Thursday, 22 January 2015

"I might go back to knitting after all" (or: Why innovation isn't always the answer)

I was in Westminster this morning for a speech by the incoming Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson MP. Charity bosses will have been watching with interest – partly because these are challenging times, but perhaps more because of a handful of tone-deaf comments his predecessor made about the role of charities in public life. Such is politics.

No such provocation from Wilson, who – in a detailed if unremarkable speech – set out his stall. What the third sector needs, he argued, is support for innovative organisations to grow (more on that in a second); better opportunities for charities and social enterprises to bid for public sector contracts; and more action to encourage public and corporate giving.

Shadow Minister Lisa Nandy and others picked up on Wilson’s reference to a ‘bigger society’ – but this didn’t strike me as much more than a rhetorical flourish. What was more noticeable was his – and the other panellists – repeated stress on ‘innovation’. I’m never exactly sure what people mean by this, but here I took it be “finding new ways of solving old problems”.

On the face of it, it’s difficult to argue with that – particularly when some of the old ways aren’t that sustainable. Over recent years, the Cabinet Office has introduced initiatives like the Social Action Fund, a joint venture with NESTA, designed to support new ideas that can grow bigger, or ‘scale’.

There’s no doubt that this money is welcome to those receiving it, but where does such a focus leave those charities that don’t particularly want to tear up their existing model, or grow beyond the area they already work in? Many highly effective organisations – especially in the drug and alcohol sector – have a long track record and are highly attuned to local need.

When I asked the Minister about this, he replied that the Social Value Act – currently under review – ought to help smaller organisations to win public sector commissions. (The review is welcome: I took part in a round-table for it organised by NCVO last November, and my impression was that there’s little evidence of the Act playing this role so far.)

He also said, though, that successful charities should be expected to scale to help more people. This was challenged by the other panellists – Andrew Barnett from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Danny Kruger from Only connect – who argued that staying small should be a viable option. Wilson clarified he didn’t expect all charities to grow beyond their local area, but his slightly rattled tone suggested tension.

It’s easy to understand why politicians and policymakers – not to mention many leaders in the sector – want new ideas and big ambitions: they’re facing real challenges and lack money to throw at them. But venture out of Westminster and many small charities aren’t interested in getting bigger: they want to secure the funding they already have (and fear they may lose).

Last week, at DrugScope’s regular forum of CEOs and senior managers from drug and alcohol services, many expressed concern about the pressures on their organisations to expand rapidly or merge in order to remain competitive. In particular, there’s growing evidence that smaller substance misuse organisations are disappearing without trace, as their contracts are taken over by larger providers.

Of course, not all small providers are effective, and often charities grow or merge because it makes sense. But when contracts change hands it’s expensive, puts staff under stress and can disrupt services – which poses big risks for people with severe drug dependency. One question is how we can encourage better subcontracting by large providers, allowing smaller organisations to stay put when they’re doing a good job.

There’s a place for experimentation and growth in all charities, but to imagine these can or should be the driving principles for everything they do strikes me as misguided. I wonder if the efforts of the Minister and his officials might be equally well directed at improving life for organisations who don’t want to be innovative or huge – just effective.

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