Will we travel together?

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“How far do we want to go and are we willing to travel together?”, asks Pilotlight CEO Ed Mayo.

It is an old saying that if you want to travel fast, travel alone, but if you want to travel far, travel together. Well, which do we want?

Coming back into the sector, after a decade away working with co-operatives, I am struck by the emphasis I find now in travelling fast but not far. It is implicit in the competitive funding calls. It is implicit in the sudden death contracts awarded by public sector bodies. It is implicit in the years of neglect and cuts of a supportive voluntary sector infrastructure, particularly at the local level.

Coming now out of a crisis, we can’t use crisis thinking. It is right that there has been an emphasis on plugging the dramatic gap in income for the voluntary sector – £1 billion (net) over the first twelve weeks of lockdown (NCVO), £6.7 billion over six months, coupled with a rising demand for services equivalent to around £3.4 billion of additional costs (Pro Bono Economics). But the response by the government has been all about fast and not far – funding programmes that fall short of what is needed and focus on time-limited delivery, like the food emergency programmes that only fund food.

Yes, there are some more positive signs, including in steps taken by funders such as the National Lottery Community Fund to recognise the value of the membership service bodies – after years in which infrastructure has been seen as an overhead, a cost to cut out. The #NeverMoreNeeded campaign has seen sector leaders come together to fill the gap that exists in terms of a compelling, collective voice for a sector seen perhaps as tarnished and predictable – including ACEVO of course and thanks in no small part to the gift of coordinating capacity from the Directory for Social Change.

But we all know that plugging today’s financial gaps is only a sticking plaster solution. For foundations, a generous emergency response this year and an economy now operating on negative real interest rates (nominal interest rates minus the inflation rate) means that many may be less able to help in years to come. We need a more ambitious solution. We need advocacy. It is good to make the case for tax reform of course, but we need more – we need to shape proposals for an overall system in which the social sector is recognised for its fundamental role in terms of addressing needs that are unmet by the market or the state.

One concept that I believe can be part of this is that of collaborative infrastructure.

With this, we invest in the horizontal (place-based) and vertical (sector- and identity-based) networks to develop common services that can sit behind the primary charities and social enterprises the UK needs. It is not a new idea of course. Credit unions do it through credit union service organisations. Under Vidhya Alakeson, Power to Change is running a collaborative infrastructure programme for which I was one of the set-up team of CEOs, all designed to strengthen strategic community business networks in England in preparation for the day its funding ends.

Good infrastructure is not just about services, but about genuine organisational development. I have started at Pilotlight as CEO, taking over from Gillian Murray. We are still young but can now point to a track record of patient impact. According to our independent 2020 Impact Report, charities involved with Pilotlight have increased their reach by an average of 36% in the following two years.

In a speech in Dudley last week, the UK Prime Minister announced £5 billion of infrastructure projects, styled as a ‘New Deal’.

Well, the original New Deal in the USA also included far-reaching support for civil society action, such as for impoverished rural communities of the Grapes of Wrath. That is what we want. We are as important as road and rail, schools and trees to the wellbeing of the nation. We need to win the case for a ten year framework for voluntary sector infrastructure, underpinned in part with Public Works Loan Board monies from local authorities. 

Others will know better than I how this could play out. Could we have shared charity CEOs, as local authorities do? Can we replace competitive tendering below a set level with open book accounting and public social partnerships, as Italy has done? Could we set up a purchasing co-op to negotiate technology licenses, as the NHS does, or start our own discretionary mutual to cut insurance costs, as corner shops now do?

But what I do know is that it all starts with a more basic challenge: how far do we want to go and are we willing to travel together?

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