Am I a waste of money?

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A personal view from Charlotte Pell

Look into your brains and tell me if I am a waste of money.

The money that pays me comes from a national quango called ‘Capacity Builders’. But this isn’t one of those bad quangoes everyone talks about, this one doesn’t take money off you, it gives its money away to charities and community groups. It has given over 70 million pounds away since 2006 to ‘build capacity’.

That’s nice, isn’t it? It gives its money away in clever ways too. It gives some of its money to hidden, back- office organisations that support charities and community groups. This is to make the money go further and last longer.

Think of it as the Government giving the charity sector lots of lovely fertiliser, sunshine and water in the form of cash. I work for one of these hidden, back office organisations. It is called a Council for Voluntary Service (CVS). These well run, busy little organisations exist all over the country. They operate the watering cans and dish out the Growmore.

So, assuming I’m good at my job and put in a decent day’s work, how could I possibly be a waste of money? We need to support these charities and community groups more than ever in these tough times, don’t we? What’s more, good on the Government for being extra clever! This money is supporting local organisations that will invest in charities and community groups for many years to come.

Look – here are some encouraging words written up in neat by Capacity Builders’ to prove how serious they are. They are ‘committed to an independent and vibrant third sector’ and strive to be ‘open to learning and sharing our learning, based on what works best’.

Why then, does a director of 22 years running a successful, long established and well-respected Council for Voluntary Service write this in her annual report?

“There is a great danger that organisations are diverted from pursuing their objectives – which as voluntary organisations is their very reason for being. Increasingly in order to survive they are being forced into doing things they don’t particularly want to do, and stopped from doing what they do want to do”.

I wonder if she could be talking about some of the paperwork coming out of Capacity Builders; the work plan templates, the outcomes frameworks, the best – practice, the consortium monitoring forms, the self assessment toolkits, the fit for purpose criteria, the FAQ’s and the expenditure spreadsheets. This stuff doesn’t look much like fertiliser, sunshine or water.

Someone in London who is, ‘committed to a vibrant and independent third sector’, has written all this down for us, meaning that we have to read it at the other end and God forbid, fill it in. All this is very time consuming but even if you don’t want to do it, you have to do it to get the money. If you don’t do it right, you get told off or wind up with a bad reputation.

But isn’t the CVS director overreacting a bit?  Won’t this stuff make the voluntary and community sector more professional and business like, just like the public sector?  Won’t this mean more opportunity for the sector to run services, get more money and become more efficient? Surely we just need to keep an eye on the paperwork to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand?

Some people think that Capacity Builders should write fewer documents or format them differently so they are easier to fill in. If only they could just visit and email less often, organisations like CVS’s would be allowed to breathe and spend more time on their purpose. A balance can surely be struck.

Talk of balance is always reassuring and it appeals to our sense of reasonableness, especially in the voluntary and community sector. But what if the very existence of this ‘modernisation’ and ‘reform’ regime, the government- quango hierarchy, the people employed to write the specifications, the instructing and the coercing and the time spent complying, the vast array of programmes and work streams, the careful filling in of the spreadsheets, forms and templates, the associated national, regional, sub regional and local structures, the hundreds of consultants, and the employees like me, what if all this stuff is preventing the very thing it is designed to create  -the conditions for a thriving and healthy community and voluntary sector?

The same director of the successful CVS writes:

“Increasingly, I believe that despite the generally held political belief that the sector is a Good Thing, the policies that affect it run the risk of destroying the very things that make it good.

We tend to take it for granted because it’s always been there, but there are many countries in which nothing like it exists – a route whereby people are inspired to do something which they think is worthwhile, for no reward except that they think it is the right thing to do – to help others, to do something for the environment, involve themselves in the life of our society which is not about being paid, and is not about the political process, It is a very precious thing, and we should all do our best to protect  it and ensure  that it can continue to do what it does best”

Someone clever said that the true cost of something is what you give up to get it. What have CVS’s already given up in order to find the time to set targets, write outcomes frameworks and read complicated funding guidance? What would be going on in community centres if they weren’t full of training courses on quality standards or full of people like me sitting at computers writing funding bids?

Can a 3-year-old national quango really tell a diverse range of people coming together out of a simple desire to engage in the society around them to change into something else?  And not only change into something else, but also to write it all down and hand it in to be marked at every step of the way. Is this strict regime, as Capacity Builders say ‘what works best’?

Or might a method by which local CVS’s are given grants and left alone to independently set their own improvement agenda ‘work best’?

Like my desk-ridden friends working for the star chasing councils, the target driven NHS, the chart hopping schools and the desk- based police force, I still see people all around me inspired to do good work. And, I am determined to do something worthwhile myself – for the well run local CVS that I work for. The one that does simple and precious work on a shoestring to support local causes, and has done for many years.

But is this good work in spite of and not because of the reform regime?

I don’t know the answer to this, but I do wonder if the current set-up would have attracted the passionate and committed CVS Director to her vocation as Director of a CVS 22 years ago.

Back to me and my job funded by Capacity Builders.  Look into you brains and tell me, am I a waste of money?


‘Strategic Framework:  Destination 2014

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