as demand for their services goes up and funding disappears. The last thing that is needed is a grey area in terms of talking to our parliamentary representatives; the last thing they need is another unknown.
For many small charities lobbying has not been part of their work but as pressures increase on organisations, it is vital that their voices are heard for them to fulfil their charitable missions. We need to ensure that we are opening up avenues for change and making it easier for small charities to speak.
Reforming local authority commissioning and raising concerns about the Lobbying Act may not sound inspiring but ensuring that local people can keep delivering inspiring person-centred services depends on it. And this means we have to ensure small charities can be heard and responded to at a local and national level.
Main photo: Ear – Voronin76 on Shutterstock.com