Charities in Crisis: Is The Tide Turning?

By Brian Carr, chief executive, BVSC. This article was originally published in the Birmingham Post on 7th June 2018.

Like many involved in the delivery of public services, those of us who lead charitable organisations are well aware of the impact that austerity measures have had on our ability to help those who most need our support.

Localgiving’s latest Local Charity and Community Group Sustainability Report, published in April, presented some grave findings: fewer than half of local charities expect to survive beyond the next five years, largely due to debilitating cuts in funding from central and local government.

This is something that should worry us all. Local charities provide essential services to a wide range of vulnerable people: unemployed young people; isolated elderly people; the disabled; women and children fleeing domestic violence; the homeless; people fleeing war and terror and seeking asylum; and those who are dealing with life-threatening long-term health conditions. Without charities and local community groups, even more of the most vulnerable people in our city would slip through the cracks.

Think charities aren’t relevant to you personally? Think again. Research conducted for the Charity Commission in 2014 showed that 40% of the public say that they or their close family or friends have benefited from or used the services of a charity – and when prompted to understand the wider range of services that charities might provide, such as art galleries, museums and youth clubs, the figure rose to 93%.

It’s clear that Brummies care deeply about the plight of their city’s third sector. Following proposed cuts of more than £10mfrom key charitable services in late 2017, public backlash prompted local politicians and voluntary groups to work together to provide alternative – and considerably less destructive – proposals, which have resulted in improved dialogue between the local voluntary sector and Birmingham City Council.

Without doubt, charities and community groups across the UK have shown astounding levels of resilience during the last 8 years of austerity. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has just published its 2018 Civil Society Almanac – a document which provides a snapshot of conditions in community and voluntary groups across the country – and it indicates that income into the charity sector has almost climbed back to pre-2008 levels.

Above all else this demonstrates service providers are much more robust than they’re given credit for – and crucially, that they are trusted by their respective communities and beneficiaries to provide quality services and programmes. Yet it’s a bittersweet feeling – in the past ten years, demand on charitable services has increased dramatically, so despite all the hard work this still represents a net downturn in resources.

Most worryingly, it’s smaller charities – those that provide very localised, bespoke, hard-to-replicate services – that are struggling the most. Years of running on a shoestring have meant it’s become harder and harder for them to compete for public service contracts to deliver services. As a result, a great deal of local knowledge, expertise and community cohesion is being lost, ultimately to the cost of ordinary Brummies.

At BVSC, we work with our membership –many of whom are very small, grassroots community groups – to advocate for the fundamental role the voluntary sector can play in a resurgent Birmingham. Working alongside public partners like the Council and the local NHS, the voluntary sector adds real value to our city.

It’s hard to quantify precisely what our sector is worth to Birmingham. Some of our skills and relationships simply can’t be bought. For example, it is nearly always charities and community groups who can reach out to people who find it had to engage with government bodies. Often we can rely on relationships we’ve build over years and even decades; meaning we’re able to innovate to deal with pressing community issues, often well before the government realises there is an issue.

The irony is that, as local government budgets are squeezed, funding to local groups is one of the first things to be sacrificed – yet both local and central government are relying on the sector more than ever to plug the ever-increasing gaps in public service provision.

BVSC celebrated its Centenary in 2016. Two years into our second century, the work we do isn’t a million miles away from the work we began in 1916 as Birmingham Citizen’s Society. Now, as then, we work to help people to build and benefit from a fair and equitable Birmingham. Crucially, we recognise this vision can’t be realised without a wide range of people, agencies – and even entire sectors – pulling together.

We are therefore delighted to see charities placed at the heart of the West Midlands Combined Authority taskforces which are looking at tackling homelessness and growing the social economy.

And hopefully this is just the start: we are currently working closely with local authority and health partners and others to reposition Birmingham’s voluntary sector at the very heart of an energetic, thriving, sustainable civic society – and we will be pressing Birmingham as a whole to celebrate its voluntary sector and volunteers in key upcoming civic events, such as the Commonwealth Games.

Resilient charities and community groups are undoubtedly worthy of greater time, attention and investment – as is an innovative infrastructure to support the development of the wider third sector. Let’s hope that, as Birmingham enters what promises to be an exciting and prosperous next stage in its history, the movers-and-shakers, investors and even ordinary Brummies don’t forget the glue that holds our city together – its charities and community groups.