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Change for good?  The increasing role of the private sector in supporting civil society

Change for good? The increasing role of the private sector in supporting civil society

Earlier this year, the Report of the Independent Commission on the future of local infrastructure, Change for Good made a series of recommendations to try to ensure that, despite further cuts in public funding, support for civil society organisations is sustained for the common good.  It recognised, however, that “a call for more money and a return to the previous status quo were out of the question.”  By highlighting the emergence of new forms of infrastructure and resourcing for civil society, the Commission’s Report gave some truth to the maxim that austerity can be the mother of innovation.  The Commission also argued that responsibility for the implementation of Change for Good rested with others who could more easily tailor future infrastructure to the needs of specific places or communities of interest.  Taking up that challenge, a group of London Funders are commissioning a detailed assessment of the future of civil society support in the capital.  Whoever carries out the work is required, not surprisingly, to have a “good understanding of civil society and its existing infrastructure in London” but also, in a clear sign of the times, an understanding of “what the private sector can offer.”

Rocket Science’s recent reviews of VCS infrastructure, both in London and other parts of the country (eg Buckinghamshire, Barnsley,  Sheffield and Knowsley) and the way civil society organisations seek and engage support, show a significant role being played by support services other than Councils for Voluntary Service, including the private sector.  This confirmed a trend we noticed when conducting research for the Big Lottery Fund (“Supporting Change and Impact”) to assess the different sources of external advice and support used by Civil Society Organisations.  In our survey of 300 organisations (2013) we found that whilst around a third (37%) of grant-holders received support from their local Council for Voluntary Service, almost two thirds (63%) opted to source support from a consultancy or freelance.

Change for Good graph
Supporting Change and Impact Evaluation – Big Lottery Fund 2013: Where organisations choose to go for support

 

Change for Good does comment on the role of the private sector in supporting and investing in civil society.  However, its recommendations to business (eg “work with your local infrastructure bodies to implement your corporate social responsibility strategy” or “deploy the skills of your workforce for the benefit of local charities and communities”) seemed to be a decade or more behind the times.  The report failed, for example, to reflect on the way far-reaching changes to the delivery of public services in the UK have become a significant driver for businesses to engage and interact with certain civil society organisations, albeit for commercial as much as charitable purposes.

A steady blurring of the distinctions that traditionally existed between the public, private and voluntary sectors has been one effect of three decades of opening up of public service contracts to providers irrespective of their legal form.  The process has been given further impetus by the new government’s championing of a bigger stronger society”;  private companies which have benefited from this considerable market, and a relatively low-tax business environment, are  being strongly encouraged by government to reciprocate, not only by demonstrating their corporate social responsibility, but also the additional social value they can bring to the delivery of public services.

The increasing outsourcing of services in employment, criminal justice and now health has had the possibly unintended consequence of developing new sources of support for certain voluntary organisations and charities.  Civil Society Organisations which have been able to work with lead or “prime” private-sector contractors have, to a varying degree, benefited from the latter’s recognising the value of investing in their supply chains, including specialist VCSE providers.

Rocket Science has worked with a number of the prime contractors of both employment services (eg the Work Programme) and criminal justice (eg Transforming Rehabilitation).  Whilst we are aware of different approaches which these companies use to win large public-service contracts by offering to invest in civil society, it would be beneficial as part of any future redesign of infrastructure to ascertain the true scale and value of such investment, whilst also recognising its inherent flaws and weaknesses.  Relying on the business winners in an increasingly cut-throat, public-service market to provide support for selected civil society organisations is risky, potentially divisive and could severely compromise one of the central tenets of the sector, its independence.

Instruments like the Social Value Act, the intention outlined in the Conservative Party’s Manifesto (2015) to encourage more  employee volunteering and the increasing interest in local place-based giving initiatives, are all aspects of an ecology of cross-sector working and different sources of investment which has considerable implications for the way elements of civil society may access support in future.  To this effect, there has been a proliferation of intermediary and brokerage organisations which match private companies with civil society organisations.  For example, in London alone, East London Business Alliance; Heart of the City; City Action and Team London as well as local, borough models like Business and Community Together in Kensington and Chelsea, or Love Kingston pair companies with charities, source employee volunteers and introduce business skills to community organisations. This is a fast maturing market place, but it is no panacea for the cuts to publicly-funded support for civil society.  The potential, but also the limitations and motivations of private sector investment have to be far better understood in any assessment of the future of infrastructure and the need for continued support for Civil Society Organisations.

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science and Trustee of London Funders

Managing grants – the FAME way

Managing grants – the FAME way

FAME: Fund – Assess – Monitor – Evaluate!

We have developed tried and tested processes which together comprise a full grant-management service, from the inception and co-design of a fund, through to its evaluation and impact assessment. Our support for funders goes beyond ensuring effective grant-making, and includes services which are increasingly described as being “funding plus.”

