No more digital solutions please

Don’t get me wrong, I am not a Luddite. I have the tablet open when I watch TV, I have been known to message my wife when she is in a different room, and I manage personal and work Twitter and Facebook accounts.  But people, and especially the local authorities we engage with, need to stop thinking that digital is a cure for all their issues.

On more than one occasion recently I have been faced with new local authority plans to go digital. This is often in relation to new projects, many of which have been born out of measures to cut costs as their budgets are slashed.

So what is my problem? We work across the Cambridge, South Cambs and Fenland and the rates of connectivity are alarmingly different, I do not have the exact figures but some information can be found on It is fair to say that connectivity is not as good in the more rural parts of the county, and our anecdotal evidence is that use of digital is not as high in the more remote areas (not surprising if they can’t get a decent connection). This means that digital is not relevant to many of those looking to use council and other services.

The latest joint CVS research in the county shows thaGraphic 7 comms preferencet most of our members, who are predominantly the smaller voluntary organisations, have accepted the use of email but have not embraced social media. We need to remember this and remind people of this. Digital is not the norm, especially for those who might most need the information that voluntary groups and statutory partners are putting out there.

There are some great projects that are helping people get on line and ensuring that people have access, but how many of us know an elderly relative who refuses to get online (Dad, that is you I am talking about) or who is online but has had no support and training and frankly struggles to find out what they need to know even when they remember to take their tablet or phone with them (Mum that is you).

Digital, in all its forms, is an important part of the communications mix BUT it is only a part. We have to keep doing the more expensive stuff as well, be that putting up posters, sending bits of paper through the post or even talking to people face to face. Helping people get the right information when they need it is key to helping them to help themselves, whilst a website can do this for many there are still those out there that can not access it and we need to include them in our ‘single points of access’ our ‘one stop shops’ and our ‘no door is the wrong door’ policies. Along with this we need to continue to invest in the infrastructure that will allow everyone to access the internet and Connecting Cambridge is a great project that is making this happen. More importantly we need to invest in training and support that gets people using digital communications, that shows them the benefits, and that alleys their fears.

What future for voluntary sector support organisations?

There has been no end of commissions and reports released in the last year that look at the future for support organisations such as CCVS and the wider sector. These have looked at all aspects of the sector and how it needs to adapt in order to thrive in the future. CCVS along with our partners in Huntingdonshire and East Cambs have produced a report on our annual survey called More for Less. This blog is my Graphic 1 introextension of the forward and includes the conclusions and commitments that feature in the report. We believe there is a future for support organisations, but that we need to change and adapt (as ever!).

So what are some of the key issues as I see them?

There is a lot that is pertinent to us as support organisations included in the summary from the final report of the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector. For four years this body has chartered what it sees as ‘worrying and growing threats to the independence of the sector.’ The Panel identified six specific challenges to independence, which it has monitored annually since 2012. A summary of their concerns, includes

  • Loss of the sector’s distinctive identity and respect for independencehenry quote
    Verdict: this continues to get worse.
  • Threats to independence of voice
    Verdict: this has worsened every year since they have been monitoring independence.
  • Lack of consultation
    Verdict: this has worsened every year since they have been monitoring independence.
  • Unsupportive statutory funding and contracting arrangements
    Verdict: After reporting a declining picture up until January 2013, they have seen no significant improvement in recent years.
  • Ineffective safeguards and regulation
    Verdict: this continues to get worse.
  • Threats to independent governance
    Verdict: their concerns remain the same as expressed in 2012, with no sign of improvement.

It is important that we as infrastructure organisations, with a role to act as a voice of the sector, do all in our power to mitigate this erosion of independence at a local level.
It is hard enough for our members to grow and prosper without having to worry about outside interference.

The operating environment for the sector is not getting any easier, as Carol Rudge from Grant Thornton points out in the forward of their Charity Governance Review 2015

“2014 was another challenging year for UK charities, with many facing the twin pressures of uncertainty over funding combined with increasing public demand. … for the first time, the availability of future funding is the most common risk cited in trustees’ reports, overtaking recession-related risks.
Allied to future funding worries, the sector is also negotiating a more complex operating environment.”

At the same time as this there is an on-going issue of trust, with Nfp Synergy reporting that

“Public trust in charities has fallen for the first time since 2011. 56% of people now trust charities ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’, compared to 66% in 2013”

trust for charities

There is an on-going need for organisations like ours to help the sector navigate the choppy waters of funding, contacts and sustainability. But we also have to get better at helping the sector to promote what it does, to show the positive impact its work has on real people and to show that the ‘fat cat’ chief executive is not something that exists in local voluntary organisations. The small organisations that we work with are vital glue that binds communities together, these organisations have faced particular challenges, but have continued to deliver services to those who need them. The Nfp synergy state of the sector 2014 report sums this up nicely.

“Despite being more likely to have seen decreases in income, small charities were more likely than larger charities to have provided more services and less likely to have cut them”

There is a need to enable groups to identify, win, and manage funding that will help them deliver their aims in a way that is best for them, and best for those they work with. This needs to include work with funders and others to ensure that all groups have  access to funding that is appropriate and that does not carry a disproportional burden of reporting.

