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.