Do we really have to do more with less?

Nobody can doubt that in these austere times the demands on some charities have grown – witness the growth of the food bank movement, which is increasingly active across the country, including parts of middle England just like the town where I live, where many would deny that anyone in their predominantly middle class communities would need the support of a charity like a food bank. Yet there they are, supporting those who need it most at their time of need.

Much is written in the sector media about this demand for more from our good causes coming hand-in-hand with the sector having fewer resources – doing more with less. But is this really the case? Depending on who you believe (and the fundraising world seems wholly unable to produce any consistently credible sector-wide data on giving money), donations of money are either in decline, on a plateau or slightly increasing. However, as I suggested in last month’s blog, money is not the only resource the sector can draw on.

In my work with organisations across the sector, I frequently hear from volunteer managers who are trying to find new ways for volunteers to deliver essential services to clients. An equally frequent refrain from those same volunteer managers is how resources are being drawn away from volunteering as chief executives, trustees and senior teams seek to invest further in fundraising from a public who – as David Ainsworth recently suggested in a blog on the unpopularity of ‘chugging’ – “…have enormous generosity and great goodwill to charity, [but] are being over-fished”.

Regular readers of my blog will know this is a frequent theme for me. The leadership of the sector is ignoring any resources that aren’t financial in their pursuit of charitable objectives, and are seemingly in denial that a global financial crisis ever happened. I make no apology for returning to it frequently. Judging by feedback on my blog it is a popular topic and one that, if repeated often by enough of us, might one day wake some leaders from their hypnotically singular pursuit of money as the only means of charitable ‘production’.

So I return to this theme at the start of 2013 for these reasons and for one more.

The merger between Volunteering England and NCVO will be completed this month. This marks the loss of a distinct national infrastructure voice in England for the first time in more than 40 years. It means the loss of an organisation that had the vision and foresight to merge (in 2004) in the interests of the sector, long before mergers became common for reasons of organisational self-preservation.

But it also marks a new era of opportunity. Integrating a strong policy voice for volunteering with NCVO’s more powerful lobbying on behalf of the sector brings new opportunities for volunteering to gain prominence among sector leaders as a valuable way for organisations to fulfil their public benefit remits in times of financial hardship. That’s something that organisations like food banks and the thousands of charities operating on minimal budget and with no staff know all to well. Perhaps this year the ‘establishment’ end of the sector (that bit that everyone thinks of as the sector – it has the money and employees – but is actually just a fraction of the real sector) will wake up to this to, so that in 2013 we may hear less about charities doing more with less (money). Instead, we might hear about civil society organisations doing more with a different mix of resources.

5 Responses to “Do we really have to do more with less?”

  1. John Clarke

    Great points well made.

    While others may see the champions of volunteering, “going on about it”, I think it’s important that we do. If people are getting sick of us saying the same thing over-and-over again, then surely at some point they have to realise that we are passionate about the points we’re making, and that there are issues that need addressing.

    I, too, make no apology for constantly haranguing my third sector peers about the value and impact that volunteering can have.

    I just hope that some of them are actually listening!

  2. Richard Chambers

    By definition, the voluntary sector should constantly publicise the need for volunteers. They create and sustain charities, and without them the burden on private and public sectors (and, thus, our nation) would be catastrophic.

    However, whilst the sector’s leadership may well be guilty of concentrating efforts on cold, hard cash, surely the profile of “the volunteer” has never been greater. The voluntary sector has grown to the point where a political party is using an idea like the Big Society as a central plank of government, whilst an historic national event can turn tens of thousands of people into heroic Gamesmakers (with tens of thousands more potential volunteers surplus to Olympic requirements). The idea of ‘offender’ volunteers – which Kenward Trust has been using for some time – is now sufficiently palatable for the government to champion it proudly just before Christmas.

    But there will always be areas where there is no substitute for cold, hard cash (eg you can’t replace the fruit and veg in a food bank with volunteers). And cash is a ‘resource’ which is undeniably in decline if you take into account government funding as well as charitable donations. So, yes, we really are doing more with less (and FOR less in the case of many of us charity professionals). All the more reason to make as much use of volunteers as possible/appropriate, but let’s not paper over the financial cracks which are as urgent for the voluntary sector as for the other two.

    • John Clarke

      While the profile of the volunteer has been raised in recent months, this has not equated to a better understanding of how to engage and support volunteering. This is the core of the problem with sector leaders.

      While everything costs money (more below), the issue raised here is not about pulling cash away that’s needed to keep the lights on.

      In recent months I’ve seen an upsurge in the number of (large, well resourced) charities looking to “fundraise their way out of recession”. Essentially, their approach is to try and expand and bring in even more money in order to see through tough times. To do this they sink massive extra resources into fundraising teams hoping that they will bring in money that will offset the investment. This money rarely comes at the expense of the ‘fruit and veg in the foodbank’, more likely from reorganising the existing, budgeted overheads by cutting back on areas like volunteer engagement and management.

      The message must be understood that putting your resource into supporting and expanding a volunteer programme can be at least as productive as – and often more productive than – extra fundraising. At the very least I would like to see all charities stop making volunteer managers redundant. While more people are aware of volunteering, there is still little understanding that while volunteers give their time freely, they are not free of cost.

      A side effect of this obsession with asking for more money has been a real backlash from the public. When news broke recently about up to 1-in-6 charities facing possible closure due to cuts I was horrified by the reactions I saw in public forums. Thousands of people have an image of charities being staffed by lazy, overpaid, ineffectual people that are constantly begging for more money. This perception then effects the ability of smaller charities – many of whom work mainly through volunteers – to raise the modest funds they need to pay for an office and a telephone bill.

      As a final point, I’d just like to add that while we can ‘use’ the skills a volunteer may bring, I am not comfortable with the phrase, “…make as much use of volunteers…”, as we should engage and respect people, not use them.

  3. Ivor Sutton

    In business, doesn’t one always have to be efficient and effective in order to ‘raise the bar’ and to improve output performance… and reduce costs? One would think this that this is a new proposition being suggested… or, is this simply highlighting the possible difference between the private sector and the third sector.. hmm??

    To clarify, widening the difference between input and output has always got to be a defining moment in ‘business’ – even when running a third sector organisation. Is it not the case that third sector director’s start ‘reaching out’ to private sector managers who are passionate about community development and public policy… train them up.. and learn from this unique balance of passion and asset-worthy transferable skills they have?

    I think so.

    This new Year has bring with it New Attitudes and Progressive Policies that seeks to galvanise private sector management skills into the the third sector, with the aim of it becoming the FIRST-SECTOR!!

  4. Chris Hornet

    The key point for me here is what will be the impact of the VE/NCVO merger. Will it simply be the subsuming of volunteering into the wider NCVO agenda or will it push volunteering onto the top table? Despite volunteering and volunteers being critical to our society, to the way we work, to the way we care, to the way we are governed, it has never been a crucial part of the dialogue within the sector. Someone else mentioned that the profle of volunteers has never been greater – which is true – but when it came to the ‘Giving’ summit last year, for example, the agenda was about giving money not about giving time. And what one issue ‘united’ the sector last year? The giveitbackgeorge campaign, again about the giving of money. Volunteering has always suffered from middle-child syndrome – let’s hope the merger will mean trustees, chief officer, policy-makers will finally stop ignoring volunteering.

    And one last thought. The sector needs to remember we exist for our beneficiaries, for our clients. Our success is measured on what we achieve for them. Not by how many staff we have, or how much money we raise, or how many volunteers we have. Every charity’s number one objective should be to close down because they have fulfilled their mission. Funny how few charities mention that, though.


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