One clear competitive advantage that charities have in the service market place, is our reputed closeness to the customer…
Hard times! In this sullen economic climate, there are few outbursts of optimism and creativity in the voluntary sector.
However, the current gloom only obfuscates the scale of transformation taking place in the design and delivery of public services. By 2020, only five years away, many local authorities will be forced towards ‘commission only’ models, unable to provide services themselves. Undoubtedly, this will galvanise the otherwise stuttered start towards localism. Additionally, demographic change and continued benefit reforms will lead to more paying customers defining their own very personal needs. With around £12BN worth of contracts already flowing through charities, there is considerable opportunity for those able to innovate and adapt now.
One clear competitive advantage that charities have in the service market place, is our reputed closeness to the customer. Time after time, we tell and are told that charities understand the target market – our beneficiaries, users and clients. It’s a value that will become tested and contested. The risk is that if charities don’t identify emerging need, their internal mechanisms can’t respond, they fail to deliver efficiently or effectively and then, trust in the charity begins to erode. It’s a rather dismal and exaggerated picture, however, voluntary organisations like all other industries, are coming under increasing public scrutiny.
There are significant developments in other sectors. In the NHS, trusts are required to engage with users as a core part of their Quality Governance Framework. Even the corporates who provide essential services like energy, water and transport, have to treat their customers as stakeholders and ensure their views are heard in price settlements and product development. Although there is widespread tokenism and poor practice in how they engage, the activity is mandatory. Of course, travesties such as Mid-Staffs and Winterbourne have made the transparency and accountability that goes with user involvement more urgent. As charities, we can be sure that the commitment of our staff and volunteers would never allow such neglect and criminality. But as costs become further squeezed and if front-line morale wanes, can we take this for granted?
Could Service delivery charities become beacons of good practice in beneficiary engagement? To what extent is the ethos embedded in our constitutions, ingrained in our governance? Does our mastery of the wide range of engagement tools enable us to capture the full diversity of our clients and deliver a truly inclusive service? At this stage, there are more questions than answers. Charity giants such as Turning Point and RNIB are probably already on to this. Will there be others to embrace the new landscape once the storm subsides?
MD of Engage- Building Networks of Trust
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