First published in CYP Now, March 2016

Almost every day now, the CYP Now website updates readers with news of yet another council announcing plans to cut all remaining youth services or swathes of its children’s centres. Have you noticed how often the reported plan is to ‘hope’ the voluntary sector will step into the breach left by such withdrawals? But with so many long-established and high profile charity closures recently, surely no-one can hope to take charities’ survival for granted.

Reliance on donations and volunteers is expected, or ‘hoped’, to replace reliance on taxpayer funds. It’s a well-intentioned hope, a welcome expression of faith in the voluntary sector, and one forged of necessity in dire straits, but councils would do well not to assume that their local charities are at all sustainable on their own terms. They are certainly persistent, adaptable, resourceful and resilient whenever they can be. But the same forces that put councils under such pressure are affecting charities large and small in similar ways – pensions deficits and new auto-enrollment costs; continuing cuts to established funding sources; greater competition for charitable funds and other new income streams; increasing costs and business rate bills; time pressures for staff and volunteers alike; wage freezes, redundancies and, just for good measure, an increasingly hostile media dialogue questioning charities’ reputation and worth. As ever, the voluntary sector is mirroring our public sector partners in the challenges we all face in meeting the needs of children and families.

A ‘smaller state’ logically requires a bigger charity sector, sustaining itself on donations and volunteers, helping vulnerable people out of good will and largesse, rather than taxes. The children and families we serve become ‘beneficiaries’ rather than citizens. The idea of many charity critics who believe in a simple clear line between a taxpayer-funded state and a volunteer-only ‘real’ charitable sector is not only unrealistic, but many would argue, well over a century out of date. The foodbanks that are growing so rapidly as a humane voluntary response to the sheer inadequacy of benefits and the devastating impact of benefit sanctions offer perhaps the most poignant and challenging example of this dilemma. Such a ‘social solution’ is archaic in the 5th wealthiest nation in the world. No-one who is organizing and donating to foodbanks feels this is what charity is ‘really’ for, or that it is an acceptable, long term rebalancing between state and charity. We do it out of necessity and ingenuity in the immediate, while learning and lobbying for a better solution in the future. That’s the real story, and a much better model for understanding the inter-relationship between charity and state.

In the long, symbiotic history of charity relationships with the state, that model – respond, adapt, learn then lobby – has been repeated over and over again. The pendulum is now swinging back in precisely the opposite direction from the last 50 years. After the second World War, councils’ statutory funding and duties for children grew and grew, to absorb many, if not most, of the functions and good practice models that voluntary groups had previously invented voluntarily, funded charitably, learned from and then lobbied for. Where charities continued to run services with council funding, it was increasingly put out to competitive tender for contracts. We stopped being symbiotic partners and became a ‘marketplace’. Grants to small, innovative, challenging voluntary groups went out of fashion for many commissioners - in a big way.

Since 2000, public grants to charities and voluntary groups have more than halved – some councils have stopped using them altogether. On current projections, at the same recent rate of decline, by the next General Election public grants to voluntary groups will have disappeared completely. It would represent the end of the respond, adapt, learn and lobby cycle. Even if grants don’t disappear altogether, but come attached with anti-lobbying ‘gagging’ clauses, the cycle will be similarly doomed. At a time when the only universal agreement in public policy is that there must be transformational change, innovative thinking and new ways of solving old problems, to kill off the voluntary sector’s essential role in the cycle of social change would be a kind of insanity.

The relatively good news, however, is that for councils making their cuts and ‘hoping’ the voluntary sector can survive to pick up the pieces, they can do more than hope. They can invest, at low cost, in making sure they are. This is exactly the point in time to resurrect and refresh the idea that small grants are a really useful, low-cost, low-bureaucracy and creative tool for investing in the respond, adapt, learn and lobby cycle. Small grants are smart funding in cash-strapped times, going further within the small local voluntary sector, pound for pound, than other ways of spending scarce resources, without all the costs and restrictions of tendering exercises and contract compliance. We are part of a campaign that aims to re-educate and reinvigorate public sector grant-giving – Grants for Good - and we hope that our simple, positive messages, and growing body of case studies, can help commissioners feel there are at least some other ways of thinking about how to make their limited budgets go as far as possible.

For many commissioners the sheer extent of voluntary and community groups supporting families in their own area, often very informally, may be invisible to them if those groups have never come forward through previous commissioning exercises. If those groups weren’t there any more though, supporting each other through daily life and periodic struggles, I strongly suspect those commissioners would soon see the impact of their loss in the rising demand for statutory services. Aren’t these exactly the kind of groups that councils hope to rely on to plug the gaps in provision as their funding cuts kick in? If so, then now is precisely the time to use grants for good.

Join the Grants for Good campaign here.