The Simon Heng Column

Before I became disabled, I worked for a medium-sized voluntary organisation, which provided services funded by councils and health authorities.

The services were based on the work of a group of academics who realised that their research had powerful therapeutic applications which could go further only if they themselves set up a voluntary organisation, trained the workers and offered a service to the public.

At the beginning, the subject in question was one of the government’s flavours of the month. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the way it works: the government of the day prioritises a social problem, throws money at it, accompanied by a lot of publicity, and within a couple of years the topic is forgotten, off the front pages and the agenda. Projects that were started on the back of the original money have to find other sources of funding or die.

The problem is that the alternative sources of funding are almost always local, namely health authorities, but their budgets have not increased to sustain these projects. Health authorities must also chase the next flavour of the month, prompted by flurries of circulars from government departments. The other sources of funding are the big grant-giving charities, which are also influenced by the government’s agenda.

You soon learn that the first rule of the voluntary sector is survival. Organisations which have just enough resources to provide their services have to focus on raising enough income to survive. Which detracts from the work they are supposed to be doing.

Also, funding comes at a price. Public bodies, understandably, will invest only in things that will help them meet their goals; funding to the voluntary sector is, in effect, a way to contract out their responsibilities, so the voluntary organisation negotiates a service level agreement, shaping its activities accordingly and increasingly away from its original intentions.

Which often leaves people in the organisation wondering: “Why did we get into this in the first place?” I’m finding that this is just as true today as it was 10 years ago.


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