Value what we do

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How a CVS in Newcastle is using research to ‘speak truth to power’

Sally Young is the Chief Executive of Newcastle Council for Voluntary Services (NCVS), a large CVS with 500 members from big charities to small community associations. Newcastle historically is a deprived area with high unemployment. Sally says: “There’s a huge kind of uncertainty at the moment.”

The council faces huge budget cuts. The NHS gives £5 million to the voluntary sector mainly for hospices, large contracts and grants. “They call them ‘contracts’ but nobody had to bid for them,” Sally says. The Primary Care Trusts are disappearing, clinical commissioning groups don’t know what their budgets are going to be or when they’re going to be settled. Over £6 million went to the voluntary sector from The Working Neighbourhood Fund: “That’s gone – nothing’s replacing it.”

Newcastle still has grant aid that was put into a fund for four years. Sally says: As we reach the end of the four years we’re worrying about what’s going to happen next. Organisations generally don’t know where to go. There’s conflict and dilemmas of hearing how important they are in the ‘big society’ but the taps are being turned off, there aren’t grants and the contracts aren’t really what they want to do because that’s not what they were set up to do.”

Sally says that generally big national charities and private sector organisations move in, the bigger local organisations become big nationals, and little organisations get by. There are a significant number of organisations in the middle with incomes between £50,000 and a million a year that rely on grant aid and some contract from local authorities and the NHS but “it is completely unclear what’s going to happen to them. There’s a real role for organisations such as ours to ‘speak truth to power’, to say this is the impact of going for larger contracts, as a city council it’s much easier for you to go for a large contract and to deal with fewer providers of services but actually this is what happens when you do that.”

NCVS is investing in research. Sally says: “I wanted to try and collect the evidence again. I don’t always mean hard figures or hard fact but often people’s stories are equally if not more important than big numbers.”

NCVS carried out four major pieces of research since Sally’s arrival in 2010 to date. Sally spoke to the NCVS membership about what the changes meant for them and the people they work with. In 2011 NCVS spoke to local women’s organisations and produced a report in March 2012 on the challenges facing them called “Changing Times: Women’s organisations in Newcastle”.

Millfield House Foundation, a local funder interested in policy, funded NCVS to team up with Voluntary Organisations’ Network North East to carry out a large six monthly ‘Surviving or Thriving’ survey over two years, tracking the impact of spending cuts on the voluntary sector in Newcastle. A report was produced in February 2012 called “Surviving or Thriving in Newcastle – Tracking the impact of spending cuts on Newcastle’s third sector.”

It emerged that particular groups seemed to be suffering disproportionate impacts around the cuts, in work with asylum seekers and refugees, young people, homelessness, mental health, peace work; these are the areas NCVS know about. “It’s not because the needs not there, it’s because the funding’s gone. The voluntary sector has been doing huge amounts of preventative work and it’s not being recognised or realised and if we go that will actually put greater demand onto the statutory services.”

The surveys showed that organisations are spending huge amounts of time on monitoring. “There’s often the same monitoring between the Health Service and the Local Authority. Why can’t they just have a lead monitor? The rape crisis centre who I think get funding from five Local Authorities and five primary care trusts, not a huge organisation, it’s a quarter of somebody’s time doing monitoring returns. We can do things that make life easier by being sensible.”

The research into women’s organisations showed how different organisations work together as a patchwork to ensure women get services they need “Women thought it was very important to have a space just for women, whereas the commissioners are saying ‘why can’t you provide these services for everyone?’” The Community Foundation, a large local funder, has a women’s fund. It’s using the women’s report to inform future funding. Sally says: “It’s not just pieces of isolated research and we feel good about putting a report about but equally trying to change policy.”

Sally also approached the late Kenny Bell who was the secretary of her local branch of UNISON of which she is a member even though the union was focused on public sector workers. Sally says: “He really got the sector and I challenged him about what was he doing about the voluntary sector.” UNISON agreed to fund a large study and its publication. The subsequent report – “The Heart of the City – The Voluntary and Community Sector in Newcastle” – was published in April 2012.

Sally says: “When I spoke to Kenny originally he was very aware of historic lack of involvement in the voluntary sector and UNISON then appointed somebody who works in a community liaison role with voluntary organisations. 6,500 people in Newcastle work in the voluntary sector and a lot of them aren’t unionised. It’s important that people are in a trade union.” UNISON in Newcastle “do a lot of training particularly around general skills, it can be literacy skills – all sorts of things for people that now open to voluntary sector workers. So they’ve done a lot more for the voluntary sector.”

Sally says: “We’ve got this fantastic report, we can’t even afford to post out, it costs us £1.20 to post so we actually take it to everywhere that we go. It has been quite widely published now, we’ve handed it to lots of people and people can refer to it. It is important for organisations to have their stories recognised and the key themes. We can reflect it to policy makers about how they make their decisions.”

“The government line is repeated in so many ways people don’t understand about the voice of the community, the accountability and the representational roles of the voluntary and community sector because if all we do is provide services… then we’ve lost something. The funding for the sector – I just don’t know where is going to come from. The pace of change is a shock to people.”

“It’s very sad. I think the voluntary sector is going through a particularly bad time at the moment. It will come out of it at the end. It won’t look the same as before. There is a view that what’s happening may not need to happen the way it’s happening. ”

The value of the sector, the people in it, the work they do and its value base is what keeps Sally going. She worries about a schism in the voluntary sector with “people thinking we’re better than you because we’re a social enterprise, we nearly all sell a service and as long as we’re making some money on it that goes back to the organisation. That makes you a social enterprise.”

What would make a difference? Sally says: “We should all just take a step or two back and value much more what we do and value our partners in it as well. I think we should value the diversity of our sector. I think this idea that we all want to be larger service providers isn’t correct and if some organisations want to do that that’s fine but a lot of us just want to get on and do good and support people in our communities.”

Sally Young was talking to Nazreen A Subhan in June 2012 as part of NCIA’s stories project.

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