Sir Stephen Bubb in the Guardian:The sector needs to focus on its strengths

If you didn’t realise it by now, George Osborne’s announcement that there would be a further £25bn of welfare cuts should have made it clear. Whichever political party wins the next election, there will be more austerity on way.

So, in 2014 and 2015, the story for civil society will be much the same as it was in 2012 and 2013. Even as our budgets decrease, we will be called upon to do more than ever before. Things will get worse before they get better and that’s why it is especially important that our sector’s leaders pull together and are up to the task.

Unfortunately, as much as we excel at making a difference, we also excel at shooting ourselves in the collective foot. Our diversity is a much-feted strength but it can also bring acrimony, rivalries, large organisations set against small organisations and even local organisations set against national organisations. We have to stop this divisive internal argument about whether local is better than national or large is better than small. It curtails our sector’s ambition and drive. It means we lose out on funding and contracts that we cannot afford to let go.

We need to turn this around, focus on our strengths, and not just focus on them but develop and evolve them. Our sector is built on relationships, collaborations, partnerships. You see this right across the public sphere; when working with local government and other local agencies, supporting community engagement, when campaigning on matters that matter to us. Despite the frustrations, the commitment of our sector to come together when the issue or occasion demands is inspiring. We need practical ways to make those collaborations sustainable if we are to survive.

What I don’t mean by this is more mergers. Mergers are often a blind alley, as likely to duplicate labour and make a third sector organisation more bloated and inefficient as make it leaner and more agile. Mergers are not necessarily a bad thing, but I doubt they are the most effective route into a commissioner’s good books – or to financial surety for your organisation.

Consortia are a different story. At ACEVO we’ve been bringing our members together to build, collaborate and compete with the private sector for contracts of value. We believe in this model. It’s about joint working, keeping your character but coming together around areas of interest. It’s what we’re good at. We’re building cosnsortia and offering advice and support to get organisations more contract ready.

For example, The Knowsley Third Sector Consortium, launched as “Forward Together,” is a group of 28 local organisations that aims to help local people who are most in need of its services by bidding for large-scale contract opportunities and explore new, more effective ways of delivering outcomes. They use a ‘hub and spoke’ model, which means that Forward together focus on the coordination and the local charities focus on what they’re best at: delivering services. ACEVO has been with the consortium every step of the way, giving advice and support. We’re proud to report that six months into establishing the consortium, it won its first contract.

It’s a great example and I know there is more to come. Too often our sector moans about losing contracts to the private sector but fails to see we could compete if we joined together. It’s not easy, and means setting aside petty rivalries and showing that the voluntary sector has the answers to the biggest problems faced by our communities. It means real leadership: putting beneficiaries ahead of organisation and egos.

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