Fund

In the current economic climate, funders are under considerable pressure to ensure that they make the best use of resources in pursuit of clear but realistic goals.  We support grant makers to articulate their objectives, designing a fund’s eligibility criteria so that funding particular inputs and activities has every chance of translating into relevant outputs and sustainable outcomes.

Assess

Funders need to be confident that they are selecting grantees and funding projects which have the best chance of meeting particular needs and desired outcomes.  Over the years, Rocket Science has developed our highly accessible, but increasingly intuitive on-line Bid Assessment Tool (BAT) which gives grant-makers confidence in their decision making and funding awards.

Monitor

Monitoring is often regarded as the least exciting part of the grant making process.  Yet, our design and application of an appropriate and proportionate monitoring regime is often critical to ensuring that grants are deployed as effectively as possible, minimising the risk of fraud and waste, whilst building the capacity of a programme’s grant recipients.

Evaluate

Evaluation is not just an end-of-grant report, but should be an ongoing process of learning that adds value and insights throughout any grant programme, as well as contributing to an evidence-based assessment of a fund’s overall impact.  We work with funders to co-design evaluation frameworks and tools which bring together project and programme-level information in highly-accessible formats.

Standout from the crowd – Tips on funding for the VCS

Standout from the crowd – Tips on funding for the VCS

So the election has come and gone and many commentators predicted that whoever won,  many of the challenges facing voluntary and community organisations would remain the same.  Central and local government funding has been on a downward trend, but cuts to public services  are accelerating the scale of funding reductions and competition to get grants from major funders and trusts is very high.

However there are opportunities as the VCS is very good at delivering services to communities, reaching those that other public services find hard to engage with and legislative changes, such as the provision of health and social care services, are creating openings for the VCS to move from a funding relationship to a commissioning relationship.   The trouble is that smaller voluntary and community organisations find it difficult to show the impact they are having on their community and don’t shout about it to the right people.

I run a popular workshop called Perfect your Pitch, which is designed for groups to help them articulate their offer and impact in applications and when they get the chance to meet the right people.  We take people through a process to identify their unique point of difference and get them to practice this in front of a ‘dragon’.  Nearly 250 people have been through the course and I wanted to share this learning to help you think about how to use these techniques the next time you put in an application or get a chance to meet a commissioner.

Tip 1 – Don’t chase the funding –to me this is the most important tip –  sit back and think about what funding you need rather than what funding is available.  Yes it sounds simple but a lot of organisations get caught up applying for funding without thinking why and how they are going to deliver it.  I had one attendee that spent a whole month applying for ten different opportunities and did not win any of them.  They were of course very disheartened, but when we worked it through only two of the opportunities were really relevant to the service the organisation provided, splitting her time across ten applications, meant she could not do a good and thorough job on any of them.

Tip 2 – Prepare, prepare, prepare – this follows the first tip in that you cannot expect to write an application in half a day from scratch.  By focusing your efforts on fewer higher quality proposals you are likely to get better scores when they are being assessed and a greater chance of winning.  We run grant programmes for funders and assess applications, as with most funds, we are always oversubscribed for the funding that is available.  This means that you could still put in a very good application but just miss out by a few points as we have a cut-off point on scores.  We often find that applications score less well either on their response to evaluation (impact) and monitoring or on making the case for their project.  And sometimes it is really hard to work out exactly what the project wants to achieve… think about the reader, we don’t know you, we can only judge you on what you tell us.   I use the Nana test… if your Nana understands what you want to do then so will everyone else, keep it simple and clear.

Tip 3 – Need to scale up? – work with others.  We cannot change the fact that is much more cost effective to contract with one organisation rather than with many.  This is happening across all public services and with some funders, cost savings are made on management by contracting with a ‘lead contractor’ or ‘lead partner’ who will then do all the management on behalf of the commissioner and sub contract with other organisations to deliver services.  Whilst it makes sense, it does mean that smaller organisations miss out because they are not connected into the right ‘lead partner’, or there is not an obvious one to work with – we think this is particularly challenging in rural areas.  In a lot of cases organisations and particularly their trustees can be resistant to change and collaboration as it feels risky, but there is greater risk on your sustainability if you need to rely on public funding to keep afloat. So if you want to access funding to support your communities, working with other areas and organisations will help you provide the scale and reach to make you a viable proposition to a commissioner.

Tip 4 – So what is good about you?  Why should we fund you? Why should we work with you? – can you really answer these questions in a succinct way with impact?  I suspect not or at least you would need to really prepare your response.  There is something about the British personality to be a bit self-effacing and we can find it very difficult to be bullish about what we have achieved and what we can do.  You need to work out what your point of difference is from another organisation

  • is it about your reach and trust in the community? – which means you can access them far quicker than someone else
  • is it that you have lots of things going on in your building that can help the people you are working with? – which means you can provide added value support they would otherwise not be able to access
  • is it that you have a team of volunteers that make it much more cost effective to run a lunch club or cafe

Identifying two or three things you do that make a real difference can be very powerful and keep you in people’s minds.

