16th Oct 2017

Voluntary and community groups in North East England have shown remarkable resilience in the face of 10 years of economic and political change, but many are having to run faster to stand still, with pressure higher on those in the poorest areas. Those are some of the main messages I take from the latest findings from the unique and ground-breaking Third Sector Trends Study written by Professor Tony Chapman and published this week by the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland.

The data we now have on the sector in North East England is rich and fascinating. Consistently more than a thousand organisations have responded in each survey round. That’s about the same number as opinion pollsters use to describe the state of the whole nation on everything from politics to shopping habits! But it’s worth reflecting on the value of so much philanthropic resource (originally from Northern Rock Foundation (NRF) and now the Community Foundation alongside our partners the Esmée Fairbairn and Garfield Weston Foundations) being committed to this sort of research. Why not, some might ask, just spend that money on the groups themselves rather than research about them?

Well, full disclosure – I led the design and commission of the study back in 2007 when I was at NRF, so you would expect me to champion it. But the reasons for it then remain the same now: the kind of detailed survey data taken for granted about businesses simply isn’t produced for charities and voluntary groups, despite their critical role in society. And while important national evidence is published by NCVO (through its Almanac), given that the majority of the sector is small and local, the need for nuanced data at regional level is critical. Without it, how can policy-makers and funders make good decisions?

Through financing and publishing the study, we at the Community Foundation are not trying to prove a point or make a particular case about the sector. The findings are there for others who represent charities and voluntary groups to do that as suits their role. Our job is to help everyone better understand the sector. And here it is important for us to shout up about a field that represents 3-4% of regional employment (that’s bigger than the agriculture, fishing or energy sectors and not far off the size of the construction industry[i]) and whose 150,000 volunteers deliver nearly 11 million hours of work a year.

It’s also necessary to reflect on what the findings mean for us, as now the biggest independent funder of the voluntary sector in North East England. The study makes plain that grant-making is and will likely remain the life blood of civil society. And we at the Community Foundation remain committed to grants and to growing private philanthropy which can finance grants now and for generations to come. But increasingly we see a big part of our role being about working with other funders to encourage as much resource as possible to come to the North East. And with this in mind, I am conscious of this warning from Professor Chapman in his concluding chapter of 2017’s study:

Sending out messages that the Third Sector is in a perpetual crisis is not only wrong, but also a potentially dangerous strategy. Why would people want to invest their time, money and ideas on something that is about to fall apart at the seams?  To say that the sector is strong, which it is, is surely more persuasive when making claims for the resources the sector needs to do great work that so many people rely upon. [ii]

But to keep that strength of and confidence in the sector will require funders to look hard at what we are already doing and how we may do it better, alone or in collaboration. It means being honest about a new reality where a stance of not funding ‘statutory services’ must be reviewed when many discretionary activities run or funded by public bodies are being cut back. It means looking at how a whole range of resources – including those given in kind by the private sector – might be deployed to provide what we used to call ‘capacity building’ but which is really about ensuring the effectiveness of the groups we support. And it means understanding how groups tick when they look at making applications to funders and ensuring what we say is reflected in what we do, and that what we do makes sense.

 

Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland

Footnotes:

[i] North East Strategic Economic Plan evidence base, NELEP/NECA May 2016 http://www.nelep.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/NELEP-Economic-Analysis.pdf

[ii] Third Sector Trends in North East England 2016 p80

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