Last week Rob Wilson, Minister for Civil Society, announced that 16th December would be Local Charities Day. The day aims to provide a much-welcome boost for small charities and community organisations, raising their profile and praising their contribution.
As Wilson said when announcing his plans for the day earlier in the summer: ‘We should shout from the rooftops about the energy, the commitment, the expertise that small and local charities can bring’.
There is no doubt that these charities are often the unsung heroes of the charity sector:
- reaching out to the people and communities that find it hardest to get their voices heard or their needs met;
- giving people a say in decisions that affect their lives and the life of their community – and the skills and confidence to make their voices heard;
- working with communities – helping them become agents of change, not objects of policy.
And part of their strength comes from being embedded in the communities they serve, often run by staff and volunteers from those communities. This gives them a unique understanding of local needs and ability to engage local people. Yet while many local and / or specialist organisations report growing demand for their services, many are struggling to survive in the current climate.
Imkaan, for example, has highlighted the significant role played by specialist BME women’s organisations that work to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls and the impact they have had, both on the lives of the women they work with and the communities they work in. This is in no small part due to the fact that these organisations are led by women from those communities. But they now face a very uncertain future, as more and more commissioners seek to contract with larger, generic providers.
This is not an isolated example: NCVO’s research found that small and medium charities – those with an income between £25,000 and £1 million – are experiencing insecure, unstable and often inadequate income streams. They have h
ad proportionately bigger losses in government income than larger charities and smaller increases individual donations leaving them with a worrying shortfall.
In setting up Local Charities Day, the government is keen to promote fundraising by and for local charities, including through match funding schemes. This is very welcome, but is it enough?
Local specialist charities have been hit hardest by austerity and a more competitive tendering environment, with many who want to deliver services finding themselves in competition with private companies as well as larger charities. The Social Value Act could (and should) make a difference, but as local authorities and other public bodies seek to offset multi-million shortfalls in their own budgets, it is not the priority it could be.
But its not just about delivering public services. The wider roles that voluntary and community organisations play in communities also need to be recognised – roles that are complimentary (and ultimately of benefit) to public services. And we need to ask what role the state should play in creating an environment where grass-roots organisations and activities can thrive.
Today local communities and community organisations are facing new challenges. New solutions are therefore urgently needed. Solutions that help to promote solidarity; generate social, economic and cultural capital at the local level; and place individuals and communities at the centre of local – and in the context of devolution, regional development and decision-making.
If Local Charities Day is to make a real difference to local charities, it should encourage new thinking about ways of investing in civil society – not just to support organisations for their own sake, but to make a real difference at the grassroots, particularly in those areas where individuals and communities feel they have been left behind.
Otherwise there is the danger of the day commemorating rather than celebrating the energy, commitment and expertise of local charities.