Cake or death? A comment on the cuts, ‘big society’ and community sector ‘cognitive dissonance’

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Cake or death image‘Big society’ is a bust, local authorities have problems of their own and economic recovery is unlikely any time soon, writes Andrew Climo, CEO of Community Leaders. His advice for people who work in the community sector? Question partnerships with the statutory sector, only do projects with profound community benefits, lobby for what your community needs and act collectively with anyone who shares your values, be they local businesses or community groups.

The optimistic gene

As someone who presently has a black outlook, I know that I am depressing to be around, a kind of Jeremiah, prophesying the end of everything we have become comfortable with in the community sector. But there you are. What follows is an Eddie Izzard-style ‘cake or death’ analysis of the situation.

I hope that at some unspecified time I will be all smiles and optimism, but I must be frank – I don’t see this being likely for a long time.

I am a sceptic about ‘big society’ (aka the Big Dead Non Project) and I wonder why others have been so trusting. Let me also say I don’t like the Big Society Bank either. I think it sucks. Surely we need stable income instead more debt.

Here’s the problem for the community sector. If you are not essentially an optimist you don’t work in it, certainly not at the coal face. If you work with deprived neighbourhoods, alienated minorities or with people for whom learned-helplessness is the norm, you simply must believe that you can make a difference. So you choose cake, right? It goes with the territory.

I believe this optimism is one of our greatest assets but it also makes us far too trusting of the next bunch of ministers to come along. Add to this that we have been almost genetically re-engineered to have thick skins that stop us noticing poor pay and the continual threat of redundancy, and you can see why we don’t just react to risks of funding cuts: it takes time to sink in.

These characteristics are normally a survival trait, making us able to tolerate toxic conditions after all other life forms have scuttled away. But with mass extinction looming in the community sector, this may be our undoing.

Mass extinction: asteroid strikes the earth

Consider ‘big society’: as a sector we have been almost completely uncritical of cuts in the hope that ‘big society’ was some form of silver lining to it all. But this is now coming back to bite us, with large-scale redundancies, project closures and services being wound up. The mass extinction is now underway. Looks more like death than cake.

Eric Pickles, seemingly unable to keep a lid on any difference with his cabinet colleagues has come out in the open about ‘big society’: there will be no policy support for Big Dead Non Project, no cash, no new programmes, no partnership working with the voluntary and community sector, no meaningful VCS influence, no nod or wink to existing VCS infrastructure, no aspect of community development, no commitment to equalities and no commitment to ensure that everyone is allowed inside the Big Tent. Did I say tent? Well it’s more like a small cheap gazebo of the type used for smokers outside street corner bars.

So now that even the ‘big society’ rhetoric is evaporating, the sector is left with no strategy, no funding and completely unprepared.  Pretty much all death and no cake then.

The daily news or twitter makes quite dismal reading: Nottingham, Liverpool, Cornwall and others have all declared massive cuts that will quite simply destroy any coherent programme of community sector support. Many key players are planning for large redundancies. Each week, more news in a similar vein.

At this point there must be few in any doubt that the cuts represent a major attack on the sector. From mental health to young people’s programmes, from support for personalisation to urban regeneration, funding is being pulled.

From a legacy viewpoint too it couldn’t be much worse and hope is dwindling that we can salvage much goodness from our programmes, such is the speed of the cuts. More time, and hey, who knows, we might have been able to hand over some of our knowledge to successor organisations or at least prevented it from leaking back into the sand.

Groups should now be thinking about planning, not just reacting. Think of it in IT terms: it’s like disaster recovery or business continuity planning. What would you do if one of your offices burned down or your computer room got flooded?

Well having 50 per cent of your organisation blown away by funding cuts is much the same. Start planning now to make sure that your legacy doesn’t walk out the door with your staff. Think of mothballing your ‘crown jewels’: projects that you know are worth hanging onto but cannot be funded right now.

Remember that starting from scratch costs megabucks so think about how you might stay in touch with your staff when they go: your might not be able to employ them after they have gone, but they might do some contract work if you need to restart at a later date. Think about documenting key systems, mothballing your computer data and writing down what each member of staff does.

The stampede to find shelter

People in the community sector have become experts at managing change, and cuts in particular. The fact that we have not been asked to support the process of cuts speaks volumes about the nature of the relationship between the community sector and the present government: what we do has little value to our political leaders. These cuts are not a reluctant choice of a real partner but are being enthusiastically pursued. No cake here, only death.

We all know it. The sector has become far too close to the statutory sector, so much so that we have been unable to adjust to the new reality and many are seemingly in denial about the likely outcomes. All this seems understandable and perhaps even forgivable.

However, we should not forgive ourselves too readily. Many organisations have turned a blind eye to their stated mission in order to chase money and influence. It is often not a case of mission drift, but mission collapse and almost all organisations seem to be in denial about it.

Not surprising then that chief execs up and down the land are experiencing such depths of cognitive dissonance, on the one hand knowing that they have been led by the nose to follow state funding and government policy at the expense of their own values and sustainability. But we’re all up to our necks in it now, and it seems impossible to extricate ourselves.