As the sector gets on with its role of helping those who are most vulnerable and most marginalised it is doing so in an environment that is getting ever more unequal, and ever more divided. As Mark Easton points out in the ESRC Understanding Society Insights 2014SAINTS-SCROUNGERS

“Our national conversation is shaped by the daily news media. However, news editors tend to reflect the interests, anxieties and prejudices of their readers, listeners or viewers. The concerns of those less likely to consume daily news are less likely to feature. Consequently, our national conversation – the narrative which underpins the democratic process – has a built-in bias towards middle class apprehension and away from the challenges facing the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.”

In a hard hitting set of reports the National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA) sums up much of this by stating

“Overall, the environment for service-providing voluntary organisations is increasingly difficult, hostile and getting worse:
• for the people for whom they provide services and undertake activities;
• for the scope and quality of the services they provide;
• and for their own independence and self-determination in these matters.”

There is a growing need for us as support organisations to help members and the wider sector to speak up for themselves and for the work that they do, as well as for those that they work with.

The NCIA went even further, and had some criticism of support organisations that delivered services often in competition to members, and also in the complicity of support organisations and the wider sector in the erosion of independence and services.

“Many VSGs and their leadership bodies have responded to pressures of co-option by the State and the private sector in complicit and supine ways, failing to defend their autonomy or show active solidarity with their users and communities.”

When the whole world is silent, even oneAs the voice and leadership of the sector it is essential that we look at what our role is in promoting the type of society we aspire to through our vision, mission and values.

The future is uncertain, and there is no obvious indication of things getting significantly better in the coming years. But there will continue to be a need for voluntary organisations, people will continue to ‘band together’ to help improve their own lives and the lives of others. To help this to happen there will continue to be a need for support, and as NAVCA reported in their Commission on the Future of Local Infrastructure

“infrastructure will be needed in some form as long as people come together to form voluntary organisations and community groups. But the infrastructure of the future is likely to be a much leaner enabler, broker and catalyst rather than necessarily a deliverer.”

successThere are challenges ahead for the sector and for us. Whilst the environment that the sector is working in may be difficult there is no doubt that organisations will continue to offer services to everyone. The sector will continue to have a significant and positive impact on the lives of individuals, and will continue to innovate in order to meet the challenges of the future. CCVS will continue to look at the services we provide, our survey helps to highlight what is needed but also tells us that we must be doing something right as most groups are extremely or very satisfied with the services they receive. But we can not sit back and be complacent.

  • We have a duty to be scanning the horizon to help spot change and inform members of what is happening and what it means to them.
  • We have a duty to use our place at the many tables at which we represent the sector to influence how partners view the sectors work, and how the sectors needs can best be met as changes are planned, developed and implemented.
  • We have a duty to ensure that the best outcome for the sector and those with whom it works are included in new delivery regimes.

In addition to this we have a role to help organisations adapt and prosper under the new regimes; giving them the skills, the knowledge and the tools they need to grow and remain sustainable.

Conclusions and Commitments from More for Less the 2015 Survey of the Voluntary Sector in Cambridgeshire

For Cambridgeshire the squeeze on voluntary and community groups is similar to that happening in the rest of the country. More is being delivered for less in most cases, and where groups are expanding they are expanding into delivery areas that were previously the reserve of local authorities. Our sector faces a rapidly changing environment with demand increasing and funding in decline. CVS5 believes that good leadership that enables, empowers and develops our local communities is vital if we are to maintain and develop the effectiveness of our sector.

In light of this for the first time we have decided that we will include a list of commitments that CVS5 aspire to. Each CVS will respond in a different way, and look at the key areas of improvement to their services based on their capacity, resources and the needs of their members.

Training and Support

  1. We will continue to build on our existing training offer to ensure we are offering the training groups want, and ensure smaller groups have the skills, systems and confidence they need.
  2. We will look at ways to help groups increase their income and give them the skills and tools to help them demonstrate the impact of their work.
  3. We recognise the importance of trustees and the role they play in organisations. We will ensure that training is available at the most appropriate times and locations.
  4. We will look to increase the level of training and support we give to smaller groups to ensure they have the skills, systems and confidence to manage their money and complete financial reports.

Networking and Communications

  1. We will provide a range of networking opportunities where organisations can, share ideas and discuss common issues. These will ideally be face to face but we will also explore online networking opportunities.
  2. We will improve our communications in order to ensure that organisations get the information they want in a timely manner and in a format that suits their needs.
  3. We will look at providing themed networking and communications in areas such as health, community safety, mental health etc.

Representation and Understanding

  1. We will continue to provide strong leadership that enables, empowers and develops our communities
  2. We will improve our two way dialogue to ensure that we are best able to meet the sectors needs and make the sectors case where ever we attend meetings.
  3. We will work to better understand the differences in the sector based on geography, theme of work and size of organisation

Look, Mum! Volunteering!


A great piece from Gethyn on the volunteers 15 minutes of election fame

Originally posted on the voluntary sector alchemist:

Wasn’t it great to see volunteering getting a little walk on part in the General Election campaign? There you are just minding your own business and then, without warning it’s an ‘Oh no, it’s US!’ moment.

A bit like those football fans you see on TV; the game enters a lull, a bored cameraman pans to some folk staring absent-mindedly into the middle-distance before – Wow! There we are! Live on stadium-cam! Cue elbowing their mates, throwing hands in air, waving and screaming.

And then, almost as soon as it’s begun, it’s over. And all we can do is text our mates to ask if someone can screengrab it off Sky+.


For this election at least volunteering has now had its 15 minutes. Which is a damn shame, because a deeper public debate might have revealed much more about the kind of Britain we actually want to live in than most of what’s dominating the electoral news cycle.


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