If you would like to find out more about our training and support contact Caroline

Funding Advice and Support for Rural Communities

Funding Advice and Support for Rural Communities

Scottish Government

As a key part of this review for Scottish Government of funding advice provision for rural community groups in Scotland, Rocket Science mapped the available provision of funding advice and support. The advice landscape is complex, with many providers providing a partial service, some being focussed specifically on rural issues, some providing broad advice. This work mapped out that provision according to key features:

  • What type of providers provide support? (eg, Local Authorities, National thematic organisations, funders themselves, Third Sector Interfaces)
  • Extent to which different types of provider have a focus on providing funding advice (ie, is that their core function?)
  • Extent to which providers focus on rural groups?
  • Extent to which providers focus on early stage or existing (and possibly trading) community groups
  • Extent to which providers are paid for the support they provide
  • What level of resource is collectively available in each Local Authority area (eg, FTE equivalents providing free funding advice for rural community groups)

Mapping of the funding advice market was conducted through desk research and through extensive consultation with providers, including e Survey, telephone interview and triangulating results at participative workshops. The market needs for advice on funding were also mapped through consultation with community groups (online survey, telephone interview and workshop).

The output of this mapping is a clear sense of the diverse market around funding advice and support, and key differences in the type of provision between different types of organisation.

Picture335 - Copy

In feedback workshops, the central message was that the mapping was extremely valuable in providing an overview of the funding advice provision. One concern that was raised was the need to understand whether the quality of the advice provision was sufficient for communities’ needs. The investigation then assessed communities’ views on the quality of advice provision, finding that across 7 major types of funding advice needs there were broad gaps in the awareness and accessibility of high quality provision for community groups. We also found that some advice providers were favoured much more strongly than others, with unexpected results.

The results are being collated into key recommendations for a new model for provision of funding advice to find innovative solutions to the existing gaps in the market.

VCS Assist – Preparing the VCS for ESF and BIG funding

VCS Assist – Preparing the VCS for ESF and BIG funding

VCS Assist – Building the skills of VCS to secure ESF and Big Lottery Funding

Voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations face increasing challenges to maintain high–quality employment support for customers with complex needs, in a commissioning environment which is driving unit costs down and incentivising lead/prime contractors to focus on the most employable at the expense of the harder and more expensive to help.  Drawing on our primary research and evidence of previous programme evaluations, our recommendation to refocus future capacity building support was accepted by London Councils and the European Programmes Management Unit (EPMU), responsible for ESF in the capital. In 2012, Rocket Science was part of a consortium of organisations, including London Voluntary Service Council (LVSC), London Training and Employment Network and the Black Training and Enterprise Group which successfully put forward a new model of technical assistance for third sector employment-related service providers.

The “VCS Assist” partners identified a range of skills and cultural changes required to ensure that providers, whatever their size or specialism, have the opportunity to adapt to the new climate and continue to meet demand for their services.  The new skills needed include: articulating an offer (which may include creating delivery partnerships/consortia), pricing services competitively, developing and understanding client pathways and pitching directly to lead contractors, and delivery partners; contract negotiation and managing cash-flow in a payment–by-results system.

We are continuing to provide support and training to hep organisations prepare for the new ESF commissioning rounds 2014-2020 and working with the London Voluntary Service Council in the build up to the Building Better Opportunities Fund from the Big Lottery Fund.

For more information contact Caroline or John

Online funding portal – making applications and monitoring easy

Online funding portal – making applications and monitoring easy

As no two grant funds are the same, we customise a Project Management System (PMS) for collecting and analysing management information so that it is appropriate for each fund and proportionate to the size of grant award. In the past, we have relied on a number of tools which we have tended to design and develop using Microsoft Excel in order to organise and maintain up-to-date information on the projects.

With the development of our Rocket Science Grants Management portal grantees can access and download the tools to support them in gathering and recording the required data, and submit their monitoring forms online. Each project can have customised reporting deadlines; submissions are tracked and flagged to the Grant Management team if they are late. Data within monitoring forms is automatically validated against common mistakes (such as mathematical errors using percentages, as we experienced in FreeSport Round 1), with relevant advice provided to help grantees complete accurate returns.

The portal also enables us to export dependable data into bespoke tools which we can use for client-specific needs, such as producing data sets to support the assessment of applications and highly intuitive information packs to support grant panels’ decision making.  We can also build customised progress reports which we export in order to support funders own reporting requirements.

Find our more by contacting Anna