Charities in the North East are seeing increasing demand for their services at the same time that funding is going down. Sally Young, chief executive of Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service, argues that charities can play a key role in building a fairer society.
Newcastle is home to around 1,000 charities, community interest companies and registered social enterprises and approximately 3,000 community and voluntary groups.
Newcastle’s voluntary sector has an annual income of £150m but most organisations have an income less than £10,000. With every £1 of grant aid the voluntary sector brings in an additional £7.
About 6,800 people work in Newcastle’s voluntary sector. For every paid worker there are up to five volunteers.
The sector is under pressure with half of local organisations experiencing decreased funding, a fifth losing staff and three quarters facing increased demand for services.
This has been an election year but it is clear that politics extends beyond political parties and affects all of us, every day and every hour. It shapes our society and determines how material and financial resources are used.
How societies form and function is not a matter of natural laws but a result of choices made by individuals and communities who share common aims and interests.
However, how resources are used can have unfair outcomes for those people and communities with little direct access to politicians and policy makers.
For those with few if any connections to decision makers, it can seem that the interests of the wealthiest, the networked and most powerful dominate those of everyone else.
Voluntary organisations with our unique relationships to communities, whether of geography, interest or identity, can provide a balance to negative outcomes of such decisions - think foodbanks!
Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service (CVS) held a hustings meeting on April 23, and more than 50 people came along to hear what the main political parties had to say.
A number of young people, supported by Newcastle Youth Council and Space2 (YMCA), came along and asked the panel valid questions about why they thought young people felt alienated from the process, about housing, and about (the lack of suitable) work opportunities.
Other questions were about cuts to civil Legal Aid, should MPs have second jobs and how to keep an active and diverse voluntary and community sector in Newcastle.
The meeting followed up our work on the voluntary sector manifesto for Newcastle. At our Annual Meeting last year we began this discussion with local organisations and spoke to a number of people to refine these key points.
Our members range from very small volunteer-led community groups who have no income to big national charities who run services locally.
Their income ranges from a few pounds to multi-million pound international organisations.
They support children, older people, people with mental health problems, local communities, people with particular conditions, environmental causes and whole range of specific interests – you can check these out on the directory on our website, but there are some common points that bring us together.
We have written our manifesto on behalf of the voluntary and community sector in Newcastle. It speaks for organisations and for communities, especially those that are poorest, most marginalised or isolated.
The manifesto is a call for fairness in relationships between the voluntary and community sector, public and private sector, communities and individuals.
A manifesto is a statement of intent, so our intention is to describe the conditions that enable the voluntary sector and communities to thrive and contribute to making Newcastle a fair and equal place to live and work and get on.
We think funding is important; voluntary and community organisations are diverse in their size and interests and need a mixture of funding options as varied as the sector itself.
The sector needs grant aid to try out new ideas and for early intervention and prevention as well as contracts for services. There need to be fair processes for applying for funds that recognise social value but core costs too.
Talk to us and we’ll talk to you; the voluntary sector is on the side of communities and is well-placed to understand issues affecting them.
As public sector budgets continue to shrink, different ways of working are required to meet community needs. It is vital that strong partnerships, forums and networks are in place to enable the voluntary sector to contribute our knowledge and expertise to addressing the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for Newcastle’s communities.
Communities can do it for themselves; people are the most important local asset but so are local buildings, green spaces and other physical assets.
They provide places for people to come together, to socialise or take action. Many communities have the energy and ideas to volunteer and run their local assets.
But volunteering does not come free and if they are to succeed, volunteers need a mixture of formal and informal assistance including support from a stable, sustainable local voluntary sector.
Social isolation is a hazard; voluntary and community organisations are enablers of active, healthy communities. They offer opportunities for people to develop self-confidence and gain control over their lives.
A healthy community is also one with good local services, such as shops, leisure centres, banks and affordable, accessible public transport systems. Too many communities lack of these important assets.
A living wage offers the only route out of poverty; 5.28m UK workers earn less than the living wage leaving families reliant on benefit top-ups to cover everyday bills.
All employers have a clear responsibility to pay fair wages and salaries. But public sector commissioners need to prioritise quality of services and social value over low unit costs and avoid a race to the bottom.
A good start for children and young people is crucial: for young people growing up in poverty the challenge of making their way can be daunting.
To give children and young people a real chance, there needs to be investment of money and time, bringing together voluntary organisations and communities, schools and colleges, the council, health services and others to plan, fund and provide high quality support for those most in need.
Partnership working is a must: the voluntary sector is wherever there is poverty and exclusion; campaigning and supporting, offering advocacy and expertise.
The sector understands the complex social and economic challenges communities face and will share this with partners. But if it is effective, partnership can be challenging. It can question established ways of thinking and acting.
If it is to contribute its time, knowledge and resources to partnership working, the voluntary sector needs to know that our voice and traditions will be valued by others.