Financial pressures put strain on the strongest of partnerships

Charities and councils – whether it’s as givers and recipients of funding; commissioners and deliverers of services or campaigners for change and defenders of policy – have always had a love hate relationship.

But at the moment – with everyone feeling the pinch – you get the feeling there’s a bit more hate than love.

The challenges of making relationships between charities and councils work in the current climate were summed up in the provocative title of a recent Guardian roundtable that was asking whether or not it is really worth charities taking on the risk of contracts with the public sector.

This sentiment was echoed by the think tank New Philanthropy Capital at an event to launch their recent report “When the going gets tough: Charities’ experiences of public sector commissioning“.

At both events I argued that now more than ever we charities and councils need to be focusing on solutions rather than problems.

It would be easy to spend our time finger pointing, accusing reckless councils of cutting budgets without considering the impact.

But councils, like charities, are about improving people’s lives.

Working with the public sector gives us the opportunity to shape and create the innovative services that can make this a better world for disabled people. Charities have a tremendous ability to engage with and understand the needs of communities, so by working together with the public sector we are able to help shape the commissioning environment for the better.

But how do we do it?

I think that charities need to take a long hard look at themselves. How many charities are really clear why they provide services?

In many cases I think charities keep doing things because they always have. There was a time when vast residential services were both profitable and seen as the right thing to do – that’s both unrealistic and wrong these days. I suspect many run services because they’re trying to “help their beneficiaries” – but that’s such an old-fashioned way of looking at charities and over the years it’s an approach that has done as much damage as good. And apart from anything else, just because you’re a charity does not mean you are automatically capable of providing better services.

Why is Scope here?

At Scope we’ve really forced ourselves to ask why we run services. Scope does not exist to run services. Scope exists to bring about change in society – to make this country a better place for disabled people. We don’t have to run services. We actually don’t have to exist. We choose to exist because we want to bring about positive change. And we choose to run services because we believe that running services, the right services, can play a huge role. .

We have also forced ourselves to be clear about what we will spend our charitable income on. We’re not here to subsidise the state, and we must not play a part in taking society backwards to a place where people’s basic rights become dependent solely on the charitable benevolence of others.

I don’t think enough charities think like this.

Enormous challenges

There are clearly enormous challenges in this area at the moment, the unprecedented cuts to public spending above all. Local authorities are bearing the brunt of these cuts, which is obviously impacting on the fees paid to providers like Scope. And according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies only 6% of the cuts to Local Authorities have kicked in. With austerity set to continue until 2017 this means continued pressure on fees. Councils will have to innovate when it comes to providing services. They will have to re-design services de-commissioning redundant models to allow investment to go into those models which deliver the best possible outcomes for a lower price.

Partners

The charity sector should be at the heart of setting the agenda. We should recognise that we can get more done if instead of complaining, we respond positively to the changing world.

We are seeking to work as a ‘social partner’ with local authorities. Our Activities Unlimited programme is a new way to provide support to disabled children and their families seeking respite care or a short break to contact a range of opportunities from providers in Suffolk. Families are allocated a voucher that they can use on a range of activities. A dedicated Scope team identifies potential new suppliers, supports provider organisations to improve their performance based on feedback from users and signposts families towards services that are most appropriate to their needs. We designed and piloted the service in partnership with Suffolk County Council, sharing our mutual expertise and experience.

New horizons

We must also look at new ways of bringing money into this world. At Scope we are actively developing new, innovative, ways of raising money to allow us to generate investment capital, which will pilot new ways of providing services before we take them to local authority commissioners. Our £20 million social investment bond is will finance the expansion of our retail operation which will enable us to generate more unrestricted voluntary income which we can invest in creating new services.

I believe there are opportunities for charities to work collaboratively with the public sector to develop services that support disabled people to live their lives way they want to. We just have to be bolder, more confident and more creative – and seize this agenda now before it is too late.