Against all logic and evidence to the contrary many chief execs are desperately hoping that some statutory funding will come their way so they will not have to lay off most of their staff or close down altogether. It’s a bad place to be.

An easy prediction: Expect a high rate of churn for chief execs and senior staff, high rates of stress and illness as a result. Those remaining will be demoralised, stressed and demotivated. They may feel they have an impossible task.

Being aware of the human consequences and protecting ourselves and our people is crucial. Otherwise we risk losing them too. Add it to your disaster recovery plan people!

Extinction hits the smaller animals hardest

As I have said before, sadly it’s not the good charities that will survive and the poor ones that will fail: it’s a lottery out there. We will lose many very good groups and larger organisations. It will be indiscriminate.

As more and more commissioned work packages come in at £1M or £10M they will all be won or lost by consortia rather than individual organisations. Amongst these consortia will be the good and the bad, the lucky and unlucky. Cake or death, death or cake? Spin the roulette wheel. Who will win? Nobody knows.

One thing we can say with confidence is that larger work contracts mean larger organisations will get the work and the smaller organisations will be left on the sidelines. With a reduction in commissioning officers and less capacity, smaller grants and contracts will wither along with smaller, specialist, high skill, high value groups. These smaller groups are unable to spend days or weeks preparing information for requests to tender and buttering up suitable partners.

However, it is these smaller charities, community interest companies and unincorporated associations that deliver real community benefit. The super-corporates with high margins, high fixed costs and no link to communities on the ground are ready to parachute in and run after the money but they will be the first to leave when the cash dries up. With no interest in leaving a legacy they will continue to sap, rather than build communities. But these big beasts have the contacts and direct access to government.

This is reality of the ‘big society’. Big organisations: certainly. Big business: more than likely.

Biting the big beasts could be a survival trait for the small

This is the future that we must plan for. And it is already on us. And if it is our lot and bad fortune to go into the night we certainly should not do so quietly.

Every organisation that closes or downsizes is an opportunity to challenge policy and shine a light on those who will suffer. Lobbying and protesting isn’t just an option it is an obligation to tell it how it is when our beneficiaries suffer.

Sounds like revolution? Not really. Back in the 1970s and 80s this was one of the main roles of the community sector: To be the conscience of society and a pain in the rear for government. I would argue it is our prime purpose.

We didn’t grow hugely then, but we did at least survive. Cake of a sort here.

Those left at the old watering hole

Still wavering? Still looking for a white knight? Forget ‘big society’: it’s a bust. Localism? It depends on your local authority but remember they have problems of their own. Economic recovery? I wouldn’t bet on it: many are predicting a deepening recession with no real end in sight until 2017 or even later

The cake is long gone at the old watering hole. To stay here is to starve to death.

Survival strategies for quick footed animals

Those that do survive this round of lost funding need to kick the habit of statutory dependence and do so quickly in order not to get caught again in 12 months time. My suggested road map is:

  • Stop thinking uncritically of the statutory sector as your partners. Increasingly they may not be
  • Take every project on its benefits, not financial benefits but whether your community benefits profoundly
  • Stop following the money and walk away at least once on principle
  • If they’re funding the wrong stuff, tell them and make yourself a nuisance
  • Start lobbying openly and publicly for what your community needs, even if that means disagreeing with others
  • Be true to your values and don’t be afraid to take on the big boys
  • If you have more than 60% tied up in two contracts then you are still at risk. Ask your client/funder to unbundle packages of work to reduce the risk, or
  • Risk share with others so that collectively you have the broadest basket of income as possible (this will always be a win-win)
  • Engage new partners from wherever they may be. You may find interests with local businesses and other community groups rather than statutory bodies
  • Look for ways that you can provide voluntary services in exchange for hard cash, or if you don’t have volunteers look at what paid-for services you can provide to cross-subsidise your ‘real’ work

Right now we need to go back to the drawing board and that means thinking about independent means of support, thinking outside the box and reassessing in-kind contributions. Don’t dismiss the non-money economy either. Mutual support may provide a means to supply infrastructure. Cake, eventually? Perhaps, but definitely not at the old watering hole.

As always it will be salaries that will the most difficult to fund. The first job is to reassess who our real partners and stakeholders are. Do not for a millisecond make the assumption that they who they were 12 months ago.

It is about the art of the possible and not getting hung up about taking on short term or low value contracts. But then, we are the community sector, and we know all about surviving in adverse conditions. Cake it has always been, in fact. We just forgot how to do it.

Whatever you do, don’t hold your breath for it to be over. It will be a long and painful ordeal and much will be lost in the process with no benefit gained, but with commitment and a little luck we can lessen the effects on our communities and beneficiaries.

The benefit of numbers

Oh yes, one final thing: if a big beast lands on your territory, remember that you know the territory, and they don’t. That’s real cake my dears.

And it’s not just you but all the groups in your area… Ever seen a troop of monkeys attack? Scary.

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